At the heart of Touro

At the heart of Touro

Alan Kadish leads America's largest Jewish university

Dr. Alan Kadish

Few children, if any, dream of growing up to become university presidents.

Dr. Alan Kadish of Teaneck certainly didn’t.

Instead, the childhood dream that led him to the presidency of Touro University began with the death of a beloved uncle.

“My mother’s brother, a strapping man in his 50s, had a sudden cardiac death when I was 15,” Dr. Kadish, 58, remembered.

“That was a problem I wanted to study.”

Alan Kadish, the son of a father from the Lower East Side and a mother from Vienna, went to Yeshiva University’s MTA high school. He then attended Columbia University, where he majored in biochemistry, and he followed that with a medical degree from Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College. His specialty, of course, was cardiology: helping to prevent and treat heart attacks. After a residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, he took a fellowship at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

That proved fateful; he met Connie Eleff, a graduate student in sinology in Harvard Hillel’s sukkah. They married 11 months later. (The couple has four children: one in Israel, one in New York working on a startup in Brooklyn; one who just graduated from the University of Chicago, and the youngest, who just starting college. New York University, not Touro. “Much to my chagrin, but that’s where she wanted to go,” Dr. Kadish said.)

After Penn, Dr. Kadish settled into the life of a medical school professor and researcher, first at the University of Michigan and then, for 19 years, at Northwestern University in Chicago. “It was a great career choice,” he said.

He enjoyed research and wrote nearly 300 papers. He favored applied research projects, studies that directly improved medical care. And he enjoyed seeing patients as well. “Being able to mix research, teaching, and patient care was gratifying,” he said.

By 2009 he was heading a research institute at Northwestern.

That’s when the headhunter found him.

Touro was looking for a chief operating officer and designated successor for Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander, who founded Touro as an Orthodox Jewish college in 1970 and had grown it to become America’s largest university under Jewish auspices.

Rabbi Lander seemed healthy. “He was quite vigorous. He was planning a bunch of new things,” said Dr. Kadish.

But he also was 94. The plan was for Dr. Kadish to take over operations and for Rabbi Lander to semi-retire as chancellor. Two months after Dr. Kadish came to work in Touro’s Manhattan headquarters, Rabbi Lander died. A month later, Dr. Kadish was named president.

“I had the chance to work with him only two months,” Dr. Kadish said. “That wasn’t enough. He was an incredible man. I would have loved to learn more.”

He muses: “There was a recent study that seemed to show a correlation between longevity and intelligence. The genes may co-locate to some extent. There may be something to that.”

Dr. Kadish had known of Rabbi Lander when growing up. Both lived in Queens, and Rabbi Lander was a co-founder of Yeshiva Dov Revel, the day school Dr. Kadish attended. “I met him a few times. He was this towering figure,” Dr. Kadish said.

Not physically; certainly not at the end of his long life. Photos show him a head shorter than the six-foot tall President George W. Bush, when the two met in the Oval Office. But Rabbi Lander was not just the founder of Touro – he was one of the first graduates of Yeshiva College, he had had been named by Mayor LaGuardia to what was later to become the New York City Civil Rights Commission, he was an expert on the great postwar scourge of juvenile delinquency, and after serving as a pulpit rabbi in Baltimore he went on to earn a Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia and a job teaching sociology at Hunter College.

Then came his second act: Yeshiva University’s president, Rabbi Samuel Belkin, invited him to professionalize and develop its new School of Education and Community Administration. Before long, YU had three new accredited graduate schools – one in psychology, one in social work, and one in education.

For his third act, Rabbi Lander started Touro College. He wanted to do Yeshiva College right – or at least his way. His authorized biography relates that he assured Rabbi Belkin that the schools wouldn’t compete for donors – Touro would rely on tuition.

In hindsight, that seems to have been a wise move.

Yeshiva University has a much larger budget than Touro even though it serves fewer students – around $850 million in 2012, according to its tax forms, compared to Touro’s, which is around $475 million. But where YU’s revenue is split between tuition, donations, and government grants, more than 90 percent of Touro’s income comes from tuition.

Yeshiva University, however, has fallen on tough financial times.

Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, Yeshiva University President Richard Joel wrote a public letter to the school’s community that spoke of the need to “restructure” and “develop a long-term sustainable business plan” in the face of continuing deficits.

Touro’s tuition-focused approach “has both strengths and weaknesses,” Dr. Kadish said. “The downside, of course, is we don’t have as many diverse sources of revenue as other institutions do. The positive is we’re less dependent on market returns and less dependent on government funding. The sequester has hurt us but hasn’t been catastrophic.

“That said, we’re certainly looking to increase development and increase research grants,” he continued. “But I don’t ever see a situation where tuition revenue is the minority of our income. As long as students find values in our education, we’ll be able to make a go of it financially.”

Today, some 18,000 students find value in a Touro education. They’re spread out in more than 30 schools in seven states and countries. This includes medical schools in New York, Nevada, and California.

Throughout the university, its schools operate on the Jewish holiday calendar and its cafeterias serve only kosher food. But some schools have no Jewish students; they’re not the target.

