U.S. Jews Remember Lautenberg as Senator Who Fused Jewish Ethics and Progressive Politics

The New Jersey senator, who passed away Monday at age 89, seen as 'a giant figure who changed the course of Jewish history.'

Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft
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Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft

BOSTON – Hadar Susskind remembers spotting Senator Frank Lautenberg over the years in the Senate’s marble hallways and calling out a “thank you” for leadership on issues like gun control and immigration. Most senators nod, perhaps smile and keep walking. But Lautenberg would invariably stop and start talking policy.

“He was one of those who was good not just at the personal side of politics but the personal side of policy, really caring about and thinking about what it actually means,” said Susskind, Director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, the lobbying wing of the nation’s largest progressive Jewish organization focused on domestic policy.

Lautenberg, who had been the oldest member of the Senate and the last remaining World War II veteran, died Monday at the age of 89 and was remembered by American Jewish leaders as someone who embodied the bringing together of Jewish values and liberal values in a singular way.

Unlike other Jewish American lawmakers who got their start as political activists, his life in politics began inside the Jewish community as general chairman of the United Jewish Appeal after a making a fortune in the digital payroll management business.

Among the causes he championed were those often supported by American Jews such as gun control, the environment, gender pay equity and healthcare.

He took a leading role in the first legislation to combat police racial profiling as well as authoring the landmark Ryan White Care Act in 1990, which provided the first federal funding for the care of those suffering from HIV and AIDS.

After sitting through another airplane flight thick with cigarette smoke, Lautenberg decided to take the lead against the tobacco companies and author legislation that banned smoking on flights which led to a series of later laws protecting people from second-hand smoke.

The son of poor Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, he grew up in Paterson, New Jersey where his parents eked out a living, his father working in local factories and his mother running a sandwich shop. Issues of immigration and refugees became among those most associated with his name – literally.

A 1989 bill that became known as the Lautenberg Amendment made it easier for Soviet Jews and other persecuted religious minorities in the Soviet Union to immigrate to the United States and paved the way for other refugees.

“It might be true that we often look at the older generation of Jews as being closer to some issues since they themselves were sometimes coming from poverty and oppression in ways the younger generation has been lucky enough not to experience,” said Susskind. “He brought a very human, personal understanding to legislative work.”

For many in the Jewish community, The Lautenberg Ammendment was his most significant achievement in his thirty years in the Senate as a Democrat representing New Jersey.

“Senator Lautenberg was a dynamic activist on behalf of freedom,” said David Harris, the American Jewish Committee Executive Director in a statement. “The landmark Lautenberg Amendment was a major step in turning the tide for the exodus of Soviet Jews. As we heard him say at several AJC gatherings, this was among his proudest achievements. How many lives he transformed!”

Considered a strong supporter of Israel, but someone who seemed more comfortable pushing domestic issues rather than foreign policy ones, he worked to sway New Jersey Jewish voters in his first Senate campaign with a photograph of himself chatting with Golda Meir.

He was publically mourned by AIPAC Monday as “a tireless champion for the U.S.-Israel relationship and the human rights of Jews and persecuted peoples throughout the word. Senator Lautenberg’s leadership will be sorely missed because of his passion and effectiveness in taking a stand for America’s democratic ally and human rights. He consistently and persistently made his voice heard in defense of Israel.”

From 1975 to 1977 he was general chairman of the United Jewish Appeal.
“We have lost a giant figure who changed the course of Jewish history and dedicated his life to serving the Jewish People and the United States of America,” said Michael Siegal, chair of the Jewish Federations of North America Board of Trustees.

What the Senate also lost, noted Doug Bloomfield, a Washington-based syndicated columnist for Jewish newspapers, is the rare example of a liberal Democrat like Lautenberg who came to government with a corporate background. Most often it is Republicans who do well in business and then turn to politics to advance a fiscally conservative agenda.

“What’s missing is a person who has cut his chops in big business who can stand up for liberal causes,” said Bloomfield.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg at a news conference urged the House to pass his version of gun control legislation in 1999. Credit: AP

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