University Students Returning to Israel


American student enrollment at Israeli universities is on the upswing, some U.S. institutions are mending broken ties, and others are initiating new contacts.

Although given numbers differ, there is broad agreement that after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000, enrollment from the United States plummeted 75 to 90 percent in the following two or three years.

Among the hardest hit was the Hebrew University’s popular year-abroad program at the Rothberg International School.

In the last “normal” year before the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000, between 800-900 Americans were in attendance, said Peter Willner, executive vice president and CEO of the New York-headquartered American Friends of the Hebrew University.

By 2002, with the intifada in full swing and after the killing of San Diego student Marla Bennett in the terrorist bombing of the Hebrew University cafeteria, enrollment plummeted to 75.

However, in the current academic year, some 300 U.S. students are on campus and Willner expects the figure to rise to around 400 with the start of the 2005 fall semester. Similar improvements are being reported at Hebrew University’s six-week Hebrew-language summer sessions.

Following the lead of Canada’s University of Toronto last year, the University of Wisconsin, University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Washington University in St. Louis and Smith College have recently resumed their Israel programs.

The improved security situation in Israel and warming relations with the Palestinian Authority are credited for much of the upswing, but major roadblocks remain.

One obstacle regularly cited by American and Israeli university administrators is the U.S. State Department’s continuing warning against travel to Israel. The Caravan for Democracy of the Jewish National Fund recently launched a campaign petitioning the State Department to reconsider the warning.

Privately, some officials at American universities have also noted pressure from their insurance companies not to expose their students to risks in Israel.

Nevertheless, Michigan State and Indiana University have recently launched first-time programs in Israel, said Ilan Wagner, the Jewish Agency emissary for American students, while new academic initiatives are springing up in sometimes unexpected places.

Last summer, while most major American universities were still hanging back, the small Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa launched an innovative program at the Bar-Ilan University Law School, which has drawn students from around the world.

The program, which has won enthusiastic praise from the accrediting American Bar Association, had only four applications in early March of last year. At the same time this year, director Michael Bazyler had already registered 51 applicants for the 2005 summer session.

Other Israeli institutions are also reporting encouraging upticks in American student enrollment, though still lagging well behind pre-intifada numbers.

“At Tel Aviv University, we have seen a slow but steady increase in our overseas programs since 2003-04, even before the current cease-fire,” said program director Ami Dviri. “Currently, we have more than 200 American students, about half of our pre-2001 enrollment, and we expect a larger number this fall.”

Similar percentages hold for Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, with 80 Americans enrolled in Middle East and environmental studies in 2000, 31 in 2003, and currently 42 students, according to spokeswoman Courtney Max.

Bar-Ilan University has seen a smaller decline in its pre-intifada enrollment of 60 overseas students in its freshman-year program.

“We have not been as hard hit as other universities because we have a higher proportion of Orthodox students, many of whom stayed on as yeshiva or seminary students,” said Rabbi Ari Kahn, director of the foreign students program.

The Whittier Law School program, the only one of its kind in Israel last year, drew 20 first-year law students from across the United States, Australia and Taiwan, half of them non-Jewish.

Some may have been attracted by the program’s promise of warm Mediterranean beaches, swinging nightlife in nearby Tel Aviv, great shopping and ample time for travel, but the four-week study session was anything but a snap.

An effusive inspection report by the American Bar Association held up the program as a “model” for U.S. law schools and noted that “if anything, the courses were academically too demanding.”

The program’s three courses on “Human Rights in the Age of Terror,” “State and Religion,” and “Holocaust, Genocide and the Law” were taught by Bazyler of Whittier College (whose most notable alumnus was President Richard Nixon) and two Bar-Ilan scholars.

Bazyler, the Siberian-born son of Holocaust survivors, and a leading authority on the judicial aspects of Holocaust restitution, was recently named by his law school as The “1939” Club Law Scholar in Holocaust and Human Rights Studies.

He gives much of he credit for initiating the Israel program to Whittier Law School’s Neil Cogen, whom Bazyler lauds as “the only dean at an American law school who is an Orthodox Jew” — and this at a Quaker-founded college in conservative Orange County.

