Dual identity yields an international outlook

Eeman Khorramian could see himself entering the political world. The Palisades Charter High School senior has been highly active in school affairs and with the school’s student government since ninth grade. His leadership skills even earned him the position of student body president.

Following the Iran election protests in 2009, Khorramian co-founded a campus chapter of Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), a secular nonpartisan nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

Khorramian said being Iranian-American has made him internationally aware, and he confessed to having an addiction to world news.

“I tend to follow BBC and international coverage rather than just American news, which focuses on domestic issues. I don’t just follow Iranian issues; the disaster in Syria and the Arab Spring really caught my attention, too,” he said.

The articulate 18-year-old said growing up Iranian and Jewish has been one of his biggest challenges so far.

“Being Iranian and Jewish has definitely been the hardest thing for me to figure out. It’s very difficult to be Iranian and proud to be an Iranian, and be Jewish and being proud of being a Jew. I’m very much in touch with both sides, and I am proud of both, and neither takes away from the other.”

Khorramian, who is graduating in the top 2 percent of his class, said studying subjects that allow him to put in his full effort is very important to him.

“I try to challenge myself in the subjects I choose, and my school has allowed me to have an interdisciplinary education,” he said. “I’ve also gotten the chance to work on leadership here.”

Khorramian is not getting sentimental about leaving high school for UCLA, but he does have a lot of praise for the education he received.

“I hear a lot of people talk about leaving in a negative sense, but I’m ready to leave,” Khorramian said. “I feel like my high school has given me everything I need to be ready for college, so I’m looking forward to this next step in my education.”

His credentials suggest a career in politics, but Khorramian isn’t rushing the decision. He’s put his major down as “undecided.”

“I’m just really looking forward to going to UCLA, and I feel like my education is just beginning,” he said excitedly. “I love biology, and I could see myself being a doctor. But I’m also fascinated by international relations. If I could find a way to merge the two as a career, that would be perfect.”

Finding common ground

Shalhevet journalism teacher Joelle Keene says that Leila Miller, editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Boiling Point, has set a high standard for journalism, integrity and optimism amid complex human relations.

“[She is] wise enough to know that real differences among people do exist, [but] she has set out on a personal mission to work through them to communities’ common humanity,” she said.

A Quill and Scroll award-winning writer, 17-year-old Miller has penned several stories about Jewish communities in other countries. She contacted Jewish sources in Japan last year to interview them about the earthquake and tsunami. She also published an article about the strategies and organizations that
Mexican Jews use to cope with violence in their country.

“It’s been really interesting meeting these people all over the world that I would not have been able to meet otherwise,” Miller said. “And I learned a lot about them.”

Miller’s writing also recognizes that geographic barriers are not the only obstacles to interaction between communities. She wrote an article about Muslim teenagers in Los Angeles and the difficulties they faced attending public schools—from balancing religion and heritage to interacting with misinformed classmates and teachers. She was happy to discover that the girls she interviewed had taped a copy of the article to the youth-group bulletin board at the Islamic Center of Southern California.

The ties Miller made while writing about the Muslim teenagers extended beyond the publication of her article when she decided to organize an interfaith picnic. In May 2011,

11 students from Shalhevet met with 33 teens from the Islamic Center’s youth group. The picnic was such a success that a second one was organized.

Miller said she hoped the picnics would help dispel the preconceptions between communities, which do not often interact. “They were primarily social events for kids to ask questions about each other,” she said.

Miller has experience balancing multiple cultures in her own life. Born in Argentina and fluent in Spanish, she has returned to Argentina every summer since she was young. She worked with the Tzedaká Foundation in Buenos Aires during the summer after her sophomore year, and the following summer she worked as an assistant teacher in English classes at Escuela Martín Buber.

Miller has played classical piano since she was 7, and is currently the accompanist for her school’s choir.

Miller plans to attend Oberlin College next fall. She wants to “keep an open mind and take a wide variety of classes,” but is considering studying English or creative writing, she said.

Keene said Miller is “a kind of ambitious humanist, someone who has never seen a challenge she doesn’t think can be solved by working harder, or a problem that can’t be solved by some dialogue and a smile.”

Working toward ‘never again’

Milken Community High School senior Leah Gluck is dedicated to raising awareness about genocide, even though it seems so distant and unsolvable.

“I think it’s an issue that really is very far away for a lot of people at my school … and I think that it’s important,” Gluck said.

Since her freshman year, the 18-year-old has worked with Jewish World Watch (JWW), a nonprofit that focuses on preventing genocide and mass atrocities across the globe as well as engaging individuals and communities to take action locally.

