Mel Landow, a self-made South Florida millionaire and benefactor of Jewish education in the region, died Feb. 4 after suffering a heart attack while playing a game of tennis. He was 81.

Born in 1926 in Philadelphia, the Boca Raton, Fla., businessman and author of How to Make a Million in Retailing, as well as other books, saw much of the countryside and the world by the time he was an adult. His father, Simcha Landow, supported the family as a cantor, and his job took him from synagogue to synagogue on one-year contracts. The search for work sometimes left the family without a livelihood for months on end.

By the time of his bar mitzvah in New York City's Coney Island, Mel Landow had already lived in Detroit, Philadelphia and the Bronx in New York. He said years later that, although the family lived through tough times, their home – wherever it was found – was loving and warm. He once wrote that he learned from these early childhood experiences that "a strong religious belief" portends a good future.

But it was an occurrence during World War II that cemented the pride in his Jewish identity. Drafted by the U.S. military in 1944, Landow was stationed in the Philippines when all the Jewish servicemen in the area were invited to a neighboring island to celebrate the High Holidays.

"Hundreds of Jewish servicemen were there from every walk of life," he said in an interview in the late 1990s. "I don't think I ever saw so many Jews in one place at one time."

A rabbi stood in the center of the makeshift synagogue to lead the services. As he was bringing out a Torah scroll to read for the congregation, it started to rain. Landow and 17 other men took out their ponchos and, knowing they themselves would get soaked, covered the rabbi and Torah scroll.

"I don't think there was a dry eye," Landow reminisced. "For me, it was [the] beginning of a continuing devotion to my religion."

After the war, Landow returned to the United States, where he married Shirley at the age of 20. Having only had experience shining shoes, selling newspapers and working as a barker in Coney Island, Landow turned his sites to earning a living.

For a time, he assisted a door-to-door television salesman by carrying the sets, all the while learning the art of making a sale. When he got the pitch down, he asked his boss for an opportunity to become a salesman himself.

He cut his teeth hawking TVs on an apartment building's fifth floor, proving his potential. Soon, he had earned enough to invest in a business of his own: The Pittsburgh, Pa., appliance store of Kelly & Cohen. After 10 years, the chain had expanded to some 20 outlets, posting a profit of $1 million and revenue of $10 million.

Spiritual Pursuits

Melvin S. Landow
Melvin S. Landow
Having accumulated enough money to live comfortably, Landow sold his share in the appliance business and retired to Miami, where real estate and other investments supported him and his family. But after one of his three children told friends that he was "unemployed," he decided to go back into business.

Returning to what he knew best, he opened up an appliance store in Dade County that soon expanded to a chain of five stores with an annual gross of more than $13 million.

Now firmly established in the community, in 1972, Landow was playing tennis – his favorite sport – when he met Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipskar, today the spiritual leader of The Shul of Bal Harbour.

A friend of his "invited me to a game," related Lipskar.

Wasting no time, the rabbi asked Landow to put on tefillin.

"He refused at first, but agreed that if [his friend] won, he would put them on," said Lipskar.

Landow lost the game, donned the tefillin, and soon became a regular at Lipskar's Tuesday Torah classes and other programs. He confided in Lipskar that he was looking for a worthwhile Jewish project to get involved in.

"He was going public with his business," said the rabbi. "He told me that he wanted to do something special for Jewish education."

Lipskar told him about the Lubavitch day school that, due to a lack of funds, was changing locations every few months. Landow gave half a million dollars to purchase a permanent home for the institution, an astronomical donation at the time. Landow continued to donate hundreds of thousands annually in the Landow Yeshiva Center's early years.

He met the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, a short time after getting involved in the yeshiva. In later correspondence, in more than 25 personally written and signed letters, the Rebbe discussed the importance of Jewish education, not only for pre-bar and bat-mitzvah children, as the Rebbe put it, but also for the very young and adults, and other subjects relating to living like a Jew. With the knowledge that the Rebbe wanted him to be instrumental in the establishment of Miami-area Jewish education, Landow pushed for the establishment of the Rabbinical College of Greater Miami in 1975.

At Landow's funeral, daughter Karen Albert read a letter that the Rebbe had written to Landow on the same date in 1977.

"Having just observed the [anniversary of the passing] of my father-in-law of saintly memory, in whose spirit our Torah institutions are conducted, and in which you have such a major role and privilege to be instrumental in their establishment and goal," wrote the Rebbe. "It is natural that my thoughts should be turned to you at this time."

Besides carrying heavy course loads, the Landow Center's students learned Torah with local residents – a practice the student body continues today – and laid the groundwork for the modern Jewish spiritual revival of Miami. Many of the more than 50 Chabad-Lubavitch centers in greater Miami are directed by graduates of the Landow center.

Landow took particular pride in the school. During the Arab oil embargo in the late 1970s, when the economic downturn wreaked havoc on his business, his financial difficulties led his creditors to threaten foreclosure and repossession.

"He took his family with him and passed by the Yeshiva Center, and said that this building, they could never take away," said Lipskar. "He saw the Yeshiva as an everlasting edifice that stood in his merit."

More than a decade after his brush with economic ruin and subsequent recovery, Landow waited with thousands of others to receive dollar bills from the Rebbe who would hand them out to encourage others to give to charity.

"G‑d Almighty bless you to achieve even more than until now," the Rebbe told Landow. "And be a good example for all the people around you, [and] especially [for] the establishments that [bear] your name."

Just as he had written a book to teach others some of the secrets of running a successful business, Landow turned to helping Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries raise money. He wrote a fundraising guide in 1991, and traveled to that year's International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries to lecture on the subject.

"He was a very optimistic person," said Lipskar. "He was always happy with what he had.

"He loved G‑d and cherished His commandments."

Mel Landow is survived by his wife Shirley, sons Lon and Allen, daughter Karen Albert, and many grandchildren.