Last week, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) was honored by Hillel at its annual dinner in New York City. He was cited for a lifetime of work on behalf of the Jewish people, both inside the Senate and in the broader community. The five-term senator was too ill to attend the celebration. So his wife, Bonnie, accepted the tribute on his behalf. The staunchly liberal Lautenberg died Monday at age 89, ending a life and career that was worthy of all of the accolades.
Before he was elected to the Senate in 1982, Lautenberg had a long history of service to the Jewish community. He served on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, and he was national campaign chair for the United Jewish Appeal (now the Jewish Federations of North America). With the wealth he developed from running Automatic Data Processing, a payroll services company, he gave a lot to charity and established the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
But Lautenberg is best known for his work in the Senate — particularly the Lautenberg Amendment — and rightly so. Passed in 1989, the Lautenberg Amendment facilitated the emigration of Soviet Jews to the United States by relaxing the country’s stringent standards for refugee status and by granting immigrant status to those who could show religious persecution in their native lands. The amendment allowed hundreds of thousands of Jews from the dissolving Soviet Union into the United States, and it provided refuge and the possibility of a new home to other religious minorities fleeing Iran, Burma and Vietnam. At the Hillel tribute dinner last week, Bonnie Lautenberg called that legislation her husband’s proudest achievement.
Lautenberg championed causes and was res-ponsible for much legislation that has made life in this country healthier and safer. He worked to ban smoking on air flights and in buildings with federally funded children’s programs. He was instrumental in raising the drinking age to 21. And he wrote the law barring people convicted of domestic violence from owning guns.
Those are just a few of the highlights of Lautenberg’s impressive career, and they illustrate just who Lautenberg was. In February, Lautenberg announced that he would not run for a sixth term. While left his current term incomplete, he ran up a record of service to the United States and to the Jewish community that is worthy of great praise.
May the memory of Lautenberg be for a blessing.