Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander, the visionary founder and president of Touro College, which he grew from 35 students to a global network of 29 schools educating 17,500 students in New York, California, Nevada, Florida, Israel, Russia, Germany and France, died Monday of congestive heart failure at a New York hospital. He was 94.
Mr. Lander, known by the title Dr. Lander because of his doctorate in sociology, started Touro College at age 55, an age when others begin planning their retirement, not launching new careers. He is one of the longest-serving university presidents, having served for nearly four decades as Touro’s only president.
After years of refusing to reveal succession plans publicly, in October, he named Dr. Alan Kadish, who most recently served as senior associate chief of the cardiology department at Northwestern University, as Touro College’s senior provost and chief operating officer, and ultimately his successor.
Though a workaholic who devoted decades to building Touro’s international enterprise, Mr. Lander was remembered as a loving and devoted patriarch who never missed a family celebration, big or small. Son-in-law Rafi Waxman said at the funeral Tuesday in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, that when he first met Mr. Lander he anticipated “this great overpowering, overbearing and controlling” man. “Instead, I found the warmest, most focused individual, a tremendous ba’al chesed [doer of good deeds].”
Born in Manhattan in June 1915, Mr. Lander was the eldest of three children. He attended public school until the age of 9, when he enrolled at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on the Lower East Side. He graduated Yeshiva College with honors in 1936 and received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1938. He earned a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University while simultaneously serving as a pulpit rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation in Baltimore.
After leaving the pulpit, Mr. Lander forged a name for himself in the academic world. He was known for his research on youth crime, and served as a member of the Maryland State Commission on Juvenile Delinquency. In addition to publishing a book on the subject, he also served as a member of the President’s Advisory Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime in the Johnson and Kennedy administrations.
He taught sociology at Hunter College and then went on to serve as dean of Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School, where he was instrumental in reorganizing YU’s graduate programs in social work, education and psychology. In an interview with The Jewish Week in August 2009, he said he was unhappy with YU’s “limited view of Jewish life” and unwillingness to expand beyond Washington Heights. He dreamed of starting a Jewish college that would combine Torah studies with secular subjects aimed at providing a livelihood for its graduates.
“My father was highly troubled by the dangers of secular colleges … and the dangerous risk to the spiritual health of our youth,” remarked his son, Rabbi Daniel Lander, at the funeral.
Speaking at the funeral, Rabbi Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Union, where Mr. Lander served as honorary vice president, said Mr. Lander often referred to secular colleges as “the crematoria of Jewish religious life.”
While at YU, Mr. Lander served as a consultant to the University of Notre Dame, studying student unrest on college campuses, a result of the growing impersonality of the university. With the support of his late wife, Sarah, and the encouragement of the head of the University of Notre Dame, Father Theodore Hesburgh, Mr. Lander began Touro — a college that would combine Torah studies with professional coursework and offer the warmth of close student-faculty relationships.
He had originally wanted to name the school for Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, a former chief rabbi of Israel, but the family did not approve. After nixing the idea to name the school for Rav Kook (“Our boys would be called ‘kookies,’” he worried), he settled on Touro, in honor of Judah Touro, an Orthodox rabbi, wealthy philanthropist and — like Mr. Lander — a builder of community.
Though Touro is well accepted in the community today, Mr. Lander faced heavy criticism from the haredi community at the time for opening a men’s college. There were signs posted at the time declaring it a mitzvah to kill him. “I disregarded it,” Mr. Lander told The Jewish Week in a 2009 interview. “You have to believe in what you do.”
Prior to starting Touro, Mr. Lander had successfully organized a capital campaign in the 1950s to build the Queens Jewish Center and co-founded Yeshiva Dov Revel in Forest Hills. He also served on the founders’ committee for Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.
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He quickly began growing the Touro brand, adding a women’s division in 1974, the Flatbush division in the late 1970s and the Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center in 1980. Yeshivas Ohr HaChaim, a full-time yeshiva headed by Mr. Lander’s son, opened four years later. In alignment with Mr. Lander’s promise to provide educational opportunities to underserved communities, Touro established its Institute for Professional Studies in 1999, which caters to the chasidic community, and opened a School of General Studies, aimed at new immigrants. The growth has continued, with Lander College for Men opening its campus in Queens in 2000 and Touro launching an MBA program in 2005.
Up until his last days, Mr. Lander continued to put in a full day of work, arriving at Touro’s 23rd Street headquarters by 9:30 a.m. every day and leaving after 6 p.m. He was committed to “educating Jews wherever they live, in Israel, Europe and other parts of the U.S.” he told The Jewish Week in August. He spoke of opening a European Jewish University and expanding Touro’s health sciences offerings. In addition to Touro’s colleges of osteopathic medicine in Nevada, California and Harlem, the university announced an affiliation agreement with New York Medical College in 2009.
“He was not a pie-in-the-sky scholar,” said Rabbi Genack. “He kept building and building.”
Mr. Lander’s wife of 47 years, Sarah (nee Shragowitz), the daughter of the rabbi of Port Chester, N.Y., died in 1995. He is survived by his brother, Nathan; four children: Esther Greenfield, Hannah Lander, Debbie Waxman and Rabbi Daniel Lander; grandchildren and great-grandchildren. n