Beyond the educational benefits, the program proved “a very special experience at a special time” for the young men and women who returned home as “legal and campus ambassadors for Israel,” Bazyler said.

While all students were instructed in security precautions, Bazyler said, “Many told me that they felt safer in downtown Tel Aviv than in downtown Los Angeles.”

One of the students, Wendy Yang, agreed. As a highlight, she recalled a private visit with Aharon Barak, president (chief justice) of the Israeli Supreme Court and, in summing up her stay, wrote:

“This was an eye-opening experience for me as a Taiwanese American and a Buddhist…. The Israelis are among the nicest and friendliest people I have ever met, and the personal connections and closeness is not something found here in America.

“The summer abroad in Israel was the best learning experience anyone could have hoped for,” she continued. “Beyond learning the law there was the courage and identity of a great nation.”

Such word of mouth by many participants has sent applications soaring for the two and four-week courses of the 2005 summer session (details are available at A grant from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles will subsidize the tuition of 12 Los Angeles-area students.

At other American institutions, such as the 10-campus University of California, the relationship with Israeli universities has been “on hold” since 2002, although Gary Rhodes, director of the Education Abroad Program at UCLA, said that the decision was under constant review.

He expressed the hope that ties will be reactivated as the security situation in Israel keeps improving and the State Departments travel warning is rescinded.

A trickle of UC students have continued to study in Israel on their own initiative and expense, although credit for courses taken there is no longer granted automatically when these students return to their home campuses.

At universities that have resumed or started their Israel programs, the voices of influential alumni can be a persuasive factor.

Peter Weil is a Los Angeles attorney, a board member of the University of Wisconsin Foundation and former regional president of the American Friends of Hebrew University. He said he visited the Hebrew University and personally checked out security measures on campus.

Well satisfied with the results, Weil reported his findings to Wisconsin administrators, who listened attentively.

“I would encourage alumni of other universities to take similar steps,” said Weil, who also serves as president of the American Jewish Committee chapter in Los Angeles.

In the more hopeful current atmosphere, plans for future enrollments of overseas students in Israel are soaring well beyond pre-intifada years (according to the Institute for International Education, some 4,000 American college students were in Israel in 1999-2000, while the Jewish Agency cites a more modest number of 1,154, not counting yeshivot).

The Israel on Campus Coalition, made up of 26 Jewish organizations, launched a “Let Our Students Go!” campaign last fall that aims for 6,000 U.S. students in Israel within six years.

Vastly more ambitious is the MASA (Hebrew for “Journey”) initiative, approved by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Jewish Agency in December.

Though no timetable is given, MASA’s goal is to eventually up the enrollment at Israeli universities to 20,000 students from the United States and the rest of the Diaspora.


Friendships Add Life to Scholarships Role


As a young man, Bernie Axelrad learned two invaluable lessons: family and education are everything.

For him, education was nothing less than an escape from the tenements of the Lower East Side and the grinding poverty of meals fortified with lots of bread and potatoes. With a laser-beam focus, Axelrad finished his studies at City College of New York in just three years. He later attended Harvard Law School on the G.I. Bill, where he graduated 21st in a class of 376.

For the past 15 years, the 85-year-old retired attorney has overseen the distribution of more than $700,000 to 90 needy Jewish undergraduate and graduate students. Axelrad serves as the administrator of the Casper Mills Scholarship Foundation, and more important than distributing the funds, he has acted as a surrogate parent to many of those young people, all of whom come from single-parent homes and have overcome economic and other hardships.

“I’m personally interested in each and every one of them,” said Axelrad, who continues to correspond with many past scholarship recipients. “I’ll chastise them if they’re not doing well and encourage them when they are. I want to be there for them.”

Axelrad’s “children” have made him proud. They have graduated from such topflight schools as Berkeley, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, UCLA and the University of Michigan. Many have gone on to law and medical schools with additional funding from Casper Mills, which operates its initiative in partnership with the Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) Scholarship Program.

Jami Trockman, JVS manager of community programs, said Axelrad’s dedication sets him apart.

