NEW YORK (JTA) -- Rabbi Bernard Lander, who died Monday from congestive heart failure at the age of 94, was not a man who cared much for appearances.
The executive offices of the international academic institution he founded, Touro College, are housed in a nondescript building on 23rd Street in Manhattan, and the paint job in the hallways looks like the color was chosen back in the Eisenhower era.
But the building’s modest appearance, like its founder's, is deceptive. It represents the headquarters of a vast educational empire whose domain stretches from China to the Middle East and all the way into the heart of Borough Park, Brooklyn.
Lander, a soft-spoken gentleman who looked more like a synagogue candyman than the relentless builder and scholar who presided over Touro for nearly its entire existence, over the course of four decades turned what was a private dream into an international academic institution.
In building the college, his mission was as much about sustaining Jewish tradition as it was with providing education.
Lander’s career as an overachiever began early. He started as a rabbi in Baltimore at 22 after receiving his rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University. While serving as a rabbi, Lander commuted to his native New York to pursue a doctorate in sociology at Columbia University.
Upon finishing his studies, Lander was appointed by the governor of Maryland to conduct a study on youth crime in the Old Line State. The gubernatorial appointment would be the first of many government posts.
At 27, Lander was appointed by New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to become one of New York’s three human rights commissioners. In the ensuing years Lander would serve as a consultant to Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, advising the successive administrations on poverty-related issues. All the while, the young sociologist was holding down a job as a university professor, first at Columbia and then at Hunter College.
Associates and friends said the drive that spurred Lander to found Touro had more to do with his religious upbringing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in Washington Heights than his early career. While Lander’s professional occupations may have given him the skills and contacts necessary to build a university, the experiences of his upbringing instilled in him the determination to create a Jewish-sponsored independent institution of higher and professional education.
“I think Dr. Lander is haunted,” David Luchins, a professor in Touro’s political science department, said in an interview several years ago. “He grew up in a generation in America where the Orthodox community was decimated spiritually. He saw a generation that when they left the cloisters of the synagogue and went off to secular universities they were lost to Judaism. The best and brightest minds were lost."
At an Orthodox Union convention in 1964, Luchins said that Lander called college campuses the “crematoria of the Jewish community” in America.
“I think he’s almost obsessed with helping ensure that every possible effort be taken to bring Jewish education to every imaginable person that can be serviced by it,” Luchins said of Lander.
Touro wasn’t Lander’s first experience creating academic programs. In 1955, Lander was hired by Yeshiva University to establish some of the school’s graduate programs, which he did until he left in 1971 to start Touro.
Lander believed that the problem with the university melting pot, which was turning religious American Jews into secular humanists, was its repression of student individuality. In a sociological analysis Lander undertook in the wake of the Kent State riots of 1970, the rabbi-professor found a correlation between the size of universities and the prevalence of student rioting: The larger the school, the more likely it was to experience widespread unrest.
“My conclusion was that American students were subliminally rebelling against the depersonalization of American colleges,” Lander told me in an interview several years ago. “Students wanted to be recognized as human beings instead of being Social Security numbers.” Many of the key players who organized the student riots were Jews."
Touro, which was created in part on the model of more than a dozen small Catholic colleges interspersed throughout New York, was Lander’s way of enabling tradition-minded Jews to acquire a college education without having to go through the secularizing and depersonalized university machine.
“I saw this as a new kind of religious-oriented college,” Lander said. “Touro’s philosophy and mission was first to rebuild Jewish life and, separately, to serve the larger society -- each in its own setting.”
Touro College was born in an old 50,000-square-foot building on 44th Street in Manhattan that was donated by the federal government. In the years since, rather than draw students from afar to a centralized campus in the city, Touro set up shop in the communities from which it sought to draw students. There is a Harlem campus that serves the local Hispanic community, a Brooklyn campus whose student body is comprised largely of Russian-speaking Jews, a yeshiva in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, and a men’s college in Borough Park that caters to Chasidic yeshiva students, among others.
Lander said the lesson he learned from a lifetime in education was that “You don’t mix one with the other.” The reason, he said, was to ensure that each of Touro’s institutions is specially tailored to meet the needs of the population it serves.
More than any other community, however, Touro was built to benefit Jews. The college bills itself as a “Jewish-sponsored institution” that was “established primarily to enrich the Jewish heritage and to serve the larger American community.”
Touro's student population of more than 10,000 is said to be mostly Jewish (the college says it does not keep official statistics), and its sites are located in areas with Jewish population centers -- New York, California, Florida and Israel -- as well as in China and Russia.
Part of Lander's philosophy was to make it as easy as possible for students to get their education by establishing sites in their neighborhoods, opening night schools and, some said, maintaining less-than-rigorous academic standards. Lander said that by making the process of getting a college education or professional training as convenient as possible, Touro was able to bring advanced schooling to many who otherwise would not have sought it.
A significant proportion of those are haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, who view the idea of college itself as treif. So Lander came up with creative ideas to attract them to his schools. Rather than labeling his Borough Park school a college, he called it Machon L’Parnassa, which means Institute for Making a Living. The college’s School for Lifelong Education, which was created specifically with the Chasidic community in mind, aims to prepare students for “meaningful employment or graduate study,” according to Touro brochures -- code language for a college degree.
“Haredim don’t want to go to an institution called a college,” Lander told me.
Lander also sought to provide non-Chasidic Orthodox Jews with opportunities to study Torah. The college’s institution in Kew Gardens Hills, the Lander College for Men, combines morning yeshiva study with afternoon college courses, much the same way as does Yeshiva College.
Lander also started a yeshiva in Queens, Yeshiva Ohr Hachaim, which is in an ornate building constructed entirely from Jerusalem stone, and a religious high school, Yesodei Yeshurun. Touro also runs an elementary school in the neighborhood, Yeshiva Dov Revel.
While few universities boast high schools, elementary schools or yeshivas, these institutions were, in Lander's mind, the crown jewels of Touro College. Lander wanted not just to provide young Jews with an opportunity to earn a college or professional degree, but to help ensure that young Jews stay Jewish, and to afford them the means to become more Jewish.
When I asked Lander a few years ago how he was able to generate the capital necessary to build such a sizable university with such speed, Lander leaned back in his chair, shrugged and smiled.
“This is the miracle of Touro,” he said.
Even as he entered his ninth decade, Lander hardly slowed down. He went to Touro nearly every day and continued to conduct university business. Associates said that Lander often was the first one into the office and the last to leave, and that as he grew older his working pace seemed to accelerate.
One of Lander’s close friends, Menachem Genack, the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union’s Kashruth division, told me when Lander was in his 80s that his “stamina outpaces people well younger than him.”
“Touro is a dream he actualized almost singlehandedly,” Genack said, calling Lander a real dreamer and a builder. “He’s a very, very special person. He’s not an academic in some ivory tower; he’s an academic who’s built an ivory tower.”
Lander, who died in New York, is survived by his children Esther Greenfield, Hannah Lander, Debbie Waxman and Rabbi Daniel Lander, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.