Gluck recently co-created an exhibition, “From Darkness to Light,” set in Milken’s beit midrash, spotlighting the genocide in Darfur and human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Gluck planned the exhibition over the course of nearly five months and built the displays during a 15-hour marathon. Student docents led their peers through “From Darkness to Light,” which featured video interviews with victims, photographs of refugee camps, drawings made by children living in camps, and an “action center” where students pledged to become involved with JWW.

For the exhibition’s culmination, Gluck led an effort that consisted of Milken’s entire student body calling the White House at once to discuss Sudan. “That was super cool,” she said.

Gluck has put her design skills to use as head editor of Milken’s yearbook, serving as the point person for section editors and student staff members.

She also spends considerable time in the water, as a member of Milken’s water polo and swim teams. This summer, she plans to work as a lifeguard at Camp Ramah.

Outside of her JWW advocacy, Gluck gets her tikkun olam fix volunteering with KOREH L.A., an organization that helps young students develop their reading abilities, and she spends every Shabbat supervising young children of adult congregants at B’nai David-Judea, leading them in davening, play time and various activities.

This fall, Gluck will attend Washington University in St. Louis, where she might pursue her interest in psychology.

For now, she has enough on her plate to keep her busy.

“I’m just used to not getting home until 7,” she said.

A real page-turner

Corinne Kentor may be coming of age in the iPad and Kindle era, but she feels most at home surrounded by books. The more classic the volumes, the better. It’s “Candide” and “Don Quixote” that thrill this New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) senior, who lights up when she discusses the works of Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters.

“I wrote my college essay on why our house is like a library,” said Kentor, 17, who will leave her Bell Canyon abode this fall to study English literature at Yale University. “There’s a stocked section for each kind of literature.”

Kentor also traced her literary passion to influential teachers in San Fernando Valley public schools, including Round Meadow Elementary School librarian Carole Farhit. “She was this tiny woman, but with a deep, raspy English-accented voice—it was perfect for storytelling. I used to have lunch with her in the library.”

In her years at NCJHS, Kentor immersed herself in languages, achieving fluency in Spanish and studying Hebrew. At Yale, she said, she plans to continue her Hebrew studies and explore Arabic. She’s dabbled in English poetry and even attempted a novel as part of a “NaNo-WriMo” project—for National Novel Writing Month, in November. Spanish teacher Raquel Safdie and AP English teacher Michelle Lindner have called Kentor’s writing university-level work.

“I want to be an English professor someday,” Kentor said. “I also really want to be an author—I feel most at home in prose.” The senior honed her editing and coaching skills this school year by shepherding the young school’s first newspaper, The Prowler. She and her co-editor, Jason Tinero, helped boost the paper’s staff to 17 students and published five issues—all on extracurricular time.

“I’m really, really proud,” Kentor said. “The quality of the writing has changed and developed so much. I feel proud every time I get to hand out the paper—it reflects the spirit of the school.”

Kentor, who chose between Stanford University and Yale, credits her stellar grades to a deep love of school, “which I know is not that normal.” Never a procrastinator, she learned time management in elementary school when she balanced long practice hours for rhythmic gymnastics with homework.

An injury in eighth grade ended her gymnastics career but led Kentor to another graceful passion: yoga. “It gave me the physical stimulation without the competitiveness, which I hate.” She recently earned her teaching certification and started leading Hatha/Vinyasa flow groups at InnerPower Yoga in Woodland Hills. Kentor said she’s eager to join the “Yogis at Yale” group and continue teaching. “Yoga gives me a community wherever I go.”

And what’s a bookworm to do with her last West Coast summer? Her very creative family, including mom Adrienne, dad Eric and older sister Nikki—an intern with local circus troupe Dream World Cirque—are planning a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. To family and friends, Kentor may then quote the Bard: “Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Sometimes, less is more

In her junior year, Oakwood senior Katherine Bernstein spent two weeks in Sierra Leone with the North Hollywood school’s immersion program. Amid carrying buckets of cement for a new school and helping to paint a map of the world in its library, she was struck by a major difference between life in Southern California and the West African nation.

“I was expecting to go there and have some depressing, transformative experience. Like, one that makes you appreciate what you have. And it was transformative, but not in that way,” the 17-year-old said.

She was surprised to find that people seemed happier there than they are here, despite the lack of electricity and indoor plumbing.

