Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander Zt”l: Three Scenes

Feb 9th, 2010 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Reflections & Observations
I just returned from the funeral of Rabbi Dr Bernard Lander. I share three scenes of our interaction:

Scene I. (April 1984) Four Clergymen Learn About Teshuva: A priest, minister and imam, no, this is not a joke, joined me for the drive from Comstock NY to the Homowak in the Catskills for the NY State Department of Corrections Chaplains’ Conference. One of the clergymen immediately fell into a drunken sleep as we began the long drive in a snowstorm. We were not friends, and did not have anything to say to each other, so I turned on my tape deck. Dr Lander was speaking about Teshuva – Repentance. He based his talk on Simon Wiesenthal’s the Sunflower.

Dr. Lander was a spectacular speaker and as he told the story about the concentration camp inmate summoned to absolve a dying German soldier of his murderous sins, he held us all in the palm of his hand.

Could the inmate forgive the soldier for murdering babies? Did he have the right?

Somehow, the drunken passenger awoke and insisted that we start the tape from the beginning, which we did. No one in the car said a word as we listened to Dr Lander speak of repentance and forgiveness, an issue with which we all struggled on a daily basis as we counseled convicted murderers, serial killers, rapists and every imaginable type of violent criminal.

The tape finished, and the imam said, “Play it again.” A priest, minister, imam, and yours truly, listened together to a rabbi’s Teshuva lecture again, and then, yet again.

The imam, priest and minister tried to convince the Albany official in charge of the conference to have a special session so that everyone could hear Dr. Lander. It didn’t happen. When we returned to Comstock we immediately demanded an appointment with the superintendent to advocate that each of the corrections officers should have to listen to Dr Lander’s lecture. The “sup” laughed us out of his office.

Scene II. (June 2001) The Greatest Ethical Lesson of My Life: I had just completed my first year as Rosh Yeshiva of the IDT Yeshiva for Torah and Technology. We had 19 students. I was invited to meet with Dr. Lander to discuss the possibility of having the Yeshiva under the auspices of Touro College.

Dr. Lander was already what most of us would consider a very old man. He was losing his sight. The nonagenarian Rabbi told me that what we had successfully done for 19 students we could do for thousands. He asked me to help start similar programs in Hungary, France, Austria, Germany and Russia for the coming year. (The Russian program happened, thanks to Rabbi Dr. Simcha Fishbane.)

I was in my forties. He was in his 90s, and he was by far, the most energetic person in the room. He lived a life of possibilities. There was no disconnect between vision and action. “If you can help 19, why are you not helping 19,000?”

Dr Lander invited me to consider his challenge and to meet with him in the near future: “Let’s see, next week I’ll be in Los Angeles, then Miami, the following week in South America. I have to go to Israel and Germany. I’ll see you in three weeks.”

He was in his nineties and I, many years his junior, was exhausted just by listening to his plans. He was planning new programs and schools until the very end of his life.

I am convinced that had I lived this second scene before the first, every person working in NY State Prisons would have heard Dr Lander’s Teshuva lecture. I would not have taken “No!” for an answer.

Scene III. Everyone Is Welcome: I had always imagined Touro to be a Jewish school. When I went to meet with the deans of different programs I met with men and women, Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, Asians, African-Americans, and Hispanics.

The student body was a miniature United States. Dr Lander had created a spiritually nurturing environment for all people.

His was an infinite life that embraced all people, saw new opportunities every day of his life, and touched the souls of all those who could pause and listen to his wisdom, view his vision, touch his spirit, and experience his passion and commitment.

May his memory be a blessing.

Author Info:
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