“He exemplifies hands-on philanthropy and understands what it means to have an impact on these students beyond writing a check,” she said.

Graduate student Bryan Leifer is among those who have benefited from his relationship with Axelrad. At Axelrad’s behest, Casper Mills awarded Leifer money first for his undergraduate studies and later to pursue a Ph.D. in international affairs at Georgetown, where he’s in his second year. Leifer said he appreciates the money, but that his mentor’s friendship and advice have meant more to him.

Like Axelrad, Leifer had a tough youth. Leifer’s Vietnamese father deserted him and his Jewish mother when the boy was just 2.

Leifer said he partied and fought too much in high school. Neglecting his studies, he said he graduated with such mediocre marks that San Diego State University rejected him.

That’s when Leifer decided to take charge of his life. He enrolled and excelled at junior college. He later won a place at Cal, where he graduated Summa Cum Laude.

But Leifer said Berkeley was anything but a mecca of tolerance. He said the campus teemed with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment.

Distraught by Cal’s harshness, Leifer said he turned to Axelrad. The octogenarian told Leifer that anti-Semitism had a long, ugly history and that Leifer had to stand up to the Jew-haters. Leifer appreciated Axelrad’s support, which he has unstintingly given again and again.

“I get the sense he really cares what I’m going through,” said Leifer, who said he might pursue counterintelligence work with the U.S. government or public relations for the Israeli government. “He makes me feel less alone.”

That’s the whole point, Axelrad said. Reclining in his book-lined Marina del Rey apartment with an ocean view, he said nothing gave him more pleasure in life than caring for his four children: Steve, now a 52-year-old education psychiatrist in Israel; Kevin, a 50-year-old clinical psychologist in Moorpark; Lisa, a 47-year-old, Los Angeles-based supervisor for Tel Ad, an Israeli production company; and Adam, 40, a Los Angeles attorney.

As his children grew up, Axelrad said he always tried to be supportive, even when they grew their hair long or became surly. He strove to give them what his own father had not: security and stability.

Axelrad felt his father, a New York sweatshop worker, was emotionally distant and had little time for him. He vowed to do better for his own children, his children’s children — and other people’s children.

“My main thrust was to raise decent children who would be good human beings,” said Axelrad. “I always thought of life as a relay race. If you can pass on the baton successfully and then they pass it on, you can have a nice world full of decent human beings.”

Axelrad isn’t shy about passing on his wisdom, his kindness, his love — his baton — to scholarship recipients. He said his letters and conversations go beyond pleasantries. He opens up to the students and wants them to trust him. His willingness to reach out has won him the undying gratitude of Julie Kutasov, among others.

Kutasov, now 34, first met Axelrad 1more than a decade ago when she received money from Casper Mills to attend UCLA. Working three jobs at the time, the Russian immigrant said the scholarship helped her out. So, too, did Axelrad’s devotion. When she fell ill from food poisoning during her junior year, he gave her an extra $1,000 to help defray the unexpected medical costs.

Over the years, Axelrad invited Kutasov to Passover dinners and other events with his family, making her feel like “I had someone who protected me on the home front,” she said.

A stellar student, Kutasov worked as a CPA for Arthur Andersen after graduating summa cum laude from UCLA. Then she applied to seven business schools, gaining admission to Dartmouth University and the University of Chicago, among others.

She told Axelrad that she planned to go to Dartmouth but really dreamed of going to Harvard Business School, which so intimidated her that she originally decided against applying there. Axelrad admonished her go for Harvard Business School, telling her that if he was good enough for Harvard, so was she.

Axelrad was right. Harvard accepted Kutasov, and her two years there were among the best in her life. She made close friends, invaluable connections and profited from studying under some of the nation’s most esteemed business professors. Today, Kutasov works as investment research analyst in Los Angeles.

“He was the last push I needed to make the move. If not for Bernie, I never would have applied to Harvard,” said Kutasov, adding that she continued to receive Casper Mills money in graduate school.

