Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey Senator Who Opened Gates to Soviet Jews, Dies at 89

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New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, whose signature law facilitated a flood of Soviet Jewish emigration just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, has died.

Lautenberg, 89, died Monday morning of viral pneumonia, his office said. Lautenberg was the oldest serving U.S. senator and the last lawmaker in the chamber to have served in World War II.

Two far-reaching laws bear the name of the Democrat, who served a combined 30 years in the U.S. Senate in two separate stints.

The first Lautenberg Amendment passed in 1990 facilitated the emigration of Soviet Jews by relaxing stringent standards for refugee status, granting immigrant status to those who could show religious persecution in their native lands.

The Lautenberg amendment loosened a restriction that required potential refugees to show a risk of imprisonment or death, allowing those who could show that their religion restricted their lives and careers to apply for immigrant status.

The amendment led to the emigration of tens of thousands of Soviet Jews and also was extended to religious minorities in Iran, Vietnam, Burma and other countries.

The second Lautenberg Amendment, passed in 1996, bans the sales of guns to those convicted of domestic violence.

Over the course of his career, he also championed legislation that banned smoking on airplanes, toughened drunken driving laws and broadened veterans' benefits.

Lautenberg, born to Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, was honored last week by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) Chair Marc R. Stanley extended the groups deepest condolensces to the senator's family and residents New Jersey in a statement following news of his death:

"The late Senator leaves behind a distinguished record of public and Jewish communal service that distinguishes him as a giant among American Jewish political leaders. He was a staunch defender of progressive ideals and a stalwart advocate for the State of Israel and the American Jewish community. Lautenberg was a true friend to NJDC and we will forever miss his wisdom and insight."

U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg in August 2012.Credit: AP

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