MINDING THE GAPS
Tkooma tackles immediate needs of Israel’s internally displaced
Yahel Gazit/Middle East Images for AFP via Getty Images
Orly Amir, a Tel Aviv resident who works in tech, felt helpless in the aftermath of Oct. 7.
“War broke out and I found myself looking for some way to help, like most Israelis,” Amir recalled. Volunteering for Project Tkooma, a nonprofit established in the wake of the terrorist attacks, has given her a sense of purpose, she said.
Amir met Project Tkooma co-founder Sam Zussman while volunteering for another civilian aid organization, Brothers and Sisters for Israel. “It sounded like he was doing very thorough work. I started working with him on a couple of projects. My day job is tech but [the rest of the time] I’m volunteering with Tkooma,” she told eJewishPhilanthropy.
Project Tkooma is a U.S.-based 501c(3) with boots on the ground in Israel that raises money for civic groups providing for the short-term needs of thousands of displaced Israelis, mainly from hard hit cities in the south including Ashkelon, Netivot, Sderot and Ofakim.
Having served as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, Zussman — now the CEO of BSE Global, parent company of the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center — has long been familiar with the devastating impact that war can have on civilians. But after Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attacks, Zussman, like Amir, felt powerless to help from his home in New York.
“I was sitting for days [after Oct. 7] glued to Israeli TV. What I saw was that overnight there was a shift in Israel where thousands of families all of a sudden had dead, wounded, missing members. People fled their homes. This brought about needs that never before existed on this scale,” Zussman, 54, who was born and raised in Israel and moved to the U.S. at age 27, told eJP. “The military needed to be drafted, the government was busy with defense and so you’re just witnessing a gapping new hole of civilian population in distress.”
Zussman immediately noticed a lack of systems to help the 130,000 Israelis who instantly became displaced, in addition to the thousands who were grieving the loss of a loved one or the captivity of a family member being held in Gaza.
“The half of me that is an American Jew saw a lot of sympathy and generosity. Folks were giving money to major organizations but it was clear that, while those are fantastic organizations, they are not equipped to deal with these new needs,” Zussman said. Other smaller and newly formed organizations were launching initiatives too, he noted, “but how can you really vet those?”
About five days after the war started, “it dawned on me that that’s where I can help,” he said. “I realized that I needed to go to Israel and apply my rigorous analytical background and truly identify what the needs are and identify the ways by which we could help.” He teamed up with several other executives, community leaders and philanthropists, including Bank Leumi USA CEO Avner Mendelson, and founded Project Tkooma. Two and a half months later, the organization has raised more than $4 million.
During his trip to Israel, Zussman identified resources — grocery cards for welfare families evacuated from their homes, financial support for families of the hostages and victims, support for special needs groups such as the elderly, children, at-risk youth and adults with autism, group and individual therapy for trauma victims — where funding from Project Tkooma could help people, he said.
Amir said that she wants to continue volunteering with Tkooma even after the war is behind Israel. “Volunteering used to be minor in my routine,” she said. “Like many Israelis, it’s become a full-time job for the past couple of months. As long as Tkooma needs me and I have something to contribute, I’ll be happy to work with them.”