And other Touro schools specialize in sub-segments of the Orthodox Jewish community. If Lander College for Men- as the original Touro college was renamed – is modeled on Yeshiva College, with dormitories, traditional yeshiva learning, and extracurricular activities, the Lander College of Arts and Sciences in Brooklyn provides a college education with fewer frills. Women take classes during the day, and men, who presumably are studying in their yeshivot by day, take classes at night. Still another school provides certificates and associate degrees in technical subjects for chasidic sudents still wary of secular education but coming to “an increasing realization that at the right time, many – not all – students have to enter the workforce and get an education,” Dr. Kadish said.

Early next year, Touro plans to make its first entry into New Jersey, with a non-degree-granting program in computer science in Lakewood, home of Beth Medrash Govoha, one of the largest charedi yeshivot in the world.

Other programs serve primarily non-Jewish niches.

Touro originally founded the New York School of Career and Applied Studies in 2002 to help Russian Jewish immigrants; now it serves other immigrant groups and minorities.

On 125th street in Harlem, Touro offers a master’s program in science. “It’s designed to take people who weren’t quite ready for medical school when they finished college and prepares them for medical school and life sciences,” Dr. Kadish said.

And then there are the schools that don’t target a particular demographic but are in places where you would not expect to find a Jewish university outpost. Touro University of Nevada boasts the state’s only master’s of occupational therapy degree and its only physician assistant studies program.

What, you might ask, is a Jewish university doing in a place like suburban Las Vegas?

The answer, for Dr. Kadish, is that education in general, and medical training in particular, reflect Jewish values.

“The idea of building a better world and helping people in need, helping other people be productive, these are things that go back to the Chumash in very obvious ways,” he said.

“There are places where Judaism is overt,” he said, pointing to institutes on the Holocaust and on Jewish law at the Touro’s law school, and a program on Jewish medical ethics at New York Medical College, a school Touro acquired in 2011.

“And there are places where it’s part of the mission,” Dr. Kadish said. “It’s a universal value that comes out of the Jewish tradition, for people to be productive and contributing members of society. A second value is the Jewish intellectual tradition. It’s very powerful. The universality of it isn’t always recognized. The fact is that significant general literacy and critical thinking skills have been part of the Jewish intellectual tradition for many years.”

That Touro’s education is wrapped in a Jewish package hasn’t generated “significant negative feedback,” he said. “I’ll go to the places where the majority of the student body is not Jewish and talk about Jewish values or aspects of Judaism. I find that it’s always well received. People appreciate what Touro does and they respond positively to it,” he said.

Last month, Dr. Kadish went to Nevada to open a facility. “I spoke a little bit about rebuilding, which Las Vegas has done after the economic downturn and the country has done after 9/11,” he said. “I compared it to how remembering losses like the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash gives energy and focus.

“It was received positively,” even by non-Jews, he said.

What about Dr. Kadish’s own stamp on Touro? What has changed under his tenure?

Perhaps not surprisingly, he has been enhancing the university’s research component.

(His own research has been cut down to taking part in conference calls about continuing projects on which his former colleagues are still work. One concerns the genetics of sudden cardiac deaths; another looks into better ways to evaluate who should get a defibrillator.)

“Although we will never be a research-intensive university, we felt it important to incorporate research components in what we do,” he said.

He has pressed the school’s expansion and growth. “We’ve continued the idea that we would focus on fields where there was a need and could get people into the job market. We found the health science students pretty much had a one hundred percent employment rate,” he said.

Thus, Touro bought New York Medical College. And now it is building a medical school campus in Middletown, in Orange County, N.Y.

“It’s our fifth medical school campus,” Dr. Kadish said. “Once it is fully completed, it will have about 3,000 students.”

Medical education has changed since he was in school, he said. “Small group discussions and clinical experiences have permeated more in the first two years.”

More changes are afoot. “We’re in the process of eliminating lectures. Lectures will be on iTunes university. Classes will all be discussion-based.

“Obviously, we’re measuring outcomes of the students who go through that program,” he adds, ever the researcher.

Another technological change: “We’re moving toward eliminating cadavers in our anatomy classes,” he said. Instead, the school will begin using interactive three-dimensional display technology. “You can visualize the body, can see the X-rays on the body, can analyze tissues the same way you can on an actual cadaver. It really allows you to do a dissection and put it back together. It gives you an intuitive feeling for anatomy.”

On the Jewish front, Touro is developing a summer campus in the Catskills for yeshiva students. It is in the process of acquiring the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Ill., which has a college and a yeshiva that has trained rabbis for nearly a century. It also has a yeshiva high school for boys, which will be the third such high school in the Touro system, joining schools in Queens and Monsey, N.Y.

Dr. Kadish, however, no longer lives in Queens, or in Chicago. Now he lives in Teaneck – which is one of the epicenters of Yeshiva University loyalty. Connected to YU’s Washington Heights campus by Route 4 and the George Washington Bridge, Teaneck’s Orthodox synagogues are mostly helmed by YU ordained rabbis and attended by YU graduates and faculty members.

That doesn’t make life awkward, Dr. Kadish said.

“I’ve had a lot of good interactions here. I’ve never seen anything negative. We’ve eaten at Kenny Brander’s house” – that is, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, YU’s vice president for university and community life.

“In one sense it allows me to enjoy Shabbos a little more. While we have a number of students and parents here, as well children of rabbinic leaders, it’s not overwhelming. I get stopped by a parent only every hour, not every five minutes,” he said.

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