About a dozen years ago, Frank Lautenberg, then the senior U.S. senator from New Jersey, was invited to serve as keynote speaker at a naturalization ceremony for new citizens that New Jersey’s Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest was hosting.
The invitation was more than a standard offer to a political leader.
The senator, who had authored an amendment to congressional legislation, the so-called Lautenberg Amendment, which helped open the doors of the former Soviet Union, got to see the fruit of his works — some 300 new Americans, most of them Jewish, who had benefited from his work. And they got to thank him.
“Without him, they would not have been there,” said Max Kleinman, executive vice president of the MetroWest federation.
For the senator, who died on Monday, June 3 of viral pneumonia at 89, five days after Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life honored him at its annual Renaissance Gala and presented the inaugural Lautenberg Prize to the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the naturalization ceremony was “a very emotional moment,” Kleinman said.
At the event, the group’s assistant director for international programs, Yasha Moz, seemed to sum up the views of many ex-Soviet émigrés regarding the debt they owe to Mr. Lautenberg. “Only now do I understand that the reason I was able to move to the U.S. relatively easily is through the passing of the Lautenberg Amendment,” said Moz, who emigrated from Ekaterinburg, Russia. “For that, I and my family are forever grateful to the senator.”
First elected to the Senate in 1982, he retired in 2001 (a “terrible mistake,” he said), then came out of retirement in 2002 after incumbent Bob Torricelli dropped out of a re-election race because of federal corruption charges.
Mr. Lautenberg, who earlier this year had announced he would not run for re-election and would dedicate his remaining time in office to passing legislation on a few key issues — gun control, environmental protection and job creation — had survived a bout with blood cancer three years ago.
He was in ill health recently, had been absent from the Senate floor for much of the year, and did not attend last week’s Hillel event, instead watching a live stream of the dinner at home.
The oldest member of the Senate and its last remaining member who had served in the military during World War II, he was remembered this week as a zealous champion of many liberal causes, a defender of Israel, and an active supporter of the Jewish community, both as a philanthropist and as a lay leader in his pre-Senate days.
Before his senatorial days, Mr. Lautenberg served as chair of the national United Jewish Appeal, campaign chair at the MetroWest federation, a member of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, the American Jewish Committee’s national board of directors, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s executive committee and Hebrew University’s board of governors.
When the prime minister of Malaysia in 2003 remarked that Jews “rule the world by proxy,” the senator introduced a resolution in the Senate that condemned the Malaysian’s comments as “a despicable expression of hate.”
Mr. Lautenberg, who visited Israel nearly 100 times, would call himself a “custodian of the Jewish people.”
“As a senator he was a great Jew, and as a Jew he was a great senator,” said Edgar Bronfman, former president of the World Jewish Congress and founding chairman of Hillel’s International Board of Governors.
He was, said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), “the very best of the greatest generation. He grew up poor, served his country bravely during World War II, led a company that created thousands of jobs and spent the second half of his life giving back via public service.”
David Mallach, managing director of the Commission of Jewish People of UJA-Federation of New York, and former executive director of the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, told the New Jersey Jewish News that the senator “was very close to the Jewish community.
“There was a sense of connection and understanding of our agenda by him and his staff members, whether they were Jewish or not,” Mallach said. “Lautenberg was a foot soldier in Europe in World War II, and the Jews who went through that experience — something happened to them in terms of recognizing the importance of the whole Jewish communal agenda. They understood at a visceral level what was then Jewish powerlessness that no other segment of American-Jewish life could comprehend.”
Mr. Lautenberg entered the Senate after becoming a millionaire as chairman and chief executive officer of Automatic Data Processing, which he had joined as the payroll services company’s first salesman.
Born in Paterson to impoverished immigrants from Poland and Russia, Frank Lautenberg worked after school and on weekends during high school following the death from cancer of his father, Sam, who had worked in silk mills, sold coal, farmed and ran a tavern. The Lautenbergs could not afford to join a synagogue or give Frank a formal Jewish education; he did not have a bar mitzvah.
“He grew up in poverty. He cared deeply about people who were poor,” Kleinman said.
Mark Levin, executive director of the National Council on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), tells of bringing to Sen. Lautenberg’s office, in the years before the collapse of the Soviet empire, relatives of refuseniks, Soviet Jews who had not received permission to leave their homeland to reunite with kin in this country or Israel. The senator would meet with the often-distraught relatives and, sometimes speaking through a translator, assure them that the days of the USSR refusing Jews permission to leave would soon end. Which they did.
“There was no one more human, more concerned,” Levin said. “The fact that so many of his brethren were being prevented from being allowed to emigrate touched him deeply. Sen. Lautenberg had an ability to connect [with the visitors]. Even going through a translator he was able to connect at a human level.”
