…on “Torah U’Parnassah”… “the Shulchan Aruch Jew”… “the crematoria of the American University”…and more
Nechama Preis, a New York writer, interviews Dr. Bernard Lander, founder and president of Touro College.
Q: What are the principles guiding your educational projects?
A: Firstly, we have a strong belief in the centrality of Eretz Yisrael. We believe that in our generation, where we merited to witness the rebuilding of the State of Israel, it is incumbent upon us religious Jews to recognize the pivotal, central role Eretz Yisrael plays in Jewish education. Therefore since the inception of Touro, the college has had an organic tie with Israel.
Secondly, we believe in the importance of reaching out to the Jewish community outside of New York. We are taking the lead in building Jewish institutions wherever we can — in New York, in California and internationally, in Israel, in Russia, and very soon, in Vienna. Our expansion on both the national and international levels is based on very real concerns: for every Jewish boy or girl who comes to New York to study from out of town or from overseas, there are 20 who stay home. Consequently, there are hundreds of Jewish youths who go to Ivy League schools or local, secular universities, where they are exposed to foreign ideologies and are ultimately lost to the Jewish people. By offering youth academic excellence without jeopardizing their religious commitment, Touro is helping to build our nation’s future.
Thirdly, we believe in the principle of Torah U’Parnassah [Torah and livelihood]. We do not employ the more popular Torah im Derech Eretz as our motto as Torah im Derech Eretz is exceedingly difficult to define. What does Derech Eretz represent? Does it mean world culture? If so, one finds many elements of the culture that are objectionable and abhorrent to the Jewish religious psyche.
Does it mean an actual synthesis between Torah and Science? This too presents a difficulty as Torah embraces its own discipline and source of authority and science embraces its own tradition of skepticism and mistrust of authority. If any intellectual synthesis can occur, it occurs not in the corpus of the course materials, but in the individual. Therefore, we speak more precisely of Torah U’Parnassah, a philosophy that is conflict-free, for there is no contradiction between the centrality of Torah study and the need for economic self-reliance. There’s a Chazal that says that each father must teach his son an omnus, a dignified trade. We believe in it. In today’s world, it is a given that in order to achieve a dignified occupation, a secular education is essential. As I mentioned previously, the belief in economic independence does not in any way detract from the significance of Torah study; for in order to study Torah, one needs a “Zevulan” [economic partner], either within you or outside of you.
Lastly, we are strongly opposed to the contemporary malaise of “labeling” and incessant contrasting between left/right wing. The word “Orthodoxy” itself is a poor definition of a Torah Jew. It is a term hoisted upon us by early Reform leaders several generations ago and properly translated means “a belief pattern, a doctrine.” Yiddishkeit emphasizes practice rather than belief. We eschew hyphenated Yiddishkeit and prefer to speak of the “Shulchan Aruch Jew;” you either accept and practice the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law]or you don’t.
Q: What do you believe was Touro’s biggest impact on the Jewish community?
A: While I am exceedingly proud of all our programs; Yeshivas Ohr HaChaim in Queens, the various graduate programs, and our universities overseas, I believe that our greatest and most unique contribution is the Flatbush campus. This campus enabled – for the first time – Torah-oriented young men and women to pursue vocations without guilt feelings. Today, there are hundreds of God-fearing alumni who are working in various professions – speech therapy, finance, law, marketing, medicine, accounting, to name a few — who would have otherwise never gone to college.
Q: How do you envision Jewish education of the future?
A: I believe that Jewish education of the future will be overtaken by “distance learning” on the Internet. To an unprecedented degree, intensive engagement in Jewish studies will through the remarkable vehicle of the Internet, become an option for Jews in the most remote places. Touro is at the forefront in this technology. Ultimately, we plan on creating a global university via the Internet where people will be able to earn college degrees from their living rooms.
Q: What are the educational challenges that you foresee in the near future?
A: One of the most formidable challenges of the near future is contending with the poverty of Israeli Jewry. The poverty of pious Jews in Jerusalem is abysmal. As families increase, thank God, the poverty increases in exponential fashion. We would like to establish a Touro program in Israel, similar to our Flatbush program here, where young men and women will be able to pursue careers in a proper atmosphere, that is, an atmosphere which does not threaten their strong religious convictions. There’s no halachah that requires religious Jews to be paupers or to live off tzedakah or governmental support. It’s a sensitive area, but I hope we will make a contribution.
Q: Do you anticipate much opposition to this new Chareidi campus?
A: History has proven that anything new is opposed. The Bais Yaakov movement was put in cherem [excommunication]. Why should this be any different? In fact, when the Flatbush campus was first launched, we were attacked by many elements in the religious community. People felt that Touro would discourage boys from remaining in learning their entire lives and would hinder yeshivot from producing talmidei chachamim. We strongly maintained that the program was directed at the majority, not the minority. That is, the majority who will not become gedolim and will not remain in learning their entire lives. While I understood the fears of the community, I chose not to succumb to them.
Just as an aside: In the past, Touro has garnered some very surprising supporters. We have a mentoring program which enables Chassidic women to obtain a college education through home study. A few years ago, the mentoring program faced the possibility of being permanently shut down and a Chassidic leader visited me and pleaded with me to keep it open.
Q: Are there other educational challenges you foresee in the near future?
A: I believe that in the near future we must contend with the ever-escalating rate of assimilation. The majority of Jewish youth are lost in the crematoria of the American University and ultimately, over 50% of Jewish youth end up intermarrying. And it is not primarily the course work that endangers our youth in the universities; it is the entire atmosphere of immorality. Maasei Moav [free sexuality and hedonism] is a far more difficult challenge to overcome than even apostasy. A number of studies have found that young men and women who spend a meaningful year or two in Israel educationally remain within the Jewish community.
We are presently attempting to build a kiruv university in Ranaana, Israel. This university – the first of its kind – will offer irreligious students an American college degree while imbuing them with Jewish values. I have no doubt that this kind of institution could dramatically alter the abysmal statistics. Essentially, I foresee the expansion of Touro in very simple terms; we hope to create two new institutions in Israel: one to give Olam Hazeh [the material world] to religious Jews and the second to give Olam Haba [the World-to-Come] to secular Jews. These are both novel ideas, unprecedented and untried. But that has never stopped us from trying in the past.