Yeshiva University is facing an aggressive challenge to its standing as the primary facility where Orthodox high school boys can attend college while continuing intensive Jewish studies.
In recent weeks, two rabbis and two professors have defected from YU’s Washington Heights campus in Upper Manhattan to join the soon-to-be opened Lander College for Men, being built on seven acres in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens.
It is the newest and perhaps most ambitious project of Touro College, the growing network of higher education schools founded 30 years ago by Dr. Bernard Lander. It also may prove to be the most controversial.
Lander College recruiters are competing with YU for faculty and students by a none too subtle exploitation of the continuing religious tensions at YU between modern, or centrist, Orthodox forces and the increasingly dominant "right-wing" element, some of whom have decidedly ambivalent feelings about the intensive pursuit of secular studies.
Touro officials, who are actively recruiting yeshiva high school students in Orthodox communities in America and Israel, are billing Lander College as a better option for right-wing Orthodox students. They say their educational approach will give greater emphasis to Torah studies and will be more ideologically consistent than YU, whose motto is "Torah U’maddah": the synthesis of Torah and modernity.
In a strategy that has some YU officials rankled, Touro is selling its new college as being in a safe neighborhood, stopping short of raising outright questions about the relative safety of YU’s largely Hispanic Washington Heights neighborhood.
Asked about his marketing approach, Lander, the president and founder of Touro, said he is not criticizing YU, where he once served as dean, but merely pointing out the positive aspects of his new college, which is scheduled to open in September with about 130 students.
"We are here to offer another alternative in Jewish and general studies," Lander, a man in his 80s, said last week sitting in a spare meeting room at Touro College’s headquarters on West 23rd Street in Manhattan.
He calls the creation of Lander College "the realization of a dream" and the cornerstone of the Touro empire of private schools. Lander chartered the first Touro college in 1970. Now it includes a network of graduate schools, professional schools for law, education, osteopathic medicine and education, and Jewish studies, both here and in Israel, with special programs designed for Russian Jews and the fervently Orthodox, among others.
Lander said the new college will "serve someone who wants to achieve a high level of pre-professional education and also a high level of Jewish studies. The purpose is blending of Jewish knowledge and preparation for a career."
Pressed why such an institution is needed when an Orthodox institution with the same goals, Yeshiva University, already exists, Lander quickly cited the "different neighborhood," noting the growth of the Orthodox Jewish community in surrounding Kew Gardens and Forest Hills; the "harmony within the institution between students and mentors," alluding to religious tensions at YU; and stressed that his school "will not be an ideological center."
"Yeshiva University has become an ideological center: Torah U’maddah, " he declared. "We are building an institution for Shulchan Aruch Jews," referring to those who follow the Code of Jewish Law, an Orthodox compendium of rules and regulations. He refused to characterize what segment of Orthodox Jews he is targeting.
But other Touro officials and students agreed that the new school’s market will emphasize the yeshiva element.
The Touro challenge from the "right" comes only a few months after YU received a challenge from the "left" with the advent of a new Torah learning program on the Upper West Side designed to encourage students to attend Columbia University while continuing their Jewish studies.
Lander, a sociologist who served as New York City’s first Commissioner of Human Rights, continually insisted the new men’s college will be a place where "there is no split between professors of Talmud and professors of English."
He said, smiling, "it will be one institution in approach to life values," offering a thinly veiled criticism of the tensions at YU between Modern Orthodox and right-wing faculty and students.
YU officials dismissed Lander College as a glorified vocational school that will only serve to further fractionalize the Orthodox community. "I’m not worried about them at all," said YU president Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, waging a years-long battle over his desire to maintain the centrist philosophy of his university against right-wing faculty and students.
"We are a liberal arts college and not a vocational school," Rabbi Lamm said. "People who want our type of education will come to us, and those who want a vocational education will go there."
One top YU administrator argued that the Lander school could serve those who cannot get into YU’s program.
"There may be a place for a college that is not as demanding," said the administrator who spoke on the condition of anonymity, noting that Lander College is intended for yeshiva-oriented young men who understand the need for a degree as a means to earning a living.
The new college will offer bachelor degrees in accounting, economics, finance, management, marketing, administration/information systems, biology and chemistry. Also offered are pre-med, pre-dental and pre-law programs.
A brochure touts a new four-story, 73,000-square-foot academic building, a 7,000-square-foot library, and new dorm and athletic facilities, including a baseball diamond and tennis and basketball courts.
The YU administrator said the situation will serve to further divide the Orthodox community, noting the recent initiative by liberal Rabbi Avi Weiss to establish an intensive religious studies program near Columbia University, thus offering an alternative to YU for Modern Orthodox students.
"We’re getting hit by the right and the left," he acknowledged. He also labeled as "nonsense" Lander’s contention that the Touro College will be free of ideology, noting Lander’s comment that all the faculty will be like-minded.
In fact, Rabbi Abba Bronspigel, who left YU after 40 years to head Lander’s Talmud program, has said he hopes to create a "frum college" at Touro. "The college faculty will be fruma yidn [religious Jews] who have Ph.D.s and who are experts in their fields," Rabbi Bronspigel said.
Rabbi Bronspigel opposed Rabbi Lamm’s establishment of a postgraduate institute of Talmud studies for women at YU’s Stern College for Women, calling it a step closer to giving women ordination, and that YU is "giving in to feminism."
Joining Rabbi Bronspigel at Lander College will be 50-year YU veteran Rabbi Yehuda Parnes of the Rabbi Issac Elchanan Theological Seminary; biology Professor Kenneth Danishefsky; and political science professor Ross Zucker, who will head that department at Touro.
Asked about the YU defections, Lander denies raiding or luring faculty with significant salary increases. A YU official downplayed the defections.
"Our faculty is in toto well over 1,000 full-time and approximately 900 part-time. Two members of the Judaic studies and two members of the liberal arts: that does not constitute a flood," he said.
But the departure of Rabbis Bronspigel and Parnes prompted a front-page headline in the YU student newspaper, which felt their names added luster to Lander College.
And several senior boys at the High School of the Five Towns and Rockaway, considered a Modern Orthodox facility, noted that a Touro representative made inroads there. One HAFTR student said that some of the rabbinic faculty at his school view YU as too liberal and may recommend Lander College in the future.
But some YU students are hoping that the new Lander College may siphon off more right-wing students and faculty from Yeshiva, allowing it to more comfortably pursue Rabbi Lamm’s vision of a pluralistic Torah community.
"Those students who share Dr. Lamm’s views constantly find themselves looking over their ‘right shoulder’ in fear of other less tolerant rabbis and students," said Eliyahu Stern, a YU student. "On the other hand, those students who follow those such as Rabbi Bronspigel are constantly feeling their religious principles being compromised by ‘heretical knowledge.’
"Now," he concluded, "students and rabbis in Yeshiva University who share Rabbi Bronspigel’s vision will have an alternative, an educational environment they can feel comfortable with."
Said Lander, "I think it’s a wonderful thing to have a choice."