The Lautenberg Amendment, which he introduced in 1990, granted expanded immigration privileges to Jews, Evangelicals and some members of the Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union. Any member of those protected groups could claim the automatic right to enter the U.S. as a refugee because of persecution in the USSR.
“For him, it was almost an obligation” to become involved in the Soviet Jewry issue, Levin said.
The amendment played a major role in allowing Soviet Jews to settle in this country and in Israel, Levin and other authorities on Soviet Jewry said. By loosening a restriction that required potential refugees to show a risk of imprisonment or death, the amendment let applicants show that their religion restricted their lives and careers.
“Without this amendment, there’s no telling how many people would have been allowed in the United States,” Levin said. “In many places around the country [they] have changed the profile of the Jewish community.” In New York City, an estimated 20 percent of the Jewish community has roots in the recent waves of immigration from the former Soviet Union. “Without Sen. Lautenberg, I doubt that would have happened,” Levin added.
“Many of the refugees have enriched American-Jewish life,” Kleinman said.
“Sen. Lautenberg has earned the gratitude of hundreds of thousands of refugees for providing them with the opportunity to start new lives in the United States in safety, peace and freedom,” said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, the global nonprofit agency that protects refugees. “Both the refugees and our country have tremendously benefited from the Lautenberg Amendment.”
A lifelong Democrat, Sen. Lautenberg wrote or supported legislation for a wide variety of liberal and progressive causes, including anti-smoking and anti-drunk-driving bills. He was pro-choice, supported gun control and gay marriage, and voted to expand the federal definition of hate crimes to include sexual orientation. He authored the Ryan White Care Act, which provides services to AIDS patients, and he proposed the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorist Act of 2007, which was designed to keep weapons out of the hands of persons on the government’s terrorist watch list.
Another amendment named for him bans the sales of guns to people convicted of domestic violence.
Sen. Lautenberg’s death marks the fourth Jewish member of the Senate to leave within the past several years. Arlen Specter, a longtime Republican who switched parties, lost a 2010 primary race, and died in 2012. Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-Independent from Connecticut, left office earlier this year after declining to run for re-election. Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan is not seeking re-election this year.
Sen. Lautenberg “leaves behind a distinguished record of public and Jewish communal service that distinguishes him as a giant among American Jewish political leaders,” National Jewish Democratic Council Chair Marc Stanley said in a prepared statement.
The Republican Jewish Coalition called him “a staunch supporter of Israel and a leader in Jewish communal life.”
Stephen Greenberg, chair of the National Council on Soviet Jewry and a close friend of Sen. Lautenberg, said the senator called him in 1985, a few days before President Ronald Reagan was to make a controversial visit to the Bitburg Military Cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where members of the Waffen S.S. organization were buried. Jewish and veterans groups were upset that the president was going to the cemetery “in a spirit of reconciliation.”
“You and I are going to Dachau,” Sen. Lautenberg told Greenberg.
On short notice, they flew to the site of the concentration camp near Munich, where they quietly met with Holocaust survivors, attended a memorial later that day for the Israeli victims of the 1972 Olympic terrorist attack, then went to another World War II ceremony in Belgium.
“That was his way of doing what was appropriate,” Greenberg said. “No press [coverage]. No nothing.” Just the two of them and one of the senator’s aides. “We just went. And we came home. We did it in one day.
“This was his way of saying, ‘This is something we should do,’” he said.
Sen. Lautenberg’s legacy was praised this week across the religious and political spectrum. “A dear friend of the Jewish community,” said a B’nai B’rith International statement. “A giant in American and Jewish community life,” said Leonard Cole, former Chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “A force for justice,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “A tireless advocate on so many issues critical to the women’s and Jewish communities,” said Lori Weinstein, executive director of Jewish Women International.
“I was not brought up in a religious home,” Sen. Lautenberg said in an interview a decade ago. “We were proud of being Jews, but we were not ritualistically Jewish. I did not go to Hebrew school. My folks were committed to long workdays, because they had to resort to owning little stores to keep them going.
“When I got the chance to be involved in the Jewish community and see what genuine philanthropy meant to people,” he said, “it was an energizing experience.”
A graduate of Nutley High School, he served in the Army Signal Corps in Europe during World War II, attended Columbia Business School on the G.I. Bill, and later served as commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Sen. Lautenberg realized, at the naturalization ceremony 12 years ago, how his refugee amendment had changed many people’s lives, Kleinman said. The new Americans who had not realized what role the senator had played in their immigration learned it when Sen. Lautenberg was introduced for his speech.
Afterwards, Kleinman said, “There was a long line of people who hugged him, thanked him. We all shed tears.”
firstname.lastname@example.org; Walter Ruby contributed reporting to this article.