Jewish communal leaders remembered Frank Lautenberg as much for his accomplishments in Jewish philanthropy as for his service in the U.S. Senate and in business.
Lautenberg, who died June 3 of viral pneumonia at age 89, served as chairman of United Jewish Appeal in the mid-1970s, having been a longtime contributor to a forerunner organization, in Essex County, of what is now the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
In addition, the future senator served on the board of directors of the American Jewish Committee, the board of governors of The Hebrew University, and the executive committee of the Jewish Agency for Israel. He also served on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust.
As a five-term senator from New Jersey, Lautenberg was one of the Senate’s staunchest supporters of Israel, visiting the country at least 100 times after his first visit in the late 1960s.
Among his foremost accomplishments, in 1989, was an amendment carrying his name that allowed Jews and other religious minorities from the former Soviet Union to immigrate to the United States. The “Lautenberg Amendment,” according to the senator’s own estimate, allowed 350,000 to 400,000 Soviet Jews to enter the United States, and benefitted evangelical Christians from the USSR as well.
On May 29, poor health prevented Lautenberg from attending a gala in his honor supporting Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
During the event at New York’s Pierre hotel, Hillel and NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia awarded the inaugural Lautenberg Prize to the Genesis Philanthropy Group, which supports Jewish identity projects for Russian-speaking Jewish communities around the world.
Lautenberg’s second wife, Bonnie, accepted the Renaissance Award in her husband’s stead, recognizing his lifetime of service to the Jewish community. She said the Lautenberg Amendment was her husband’s “proudest achievement.”
His first wife, Lois Lautenberg, remains a major contributor to and leader of the Greater MetroWest federation.
At the Hillel dinner, Automatic Data Processing, Inc. — the accounting and payroll firm that Lautenberg, along with brothers Henry and Joseph Taub, transformed into one of the largest computing services companies in the world — announced that it will award $300,000 in college scholarships to underprivileged children from New Jersey over the next three years in honor of Lautenberg.
“Sen. Frank Lautenberg was a true friend and supporter of the Jewish people and our beloved State of Israel,” said Lori Klinghoffer, president of the Greater MetroWest federation. “We’ve lost an icon in our world. A philanthropist and legislator whose good works span many, many decades, his passing leaves a void which will be challenging to fill.”
Max Kleinman, executive vice president/CEO of the Greater MetroWest federation, said Lautenberg “was a champion for the people of New Jersey, the Jewish community, and the State of Israel. As UJA chair for Greater MetroWest and then national UJA chair, he helped raise hundreds of millions to help Jewish communities and Israel.” The federation now serves Essex, Morris, Sussex, and Union counties and parts of Somerset County.
Jacqueline Levine, a Livingston resident and veteran civil rights and Jewish community activist, praised Lautenberg in an interview with NJJN.
“He was a wonderful senator for the United States and for New Jersey,” said Levine, who has been a member of the executive committee of the Greater MetroWest federation, as well as the Soviet Jewry chair at the former National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. “When he served as national chair of the UJA, it made him even more aware of the issues that we in the community cared about, as evidenced by the Lautenberg Amendment, which was very important for rescuing Jews from the former Soviet Union.”
Allyson Gall, former director of the American Jewish Committee’s NJ region, dealt regularly with Lautenberg during her 20-year tenure.
“He was on our state board for many years; he chose to stay on our board after he was elected to the Senate,” she said. “We are proud that he didn’t want to leave New Jersey behind. It was always a pleasure to know he was going to be on our side, and not just on Jewish issues — gun control, human rights, immigration, everything.”
Roy Tanzman of Woodbridge, former president of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, noted that Lautenberg’s interests extended beyond the Jewish community. “In addition to his 1989 amendment, Frank took on big companies, he fought against smoking and the National Rifle Association, he supported Mothers Against Drunk Driving. He always tried to do the right things as opposed to catering to big business,” Tanzman told NJJN.
In 1982, Lautenberg was running for New Jersey’s U.S. Senate spot at a time when Democrats in the state were down on their political fortunes.
The Jewish community knew and liked Lautenberg; he had served as chair of national UJA in the previous decade and had turned the charity around during a parlous economy.
But Jacob Toporek, who managed Lautenberg’s Jewish campaign that year, recalls that NJ Jews were skeptical of the candidate’s chances: How likely was this political neophyte to win when the Republicans were on the rise both in the state and nationally?
“We ran an ad in Jewish papers with a picture of him with Golda Meir, with a simple caption: ‘Commitment then, commitment now,’” said Toporek, now executive director of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations.
The pitch worked, and the Jewish vote helped vault Lautenberg to his 30 years in the Senate.
According to his Senate website, Lautenberg was born in Paterson, the son of Polish and Russian immigrants. His father, Sam — who died of cancer when Lautenberg was 19 — worked in the city’s declining silk mills, sold coal, farmed, and once ran a tavern. To help his family, Frank worked nights and weekends until he graduated from Nutley High School.
After graduating, Lautenberg enlisted and served in the Army Signal Corps in Europe. Following the war, he attended Columbia University on the GI Bill and graduated with a degree in economics.
He soon joined with the Taubs, boyhood friends from his old neighborhood, who founded what became Automatic Data Processing, the nation’s first payroll services company. Lautenberg served as chair and CEO.
Lautenberg became a major philanthropist in the Jewish community and, when first elected to the Senate in 1982, was the first Jew elected to statewide office in New Jersey.
According to a release from Hillel, “Among his many accomplishments, he was named to the President’s Commission on the Holocaust in the 1970s. By age 50, he was national chair for United Jewish Appeal (now known as the Jewish Federations of North America), becoming the youngest person to attain that title.” He established the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology, a major cancer center, at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and served on the American Jewish Committee’s national board of directors, HU’s board of governors, and the Jewish Agency for Israel’s executive committee.
‘A foot soldier’
The Lautenberg Amendment has been renewed regularly since its initial passage. It lifts the burden of proof on religious minorities who no longer need to demonstrate personal persecution, but can point to historic persecution toward their minority religions. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were able to emigrate from the former Soviet Union and come to the United States as refugees under its provisions.
“If you look at the American-Jewish community today, it was fundamentally changed by the Lautenberg Amendment,” NCSJ executive director Mark Levin told NJJN. “Our community has been enhanced and enlarged by the number of Russian-speaking Jews who have been able to enter this country. Since then it has been helping those who are trying to get out of Iran and other parts of the world.”
In 1987, responding to a Supreme Court decision that upheld an Air Force rule preventing an officer from wearing a yarmulke while in office, Lautenberg sponsored a measure to allow service personnel to wear religious head coverings while in uniform.
After Lautenberg announced his retirement on Feb. 13, he told reporters he would dedicate his last two years in office to passing legislation in support of gun control, environmental protection, and job creation.
In an interview with NJJN at the time, David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York, put Lautenberg’s accomplishments in the context of his military service.
“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,” said Mallach, the former executive director of the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest. “They understood at a visceral level what was then Jewish powerlessness that no other segment of American-Jewish life could comprehend. Lautenberg had a vision — not just for the Jewish community — of being a voice in American power.”
A funeral service was scheduled to be held June 5 at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, with arrangements by Riverside Memorial Chapel. Rabbi Daniel Cohen, religious leader of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, where the senator was a member, was set to co-officiate (see sidebar).
In addition to his wife, Bonnie, Lautenberg is survived by four children from his first marriage, Nan Morgart, Ellen Lautenberg, Lisa Birer, and Josh Lautenberg; two stepchildren, Danielle Englebardt and Lara Englebardt Metz; and 13 grandchildren.
NJJN reporter Robert Wiener and JTA correspondent Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.