The people she worked with in Sierra Leone focused on people rather than things, Bernstein said, and she was taken aback by how much attention the people she visited with in Sierra Leone gave to her when she spoke, making her realize how distracted people often are in the United States.

Children followed Bernstein’s classmates wherever they went and got excited when the American students learned to count to 10 in their language, Mende. The children also made toys out of water bottles or whatever else they could find, Bernstein said.

“I think people here have an expectation of having things. I remember in middle school, people used to break their phones to get news ones. It’s never enough,” she said.

Bernstein graduates from Oakwood with a 4.42 grade-point average, having taken four AP classes in the past year: human geography, physics C, English and Spanish. She refers to her number theory and cryptology classes as “really cool.”

Judaism’s emphasis on education has had a large impact on her. “There’s an attitude in my family about education—that it’s very important to know about the world,” she said.

Bernstein will attend Stanford University in the fall, and she is considering studying medicine.

Outside of school, Bernstein has volunteered with L.A. Family Housing for several hours every week since middle school. This organization aids families in transitioning out of homelessness and severe poverty. As a volunteer, Bernstein helps the children in the program with art projects and homework.

A piano player for most of her life, she taught one boy piano through the program and is now trying to collect musical instruments and compile a music library for the center.

“I love working with kids,” Bernstein said. “I probably want to do something with kids in the future. I really like spending my time that way. I feel like I’ve developed over the years as a teacher.”

It’s all about the kids

When his late grandmother was first diagnosed with terminal cancer three years ago, Jason Aftalion was moved by the volunteers who visited her at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “I was so touched by how they talked to her and spent time with her, so she wouldn’t be lonely,” said Aftalion, a Persian-American senior at Milken Community High School.

Aftalion was inspired to sign up as a volunteer, drawing on “the Jewish values of tikkun olam, or repairing the world,” he said. After a six-month application process, the then-15-year-old was assigned to work at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA. He still spends four hours visiting patients each Saturday.

Aftalion, 18, still remembers a young heart patient named Michael who loved pirates. He delivered a toy pirate ship to the boy and spent an hour and a half playing with the delighted child. “He was going through more than I’ve ever been through in my entire life, and he could still have fun,” Aftalion said, marveling at the boy. “It meant so much for me to see how excited he was.”

For his summer-school project at USC’s business school, Aftalion co-founded a nonprofit organization, curechildren.org, which aims to buy a breathing machine for a children’s hospital, among other goals. He kick-started the fundraising by working as a private children’s sports coach, drawing on expertise gleaned as a captain and “most valuable player” on Milken’s basketball and track and field teams.

Back at school, he helped rekindle Milken’s waning Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program, quadrupling student volunteers. As a mentor himself, he said, he’d “try to give advice and moral perspective. It was amazing when kids really opened up and talked about their lives.”

For all of his activism, Aftalion has been honored on a “Cool Kids” segment on KABC and on “The Young Icons” program on KTLA; he’s also received a $1,000 scholarship and a citation from the Los Angeles mayor’s office. This fall he’ll attend USC and hopes eventually to combine his passion for kids and business by serving as the president of a children’s hospital. “My Jewish values will help me to become the person I want to be,” he said.

A song in his soul

Quinn Lohmann closes his eyes and tilts his head slightly. His fingers find their place between the frets of his guitar, and his voice rings out, soft and crystal clear.

“We all got a life to live. We all got a gift to give. …”

Lohmann stops mid-strum. “I need to tune,” he says, as he twists the keys on the head of his guitar.

Lohmann, who has autism, also has perfect pitch, and he knows when the sound is just right.

“Open up your heart and let it out,” he continues.

Lohmann’s mother, Kathy Finn, said he started playing tunes on the piano by ear when he was 3, so she started him on music therapy, and he quickly excelled at piano and, later, guitar. Finn decided to have Lohmann, who had some severe behavioral issues, study for a bar mitzvah, and with the help of Cantor Steven Puzarne, founder of Vision of Wholeness, Lohmann led the entire service and chanted the whole portion at his bar mitzvah at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.

In fact, Lohmann continues to chant Torah at Temple Akiba in Culver City, as well as at other congregations, and at Nes Gadol, the Jewish studies program at Vista Del Mar that he has been a part of for many years.

He’s also a song leader at Nes Gadol, and fills that role at Camp Ramah in the summers, as well.

For many summers Lohmann attended Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Camp Hess Kramer, where he thrilled in enjoying a typical summer with typical kids. He loves to play baseball, basketball—and at a lanky 6-foot-2, he’s pretty good on the court—ride his bike and swim. He went on a NFTY Reform youth group Israel trip without additional support.

