WASHINGTON (JTA) – In 1982, Frank 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, a data processing magnate who died Monday at 89 after serving more than 30 years in Washington. Lautenberg had been chairman of the United Jewish Appeal in the previous decade and turned the charity around during a parlous economy.
“He didn’t forget his Jewish involvement,” said Mark Levin, director of NCSJ, formerly the National Council of Soviet Jewry. “He became one of the leading advocates for Jews in the Soviet Union.
Those closest to Lautenberg said the law that had the most meaning for him was the one that bears his name.
The Lautenberg Amendment, passed in October 1989, facilitated the emigration of Soviet Jews by relaxing the stringent standards for refugee status, granting immigrant status to those who could show religious persecution in their native lands.
The law “fundamentally changed the face of the American Jewish community,” Levin said, noting that it resulted in the emigration of hundreds of thousands of former Soviet Jews to these shores.
An amendment authored by Lautenberg to the immigration overhaul now under consideration in Congress would allow the president to fund the Lautenberg provisions without congressional approval. The amendment was part of a package approved last month by the Judiciary Committee, and the odds are that the full bill will pass.
Lautenberg grew up in Paterson, N.J., the son of poor Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia. He liked to say his parents “could not pass on valuables, but left me a legacy of values,” according to a release from his office.
He served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in World War II and then earned a degree in economics at Columbia University through the G.I. Bill.
He started Automatic Data Processing and built it into the largest data processing firm in the world by 1974.
His Senate career was marked both by unflinching liberalism and his reputation for integrity.
Lautenberg became the Senate’s leading advocate of public safety, writing laws that improved standards for clean coastal waters and tripled liability for oil spills. In 1968, he founded the Lautenberg Center for Immunology and Cancer Research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
He launched crusades for safer conduct on the roads and rails and in the air.
The last World War II veteran in Congress, Lautenberg also led passage of the “G.I. Bill for the 21st Century,” extending education benefits to veterans of the post-Sept. 11 wars.
He was a lead champion of women’s rights, advancing laws mandating sex education and keeping pharmacists from invoking religious beliefs in order to deny service to women seeking birth control medications.
At the time of his death, Lautenberg was pushing hard on a number of reproductive issues, including repealing the law banning funding for groups overseas that provide abortions and extending abortion rights to women serving in the military overseas.
Lautenberg gave prodigiously to Israel and was its champion in the Senate. But he also was outspoken in criticizing the state when he thought it erred, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.
“Despite his firebrand reputation, Lautenberg was avuncular in person. Jewish staffers on Capitol Hill called him “zayde,” Yiddish for “grandfather,” recalled Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of American Friends of Lubavitch. Lautenberg was a regular at holiday events, and if he noted Jewish officials in the halls, he would stop and chat.