A Builder Par Excellence: Dr. Bernard Lander, a”h 1915-2010

by | in Tribute

Fifty years ago, when I was in high school and Dr. Bernard Lander was the dean of Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School, we would often ride together to the YU campus. During the drive, Dr. Lander would often speak about building his own college. Even as a teenager I thought, “He is a dreamer.” A proud father, he would talk about his children and share divrei Torah from his very precocious son, Doniel.

A former US senator was the first person to call me with the news that Dr. Lander had passed away. He told me he had never met a person of such character.

What defined Dr. Lander?

A rare individual, Dr. Lander was willing to take on every challenge. In Washington Heights, bordering the YU campus is the Palisades, which many YU students used to try to climb. The precipice is so steep that, tragically, one student died trying to climb it. As a college student, Dr. Lander would run up the cliff—the steeper the mountain, the greater the challenge. Dr. Lander was always there to carry on the challenge.

Dr. Lander was perpetually youthful. As Rabbi Abraham Besdin once remarked, Dr. Lander was the founder and president of a university, and yet he played marbles with his children. He was like Merlin. Merlin never aged—he only became more youthful.

Dr. Lander was so brilliant, and yet so unpretentious. A Yeshiva College graduate, Dr. Lander received semichah from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1938. Soon after, Rav Moshe Soloveichik asked the young Dr. Lander to come to Boston to be the rav of a shul in the kehillah that Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik oversaw. At the time, Dr. Lander had been accepted to Harvard Law School. In the end he decided that he couldn’t afford the tuition at Harvard; he also felt that his Yiddish wasn’t good enough to serve as rav of a shul where the Rav would occasionally daven.

He went on to become a significant scholar, earning his PhD in sociology from Columbia University. Yet, he wasn’t a pie-in-the-sky academic in an ivory tower; he was an academic who built an ivory tower. He was, as he once said of himself and as was quoted in his New York Times obituary, “a visionary with his feet on the ground.”

He loved Torah. He was a prized talmid of Rav Moshe Soloveichik. He took pride in the fact that Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik would say that when he came to these shores, Dr. Lander was one of his first friends. The Rav and Dr. Lander had a lifelong friendship.

Dr. Lander had an extraordinary prophetic quality. He was always situated in the future. He was at the crucial meeting with Dr. Pinchas Churgin when Bar-Ilan University was first conceived of. He was instrumental in starting many of YU’s graduate schools. He founded Yeshiva Rabbi Dov Revel in Queens and was one of the founders of the Queens Jewish Center.

Dr. Lander created Touro College four decades ago, an institution that educates more than 17,000 students in twenty-nine locations around the world. But he was grossly underpaid. As a board member of Touro College, I know how absurdly low his salary was, but he refused to accept a significant raise. He lived simply, and money was unimportant to him.

OU Senior Vice President Rabbi Dr. Simcha Katz, from Teaneck, tells how he was once with Dr. Lander on a cruise to Alaska. At one point, the ship passed Sitka, an Alaskan city accessible only by air or sea.

Dr. Katz turned to Dr. Lander.

“I don’t see a Touro College here,” he said.

“Not yet,” Dr. Lander replied.

There was nothing denominational or small about Dr. Lander. He was spread over many communities. He didn’t recognize divisions. He was close with Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, who encouraged him to start Touro, and with the Bobover Rebbe. At the same time, he was friends with Nobel Prize-winning scientists.

A few years ago Touro College invested millions of dollars to create a new proton machine to cure cancer. The project cost a quarter of a billion dollars. I asked him: How are we going to do this? How are we going to get the resources? But nothing stopped him. He thought big, and he wanted to make a significant contribution for mankind. There were a lot of hurdles and, ultimately, the project was abandoned. Nevertheless, about two years ago, Dr. Lander and I attended a parlor meeting for Senator Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas. Dr. Lander sat down next to the senator and started discussing the cancer machine, and ways to procure funding. He never gave up. Like Churchill said: Never give in—never, never, never, never.

Dr. Lander was also a man of great courage. A few years ago, Touro was embroiled in a controversial issue that attracted national attention. The college was not at fault. But I was very concerned about the negative publicity and how it would affect us. Dr. Lander didn’t flinch. It was as if he had ice water in his veins. We were simply going to move forward.

Chazal say that Hadrian, the Roman emperor who destroyed the Beit Hamikdash and attempted to destroy Jewish religious life, was once passing through Eretz Yisrael on his way to war (Tanchuma, Parashat Kedoshim). He saw an old man planting a fig tree and called out, “Old man, why are you planting a tree? You will never live to see its fruit.” The old man, a devoted Jew, replied that if he merits it, he will live to see the figs; if not, his children will enjoy them. Three years later, Hadrian returned from war. The old man filled a basket with figs from the tree and brought it to the emperor. Hadrian, impressed, instructed that his basket be filled with gold coins.

When reprimanding the old man, Hadrian was implicitly saying that Jewish history is at an end and has no future. But the old man believed in a Jewish destiny; that’s why he kept planting.

That old man was Dr. Lander’s antecedent. It is, in part, because of Dr. Lander that Jewish life in America is flourishing. He was the kind of person who could climb cliffs, meet challenges and build Torah.

Even after half a century, he was the same Bernie Lander. He still spoke glowingly about his son and daughters—but, in his later years, he would also boast about his grandchildren. Well into his nineties, he was the same adoring father and grandfather, the same dreamer, the same builder.

He kept building and building and building. Though macular degeneration had robbed him of his sight, it did not diminish his vision. He would say that in America, the secular college campuses are the crematoria of Jewish religious life. It took courage, guts and a sense of mission to start Touro College at the age of fifty-five. It was because of that sense of mission that he built Touro, against all odds. Of course, he accomplished all that he did with the support of his devoted wife, Sarah Rebecca.

Out of his sheer genius, he built Torah and built to preserve Jewish life. When he started, others prophesied that the effort would be stillborn. But he created Touro, not with Merlin’s magic, but with courage, stamina and faith.

He was a man of historical proportions. He will be sorely missed. 

Rabbi Menachem Genack is rabbinic administrator and CEO, OU Kosher.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2010.

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