WASHINGTON — The US Senate lost its oldest member, its last surviving WWII veteran, and one of its staunchest pro-Israel advocates early Monday morning with the death of 89-year-old Senator Frank Lautenberg.
Lautenberg succumbed to pneumonia at a New York hospital just after 4 a.m.
A Democrat who championed gun control, wrote the bill that raised the drinking age in the 1980s to 21, and helped bring billions in funding for infrastructure and environmental projects to his native New Jersey, Lautenberg is remembered by the Jewish community for his long years of service and key moments when he lent his political clout and legislative pen to help rescue Jews in need.
“Many do not know his personal history of involvement in the community,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“He took many initiatives, particularly the Lautenberg amendment, which others did not want to do,” Hoenlein recalled.
The “Lautenberg amendment,” part of the 1990 Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill, lowered the bar for eligibility for refugee status in the United States, enabling Jews persecuted for their faith and identity in the Soviet Union, Iran and elsewhere to emigrate to the US.
When it came to helping Jews in distress, “you didn’t have to educate him,” said Hoenlein, who was himself a leader in the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1970s and 80s. “He knew the issue and he had strong feelings about it. He came to demonstrations [in support of Soviet Jews]. I recently found a picture of him speaking, as a much younger man, at the earlier Soviet Jewry demonstrations.”
Lautenberg’s story seems a quintessential American Jewish tale of immigration, hardship and ultimate success. He was born in 1924 to Jewish parents who immigrated from Poland and Russia through Ellis Island. Born in the working class town of Paterson, New Jersey — the state he would represent for five terms starting in the early 1980s — Lautenberg’s early life was “unsettled as his parents moved about a dozen times while struggling to support the family,” according to his Senate website biography.
Lautenberg’s father died of cancer when he was 19, and he was forced to work nights and weekends to help support his family as he finished high school. He served in the Army Signal Corps in Europe during World War II, and returned to the US in 1946 to pursue a degree in economics at Columbia University.
He was involved in Jewish life and Jewish issues throughout his long career, serving as a board member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the board of governors of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and, in 1974, when he was 50, as the youngest chairman in the history of the United Jewish Appeal, the umbrella American Jewish communal fundraising body.
Closer to home, he was also a devoted member of the New Jersey Jewish community, serving as fundraising campaign chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, the largest Jewish communal federation in New Jersey, which dedicated a building in his honor.
More recently, he was the victim of the Bernie Madoff investment fraud, which heavily targeted well-off Jews like Lautenberg and Elie Wiesel in what investigators have called a case of “affinity crime.” Lautenberg apparently lost a significant amount of his family foundation’s investments, with tax records from 2006 showing Madoff managing more than 90 percent of the foundation’s nearly $14 million in assets.
Jewish groups across the political spectrum fondly recalled Lautenberg’s commitment to the Jewish and pro-Israel communities.
“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,” National Jewish Democratic Council chair Marc Stanley said in a statement. “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.”
Across the aisle, the Republican Jewish Coalition praised Lautenberg as a “staunch supporter of Israel and a leader in Jewish communal life.”
In a statement, RJC executive director Matt Brooks noted, “His work in the Senate helped thousands of Soviet Jews and other victims of religious persecution to reach freedom. He was a proud Jew and a proud American.”
The Jewish Federations of North America, the successor organization to the UJA Lautenberg once chaired, praised him as “a major supporter of maintaining strong relations between Israel and the US,” noting that he had visited Israel over 100 times since his first visit in 1969.
“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,” JFNA board chair Michael Siegal said in a statement.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee praised Lautenberg Monday as “a tireless champion for the US-Israel relationship and the human rights of Jews and persecuted peoples throughout the world. 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. Senator Lautenberg stood up for the Jewish community of the Soviet Union when it suffered in the darkness of tyranny and assisted its liberation into the light of freedom.”
Lautenberg is survived by his wife, Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg, six children and 13 grandchildren.
AP contributed to this report.