Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Loss of a Giant

Many of my associates know that I am the beneficiary of a remarkable man's legacy. In 1858, Peter Cooper, a 67-year-old industrialist who was apparently always dismayed by his lack of formal education, founded a free college "for the Advancement of Science and Art." 140 years later, I graduated from Cooper Union with a degree in engineering science and zero debt. Peter Cooper was an incredible combination of entrepreneur, visionary, and philanthropist, deserving of eternal praise.

Many would think that such a remarkable individual could only exist in centuries gone by. Surely, in our jaded times, nobody could do something similar? And yet, they'd be wrong.

Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander died yesterday at the age of 94. Since his 30s, this man did more in each decade of his life than most of us will do in our lifetimes. In 1971, after having already served as a high-profile pulpit rabbi, sociology professor, the dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate school at Yeshiva University, and policy advisor to New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Presidents Johnson and Kennedy, he decided to put his studies in juvenile delinquency and youth crime to practical use by establishing low-tuition colleges for lower- and working-class students. 39 years later, Touro College spans some dozen or so colleges in at least four countries, serving tens of thousands of students, including several colleges that serve the specific needs of the Orthodox Jewish community, especially the "yeshivish" branch that would otherwise reject advanced secular studies. Until last year, Dr. Lander oversaw the entire operation and expansion of Touro as its president.

Touro tends to get slighted as a "lightweight" institution, but it was never intended to be a Harvard. It serves communities that might not otherwise have a chance to advance its youth, and it is a testament to a single person's analysis of a horrible social wrong and lifelong dedication to righting it. In an era of self-aggrandizement, this man dedicated his long life to bettering others with an energy and focus that is indescribable. His death is a loss for klal yisrael and all of humanity.

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