Kutasov said she feels so close to Axelrad that she rushed over to visit him in October when she learned he was sick with prostate cancer. Thankfully, Axelrad has defied all odds and his condition has improved dramatically.

Still, he’s not taking any chances. He’s grooming his own children to play important roles at Casper Mills to ensure the foundation does more than simply hand out money after he dies.

“Wanting to be around to train someone and wanting to finish as much as I can of this work is an intangible, psychic factor in keeping me around,” Axelrad said.


Funny Money

Scrip. You can’t join a synagogue or enroll your child in school without being hit up to buy it. Whether in the form of paper certificates, plastic gift cards or e-scrip online, this potent little fundraiser has become a major part of most nonprofit organizations’ annual budgets.

Scrip first became popular in the late 1980s with grocery and department stores, and is now available for everything from gasoline to The Gap. Organizations buy the gift certificates in denominations like $10, $25 or $100 at a discount, either straight from the company or through a scrip broker. They then sell the scrip, charging the full face value of the certificate and making a profit of up to 25 percent, depending on the type of scrip sold.

For larger organizations, scrip is a nice adjunct to standard fundraisers such as galas, luncheons and casino nights. Because of these and other resources, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino is one of the few synagogues that can afford to make scrip an optional part of its fundraising programs. The synagogue made a profit of $25,000 off the sale of scrip last year, according to bookkeeper Joyce Goldman.

"We haven’t wanted to get into requiring our members to buy scrip. When you have 1,600 to 1,700 households, the bookkeeping [for a scrip obligation] would be a nightmare," Goldman said. "We can make more on other things that are basically one-shot deals. But scrip does make money all year long, and for smaller shuls, it probably works better."

One of the smaller shuls that has seen enormous benefits from scrip is Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. The synagogue, currently at 325 family units, raises almost as much as Valley Beth Shalom: about $20,000 a year, according to incoming Executive Director Karen Boyer.

"People have fun with it, because it’s like Monopoly money," Boyer said. "A lot of vendors have gift cards now, which is great, because the biggest complaint from older people in the congregation was that they didn’t like using [the paper certificates] because they felt it looked like they were on some kind of assistance. With gift cards, there’s not that kind of a judgment."

Many Jewish private schools like Emek Hebrew Academy in North Hollywood rely heavily on scrip, even making it a part of their tuition schedule.

"We’re using scrip so the tuition does not need to be raised," said Eva Rosenberg, who has headed the school’s scrip program for the past decade. "Parents can either buy scrip or pay [an additional] $200."

Rosenberg said the decline in the economy unfortunately has had an impact on fundraising through scrip. The school used to make $45,000 from scrip sales and now makes about $35,000, she said, attributing the difference to cuts in the percentages that vendors are willing to donate. For example, one clothing outlet used to give 15 percent of scrip sales back to the school but reduced that to 10 percent last year.

Most market scrip, however, has remained stable. The most popular scrip, according to bookkeepers at various schools and synagogues, is gift certificates for Ralphs grocery stores.

"We usually buy about $20,000 worth of Ralphs scrip every month," said Goldman. "We only make 5 percent off of most scrip, so you can imagine we have to sell a lot of scrip to make that $25,000."

The Ralphs market scrip program has been in place for about 15 years and generates $3 million annually in donations to synagogues, schools and other nonprofit agencies, according to spokesman Terry O’Neil.

"How we benefit is that the scrip can only be redeemed at a Ralphs or a Food 4 Less, so, hopefully, people who haven’t shopped with us will come in and see what we have to offer," O’Neil explained. "It also generates good will in the community."

In addition to Ralphs scrip, Boyer said the new e-scrip program through Vons is very popular.

"You sign up online, and then every time you buy groceries and use your Von’s or Pavilions card, they [the company] keep track, and then we get a quarterly contribution by check," Boyer said.

Ralphs parent corporation, Kroger Co., is also looking into creating an e-scrip program. But no matter what the form, or whether or not people object to being obligated to buy it, scrip is clearly here to stay.

"A lot of other sources of fundraising have dried up, and this is still here," O’Neil said. "Not everyone needs to buy wrapping paper or candy, but everybody has to buy groceries."