Touro College Reaches Beyond the Jewish World

By Nathaniel Popper

Published August 11, 2006, issue of August 11, 2006.
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This fall, Touro College will open a new campus in Miami Beach and a new school of social work on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Such expansion has recently become routine for the traditionally Jewish university; in the past five years alone, Touro opened new campuses in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Berlin.

Founded in 1971 as a small Orthodox school in Manhattan, Touro has quietly grown into the largest Jewish educational institution in the country. Last year, Touro educated 23,000 undergraduate and graduate students in fields as varied as medicine, law, Talmud and physical therapy. By way of comparison, that’s 18,000 more students than Brandeis University, 17,000 more than Yeshiva University and 3,000 more than Columbia University.

Touro is unique among Jewish universities not only for its enrollment numbers but also for its philosophy of reaching beyond the Jewish community. The founder of the school, Dr. Bernard Lander, comes from an old school of Orthodox socialists who believe that healing the entire world is an integral part of Judaism.

“Philosophically, we are religious but universal,” Lander told the Forward. “We believe in serving people from everywhere, and I think this is the Jewish tradition. You pray on Rosh Hashana for everybody.”

Today, Lander is 91, suffering from macular degeneration in his eyes, and he walks with the gait of a man his age. But the school he still oversees is in the midst of a remarkable growth spurt. In the next few years Touro will open new medical schools in Harlem and Florham Park, N.J., new college campuses in Rome and Miami, and a new skyscraper on Manhattan’s West Side. This year alone, Touro will complete $100 million in construction.

Touro’s expansion, thus far, has occurred without fundraising. Lander has carefully balanced the programs that lose money with other programs that earn money. One particularly lucrative program has been the online university, which began in 1999 and is based in Los Angeles. But with the swift recent growth, Lander decided to begin a fundraising campaign for the first time in Touro’s history. These efforts are being led, in part, by Rabbi Moshe Krupka, who signed on as a senior vice president for college affairs after 26 years at the Orthodox Union, most recently as the national executive director.

“People ask me, why did I leave to come to Touro,” said Krupka. “If you take a look at Dr. Lander’s accomplishments, it’s self-evident that God sits on his shoulder. The man has tremendous divine providence, and he has the courage to utilize it for the good of humanity.” If one reflects on Lander’s personal history, it’s clear that he had something going for him. He grew up Orthodox on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where, he said, he had two main influences: his yeshiva and the Young People’s Socialist League.

He stayed involved with the socialists throughout his studies at Y.U. and, at age 27, he was selected to become part of the nation’s first civil-rights commission, set up by the state of New York in 1944. At the same time, Lander was ascending the university ranks, studying the sociology of poverty in America. By the 1960s he was the head of graduate studies at Y.U., a sociology professor at Hunter College and he had an appointment at the Center for the Study of Man at Notre Dame, the Catholic university in Indiana.

Touro’s roots lie in the sociological research Lander did during the tumultuous ’60s. His supervisor at Notre Dame asked him to explain why the students protesting at colleges across the country were so angry. In his research, Lander found that most of the protest leaders were Jewish, and most of the unhappiness arose out of the growing size and anonymity of their universities. They were, Lander said, “in a subliminal fashion, protesting the development of the mass university.”

Lander’s findings jibed with his own misgivings about the institutions where he worked. At Hunter, he said, he didn’t know of any of his students personally. At Y.U., where the Jewish students might learn some values, Lander said the school was “too rigid — they were not innovative enough.”

Lander decided to start his own college, with the goal of reaching those secular Jewish troublemakers — the ones who were getting lost in the university system and taking over administration buildings at Harvard and Columbia.

Lander’s creation hit a few roadblocks early on that shaped its development. First of all, the board of powerful machers that Lander assembled fell into disarray after one Orthodox member was fingered for nursing-home fraud, so Lander opted not to rely on politicians or moneymen — to do it himself.

Once Lander began looking for students, he had his second harsh discovery: He found that secular Jews were not interested in an institution that required any element of Jewish education, a trend that has only gotten stronger in subsequent years.

“The religious community is becoming more and more religious, and the secular community is becoming more and more secular,” Lander said. “The children of Yeshiva College graduates will no longer go to Yeshiva [University]. They will go to a full-time yeshiva, where their whole philosophy is to spend the rest of their life studying Torah.”

Lander’s discovery led to the bifurcated structure of Touro. One set of schools is oriented toward Orthodox students and aims to provide a degree of secular education they might not receive in the Orthodox world. The first such school was the Lander College for Men, which is now based in Queens and provides bachelor’s degrees. Now there is also a separate Lander College for Women, as well as a School for Lifelong Education, where Hasidic men and women can learn professional skills at a Brooklyn campus. Touro’s specifically Jewish programs enroll 3,500 students.

The other 19,500 Touro students attend programs in which the degree programs are not specifically Jewish, spanning the spectrum from the law school in Manhattan to the nursing school in Las Vegas to the school for vocational training on 13 campuses around New York — popular in subway advertisements. At these schools, the Jewish content comes through the Jewish calendar and the kosher food in the cafeterias. Whenever possible, classes in law or medical ethics come from a Jewish angle.

The school’s growth has not been without pitfalls. Lander has faced opposition in the Orthodox world for trying to provide a secular education to religious Jews. When he opened a night school in Flatbush, Brooklyn, signs calling for his death were posted in the neighborhood. Today the school has 1,300 students.

Lander continues to think broadly about Touro’s future. He has a new idea for reaching secular Jews: an American university in Israel, where teenagers on Birthright Israel trips can return for a year or two. Additionally, Lander has been traveling to France and Argentina to plan new campuses.

“I’m a builder,” Lander said. “I’m pragmatic enough to build where the opportunity presents itself.”

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