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.