Jewish leaders expressed appreciation — and regret — at Frank Lautenberg’s announcement that he will not seek reelection for his United States Senate seat next year.
The 89-year-old senior senator from New Jersey — a strong backer of Israel and the state’s Jewish community — announced on Feb. 13 that he will retire from the seat he has held, with one two-year interruption, since 1982.
On Feb. 15, Lautenberg made a formal announcement at the NJ Community Development Corporation headquarters in his home town of Paterson. He told reporters he will dedicate his last two years in office to passing legislation in support of gun control, environmental protection, and job creation.
To members of the Jewish community, he is remembered fondly for a piece of legislation that bears his name — the Lautenberg Amendment — which assists people fleeing religious persecution in attaining refugee status in the United States. The law was drafted with Soviet Jews in mind, and has been applied since to refugees from such countries as Vietnam, Burma, and Iran.
“I have had ongoing contact with the senator on philanthropy and specific Jewish issues,” said Max Kleinman, executive vice president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, who attended the Feb. 15 event. “He and his office have always been responsive. Our contact has been very productive.”
Another person who worked closely with Lautenberg was David Mallach, the managing director of the Commission on Jewish People at the UJA-Federation of New York.
Between 1986 and 2003, Mallach served as executive director of the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest.
“To say the obvious, he was very close to the Jewish community,” Mallach told NJ Jewish News in a Feb. 16 phone interview. “There was a sense of a connection and understanding of our agenda by him and his staff members, whether they were Jewish or not.
“He had an appreciation of what our concerns were — whether it was Israel or Soviet Jewry or church and state matters. He understands in a very visceral, personal way what animates the community. In terms of fundamental issues in our society — gun control, pollution, public transportation — he really gets it,” said Mallach.
“I am biased toward Frank Lautenberg even though I am somewhat to the right of some of his views,” said Mark Levenson, a Newark attorney and chair of the New Jersey-Israel Commission. “I tip every hat I have to Frank Lautenberg.”
Levenson, interviewed by phone from Jerusalem, where he was traveling with a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, joined the senator on a mission to Israel in 2001.
“He has always been there for Israel,” Levenson said. “Clearly he is a Democrat and a liberal, and people may disagree with him, but I have only the highest words of praise for him. He has been a great public citizen. I wish him the best in his retirement. I hope the candidates who run for his seat will be as supportive of Israel as he was.”
While other members of Congress, such as New Jersey’s junior senator, Robert Menendez, may express strong backing of Jewish causes, Mallach said, Lautenberg’s affiliation was almost unique.
“Menendez is a supporter of key issues to the Jewish community. He cares deeply about Israel,” Mallach said. “But it is very different with someone who grew up in the community, who has a feel for communal concerns.”
Lautenberg served as UJA Campaign Chair at the former Jewish Federation of MetroWest NJ and then as national chair of UJA.
The senator’s interests and philanthropic efforts are reflected in his name, which has appeared on such diverse institutions as the Lautenberg Family JCC in Whippany, the Lautenberg Center for Immunology and Cancer Research at The Hebrew University in Israel, and the Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Station in Secaucus.
In addition, said Mallach, “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. Lautenberg had a vision — not just for the Jewish community — of being a voice in American power.”