About ten years ago, I escorted Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, then a first term MK, on a week-long visit to the Torah community in America. He toured Ner Israel in Baltimore with Rabbi Naftoli Neuberger, zt"l, spent Shabbos in Lawrence, visited Lakewood and the major yeshivos of Brooklyn, and sat for more than an hour each with Rav Pam, zt"l, and, yblcht"a, the Novominsker Rebbe.
There was one other figure I felt he had to meet: Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander, the founder of Touro College. Dr. Lander and Steinitz sat together in the back of the car, as we drove from Far Rockaway to new campus of Lander College for Men in Kew Garden Hills and back. Dr. Lander alternately charmed the visiting MK and fielded calls from Berlin, Moscow, and Paris. Over the space of two hours, the nearly blind octogenarian was busy working with officials in all three locales on opening new campuses. He was also occupied with a Touro graduation later that afternoon. It was a vintage Dr. Lander performance, and Steinitz was suitably impressed.
A year later, Dr. Lander and I sat late on Motzaei Shabbos in a tiny diner in Kew Garden Hills. "What does a runner do as he approaches the finish line?" he asked me. "He runs faster," I replied. "Precisely," said Dr. Lander.
He never stopped running. At the time of his passing at 94, Touro encompassed over thirty campuses, including three osteopathic medical schools he built and the newly acquired New York Medical College, a leading biomedical research institute; campuses for Jewish and pre-professional studies in Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Los Angeles, Miami Beach, and Jerusalem and several in the New York area; and Yeshiva Ohr Chaim in Kew Garden Hills, under the leadership of his son Rabbi Doniel Lander. Many of those campuses were opened up in the last decade – each with Dr. Lander's intense involvement. No longer able to read, he kept the entire Touro empire stored in his mind. (His doctor once quipped, "Dr. Lander your eyesight is lousy, but your vision is great.")
Somehow Dr. Lander managed to bring all this into being with comparatively little philanthropic support. One of the few talents he lacked was for fundraising. But he possessed a remarkable ability to connect to the needs of many different communities and provide them with the education they needed. (Two Touro campuses – a school of General Studies and one of osteopathy -- are located in Harlem.) His knowledge of New York's various ethnic groups, gained as a young sociologist, who played a major role on Mayor LaGuardia's Committee on Unity, extended far beyond the Jewish community.
He will rank not only as one of the major Jewish educators of the twentieth century, but as a pioneer in many fields of general education. He was one of the first to recognize the demand for American business education overseas, opening a business school in Moscow as Russia emerged from Communism. Touro started one of the first programs for physicians assistants in the early 1970s and became a major provider in health care education. He understood the potential of long-distance learning, overseeing the creation of one of the best such programs in the world, which Touro eventually sold for $190,000,000.
A voracious reader, until he lost his eyesight, Dr. Lander had a knack for turning every bit of information he absorbed into a practical educational idea. But he was not bookish. He made friends easily and everywhere. He knew how to listen, and he mined his friends and contacts for new information and ideas as well.
One could not be long in Dr. Lander's presence without being overwhelmed by his intellect and his energy. Until the last few months, he was constantly jetting between farflung campuses (in economy class until he turned ninety.) But the gifts with which Hashem blessed him were not employed for his own benefit; he lived a life of great simplicity.
The fruits of his enterprise were immediately poured back into new projects initiated as part of his vision for the Jewish people. From the late 1960s, he identified the college campus as the crematorium of American Jewry. His original vision of Touro College as the first in a series of institutions that would attract marginally affiliated Jewish youth with a program offering both secular and Jewish studies (a Kollel was part of the institution almost from its inception) never fully materialized.
But Dr. Lander's appetite for creating programs to strengthen Jewry had been whetted. Financial viability was never a test for any of the Jewish institutions. Small campuses were created in Miami Beach and Los Angeles out of a desire to reverse the migration of Jewish youth to the tri-state area. Programs in Moscow, Berlin, and Paris were designed to provide Jewish studies to underserved communities.
The major institutions to which Dr. Lander's name is attached – the Flatbush campus of Lander College, Lander College for Men, and Lander College for Women in Manhattan -- sought to provide Orthodox students with the educational tools necessary to earn a decent livelihood in an environment free of heresy or hedonism.
Though he was a musmach of Rabbi Yitzchok Elchonon Seminary and a long-time officer of American Mizrahi, the greatest beneficiary of Dr. Lander commitment to Torah Im Parnassah was the chareidi community. As Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein points out, he did everything possible to accommodate the sensitivities of the chareidi community in creating the Flatbush campus – not grudgingly, but eagerly. He provided the education that enabled hundreds of women to support their husbands' full-time learning.
Dr. Lander also created Machon L'Parnassah to provide vocational training to the chassidic community of Brooklyn. From the first time I met him, he was constantly seeking ways of doing more for the Torah community in Israel.
He derived boundless joy in recent years from the Bnot Batya program, under which he provided a free education at Lander College for Women to young women from the FSU. Not only did secure the student visas and pay for the education; he also created special small classes for these young women to aid their transition. The graduates – most of whom had only minimal backgrounds – could have passed for Bais Yaakov graduates by the end of their studies.
A forthcoming biography will tell the remarkable story of this remarkable man.