Lohmann, who is 19, graduated Village Glen School last year, but stayed on for a yearlong transition program where he worked at the school cafe, and learned job and life skills.

Next year, he’ll be attending Pathway, a program at UCLA Extension where adults with special needs take classes at the university and learn to live independently.

Lohmann would like to continue with his music, perhaps studying to be a cantor or a song leader in a synagogue.

While Lohmann’s conversation and social skills are somewhat stilted—he mostly responds to questions with short answers—the song he chooses to sing tells the story for him.

It is “B’tzelem Elohim,” “In God’s Image,” by Dan Nichols, and Lohmann learned it at camp.

“We all got a peace to bring. We all got a song to sing.

Just open your heart and let it out. …

We all got a mountain to climb. We all got a truth to find.

Just open your heart and let it out. …”

Taking her role(s) seriously

Disguised as an elderly woman in czarist Russia, Sheridan Pierce took the stage at Brentwood School. As the bright lights touched her face and the character took over her body, Pierce poured her heart into her role, and she realized that she was meant to act. 

The play was “Fiddler on the Roof,” and Pierce, a ninth-grader at the time, was playing Yente the matchmaker. The significance of the role, she said, was her connection with the character on a more personal level. “Deep in my soul, I’m already a little old Jewish lady,” she joked.

With leading roles in 12 of her 15 school plays, a role in a film directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) and performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and most recently at Lincoln Center with Brentwood’s Concert Singers, Pierce is certainly an accomplished performer. “I really like to become a character,” she explained.

Pierce also fosters a passion for improvisation and stand-up, participating in The Second City Teen Troupe and The Groundlings. Focused on her desire to make people laugh, Pierce has set her eyes on her ultimate goal: to someday be on “Saturday Night Live.”

Pierce also contributes comedic essays to one of the three Brentwood publications she writes for, and writes Spanish poetry for a foreign-language publication.

Pierce combines her acting and writing career with a commitment to community service. Working tirelessly with organizations such as the Special Olympics, SOVA, Operation Gratitude, TreePeople and the Los Angeles Public Library Teen Council, Pierce has received numerous awards for her service. Pierce’s interest in bettering the community, she said, is motivated by her love of “working together with a lot of people for one goal.”

Despite the additional challenge of a strenuous course load, Pierce managed to find time in each of the last four years to hold positions in student government. “I just wanted to make a difference in my school, and I knew that was the best way to do it,” she said.

She has continued to strive for more responsibility, ultimately landing the highest elected position at her school, that of prefect, during her senior year. She has also earned the positions of arts chair, homecoming/assembly chair, technology liaison and charity coffeehouse chair/host, as well as a seat on the Honor Board.

Talking to Pierce is like watching a Ron Popeil infomercial—at the end of every sentence you find yourself thinking, “But wait, there’s more!” And after a conversation with Pierce, one thing becomes clear: She is always driven to act. Whether on stage as a character or within her community as a leader, Pierce pours her heart into every role she takes on.

“I’m definitely not a lazy person,” she joked. “I like to set a lot of goals for myself, and there is so much I want to do in my life. I just really get inspired to do the most that I can at an early age.”

The Agony, Ecstasy of School Awards

Before 18 year-old Sara Smith graduated last June, she made multiple trips to the stage to receive multiple honors at Shalhevet High School’s awards brunch for graduating seniors. In addition to being named class valedictorian, she received the excellence in math award, two Bureau of Jewish Education awards and a plaque from Bank of America.

This June, talented and bright middle school and high school graduates, like Sara, will star in their own school awards ceremonies. They will walk up to the stage, amid hearty cheering by faculty and family, to receive awards for their achievements in such categories as academics, the arts, sports and menschlikhkayt.

At the same time, the majority of their classmates will sit and watch, walking away without any certificates, plaques, trophies or applause and likely feeling that their contributions have been inconsequential. Many might inevitably become less enthusiastic about attending graduation ceremonies and festivities.

That conflict is not lost on the award winners themselves.

“I really didn’t want it to be the Sara show — but it was,” said Smith, now completing a year of study in Israel and attending Brandeis University next year.

What, in fact, is the purpose of school awards? Do they provide a service to students by recognizing excellence in a positive and motivating manner? Or are they psychologically and pedagogically detrimental, polarizing students at what should be a unifying juncture in their academic careers by dividing them into winners and losers? And for those students attending Jewish day schools, are they in keeping with Jewish values and traditions?

