The death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg this week is a loss for his family, for the nation and for the Jewish community. A member of the Senate for nearly three decades, an unapologetic liberal, a gruff legislator who was nonetheless described by his colleagues as a gentleman in an era when civility among partisans is increasingly becoming an anachronism, Sen. Lautenberg — at 89 the oldest member of the Senate — represented a historical memory that is hard to replace.
A product of a poor, immigrant household in Patterson, N.J., he was moved by his own experiences of deprivation to help improve the lot of America’s indigent citizens.
The last member of the Senate who served in the U.S. military during World War II, his political and communal activism was fueled by the sacrifices of a generation that fought for America in the last war that enjoyed national support.
A member of a disappearing generation that remembers a world without a State of Israel, he was inspired by the physical security that Israel offered within its borders to Jews after the Holocaust, and the emotional pride that Israel continues to offer to Jews everywhere.
Raised without a Jewish education, in a family that could not afford synagogue membership or bar mitzvah training, he became, as an adult, a proud Jew, a supporter of many Jewish causes, a lay leader in the nation’s most prominent Jewish organizations.
That may be the most distinctive part of Sen. Lautenberg’s legacy — he entered political life with probably the most extensive record of top-level Jewish leadership, including the chairmanship of the then-United Jewish Appeal, and a previous Jewish federation post in his native New Jersey, of any man or woman to serve in the Senate.
The senator made no secret of his concern for the Jewish community: the amendment that bears his name made possible the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews as well as persecuted members of other religious groups in the Soviet Union.
That ecumenism led Sen. Lautenberg to fight for the rights of many groups he viewed as subject to discrimination or inequity, and that is why he is mourned this week by his family, the nation and the Jewish community.