Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua was asked by his disciples to explain his exceptional longevity. He told them, “In all my days I never took a shortcut through a synagogue; I never stepped over the students [who sat on the floor to listen to his discussions], and I never raised my hands [for Birkat Kohanim] without first reciting a berachah” (Megillah 27b).
This Talmudic passage came to mind when I was asked to contribute my thoughts about Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander. Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua was a historic figure–one of the five young students whom Rabbi Akiva ordained after the defeat of Bar Kochba and the deaths of his 24,000 beloved talmidim. Rabbi Elazar lived a long and productive life transmitting the mesorah, the oral tradition of Rabbi Akiva, to the generations that would finally commit it to writing under the leadership of Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi.
Dr. Bernard Lander played a similar role. He lived a long and extraordinarily productive life, providing an essential link between the struggling Orthodoxy of pre-war America and the flourishing Torah community, for which he did much to nurture and sustain. Over the decades, he was the living link between a world that had been and the magnificent new world he was helping forge.
I first met Dr. Lander over thirty years ago when I became active in NCSY, the OU’s international youth organization, which he helped create in 1954. I came to know him well during my years as associate national director of NCSY and then as national executive director of the OU. For the past three years I was privileged to work closely with him at Touro College as his senior vice president of college affairs.
I never took a shortcut through a synagogue
Dr. Lander came of age in a world set on making “shortcuts” through our tradition. Many, if not most, of his generation came to the conclusion that only compromises and concessions would enable Orthodoxy to survive, albeit in a watered-down version. Dr. Lander rejected this attitude. Inspired by his father’s mesirut nefesh to keep Shabbat during the darkest hours of the Depression, responding to the message of his rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, he never deviated from uncompromising commitment to Torah values. To Dr. Lander, submission to halachah and mesorah was not a catch phrase. It was at the core of his being, work ethic and vision for Klal Yisrael.
In Touro College’s early days, at a time of financial crisis, a wealthy board member demanded that Dr. Lander merge the Men’s and Women’s Divisions of the College. “I will meet your entire deficit,” he said. “But if you don’t do so, I am resigning.” Dr. Lander, to whom separate gender classes was a matter of principle, calmly told him that his resignation was accepted.
I never stepped over the students
Dr. Lander’s kevod habriyot, his respect for every human being created b’Tzelem Elokim, was legendary. From his days serving on Mayor LaGuardia’s first Human Rights Commission to his work on behalf of the Civil Rights movement to his creation of creative educational programs to reach underserviced segments of the Jewish and general communities, he was governed by a compelling desire to treat every person with dignity and respect.
While visiting with Dr. Lander, a non-Jewish visitor from a European country complained of severe headaches. Dr. Lander immediately called a leading Manhattan physician, a member of his vast circle of contacts. Within minutes the visitor was on the way to the physician’s office in Dr. Lander’s car and from there to Mount Sinai Hospital, where a life-saving procedure was carried out. The visitor’s health insurance did not cover costs overseas. Dr. Lander instructed that all medical bills be sent to his attention.
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When Yachad/The National Jewish Council for Disabilities, the OU’s program dedicated to addressing the needs of all individuals with disabilities, needed a home for its vocational training program for special needs young adults, Dr. Lander was approached to house the program at the Lander College of Arts and Sciences in Brooklyn. He graciously housed the program for years, free of charge. His one proviso: “Make this an excellent program; give these developmentally challenged members of our community every opportunity to integrate and succeed within the Jewish and general communities.” For Dr. Lander, enabling “the individual” was his life’s mission.
I never raised my hands [for Birkat Kohanim] without first reciting a berachah [levarech et Amo Yisrael b’ahavah]
Dr. Lander’s love for other Jews was reflected in his extraordinary capacity to find creative ways to allow others to assist themselves. Whether it was Touro College’s pioneering programs in the Chassidic Community or the Machon Lander School servicing the Chareidi kehillot in Eretz Yisrael, this message of self-empowerment of the disenfranchised has transformed thousands of families throughout the world. Most recently, when girls from the former Soviet Union needed a place to study in the New York City area, Dr. Lander arranged for a fully-subsidized academic program geared to their special needs.
A decade ago, Chechnya terrorists attacked a theater in Moscow. The daughter of an employee at Touro’s Moscow campus was killed in this tragedy, and her body was flown to the United States for burial. Dr. Lander quietly underwrote the funeral arrangements, sent a minyan of college employees to the ceremony, and, a participant reports, eulogized the young woman, whom he had never met, “as though she were his own daughter.”
The Sefat Emet explains that Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua never performed Birkat Kohanim by rote. Even though he conferred his blessing on Knesset Yisrael each day it never became mundane, rather, his concentration and intent were squarely fixed on the task before him–to bestow the Almighty’s blessing upon his people. This was probably the greatest talent that Dr. Lander possessed. His entire focus was to use each and every day to its fullest potential. No task was mundane, no issue trivial, no detail insignificant. He was consistently fully focused on the task at hand, and in particular, to enhance all that he did on behalf of the Jewish people and humanity, like Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, with the blessing of “b’ahavah.”
Rabbi Moshe D. Krupka is senior vice president for college affairs at Touro College.