“Nothing feels better than to acknowledge somebody who’s worked hard,” said Roxie Esterle, middle school principal of Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. “But the issue [of awards] is just huge,” she added.

Administrators have to figure out, for instance, whether an award should be given to the highest achiever or the person who has made the most progress? Should it go to both a girl and a boy for their eighth-grade year or for all three middle school years?

To minimize the sting on those students not being honored, Heschel last year completely separated the awards ceremony from graduation, including not listing award winners’ names in the graduation program guide. All eighth-graders now stand together on equal footing to receive their diplomas.

Still, Esterle believes that awards are motivating for students.

“You get your best work out of them by helping them realize their potential,” she said.

For parent Lori Berthelsen, whose son, JJ, 15, graduated from Heschel last year with departmental awards in both science and math, as well as two others, recognition can be a plus.

“It really boosted his self-esteem to be acknowledged for how much he had contributed,” she said.

But for her daughter, Nicki, now 18, who didn’t receive a certificate of academic excellence at the end of 11th grade in any of her classes at Milken Community High School last year, the disappointment negated previously positive experiences in those classes.

“I’m really conflicted [about awards],” Berthelsen admitted.

Others, however, are not conflicted.

Awards have a place in an academic institution, specifically a high school, said Milken’s Head of School Dr. Rennie Wrubel. “People who do outstanding work should be recognized in some way,” she said.

Furthermore, she believes awards should be based not only on innate talent but also on passion, collaboration and the ability to make the classroom a more meaningful place.

At Milken, awards are presented at the senior siyyum (literally, completion) that takes place prior to graduation. But, Wrubel stresses, the school also provides multiple opportunities during the year — including art shows, dance concerts, poetry readings and community service projects — for many students to be recognized.

Wrubel believes that sometimes we create a culture of anti-intellectualism by always trying to make kids feel good about themselves.

“I think there is an important side to having students want to excel and to be rewarded for that,” she said.

But Bruce Powell, founding head of school at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, has a different view. While the school won’t graduate its first group of seniors until June 2006 and the official policy concerning awards is still being formulated, Powell feels that awards are not conducive to building character, and don’t mesh with the school’s philosophy and mission. He sees everything, including grades, as subjective, he questions how schools can fairly determine who should be recognized.

“When you start giving awards, what do you mean by the ‘best’ student?” he asked. “It’s a comparative term which means that nobody else is as good.”

Powell believes that almost all students have equal access to greatness and that they shouldn’t be honored for merely being given a “good genetic lottery number” in English or science, intelligence or kindness. In place of awards, Powell is considering having the faculty write a personal letter to each graduate, reflecting on how they see his or her special character traits and contributions.

Student recognition sends out a message about what a school deems important, according to Sara Lee, director of the Rhea Hirsh School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, who is ambivalent about awards.

“For Jewish schools, awards can’t be unidimensional,” she said. “They have to recognize service and Jewish values.”

And they have to be careful not to conflict with Jewish ethics.

“The same way we have to be careful about saying negative things, we also have to be careful about saying positive things because it can open the door to lashon hara [hurtful speech],” said Elon Sunshine, rabbi-in-residence at Heschel Day School in Northridge.

With that in mind and with the Jewish directive not to embarrass anyone, Sunshine still believes that awards can be inspirational and motivating for students providing they are presented carefully and respectfully.

Even with that kind of care, the process can hurt students and parents.

“In order for there to be winners, there have to be losers, and I don’t think that’s a message we should be putting on our children any more than the culture already does,” said marriage and family therapist Kathy Wexler, who teaches developmental psychology at Phillips Graduate Institute in Encino and maintains a private practice.

Wexler is especially opposed to giving awards to middle school students, who are struggling to master their environment.

“You want to emphasize what they’ve learned,” she explained, “and not how it compares to what everyone else has learned.”

She worries that awards erode intrinsic motivation for both winners and losers, of all ages.

Parent Bruce Gersh, whose three daughters, ages 9, 7 and 4, attend Adat Ari El Day School in Valley Village, agrees.

“My wife and I are more focused on developing well-rounded children than children who study for awards,” he said.

Gersh, in fact, recently moved his oldest daughter from gymnastics, which was becoming too competitive, to softball.

“We just want her to have fun,” he said.

Perhaps radio and television pioneer David Sarnoff realized this decades ago when he said, “Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people.”

So can anything be done?

Not according to Josh Krug, 18, who graduated from Milken last year as a multiple award winner and who currently attends Yale University.

“There are so many [competitive] things out there that even if you get rid of awards, it won’t make much of a dent,” he said.


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.