This story originally appeared on JNS.org.
Someone searching for the legacy of Frank Lautenberg, the longtime Democratic U.S. senator from New Jersey, might simply look to Baruch College in New York. Of the 1,900 Jewish students there, 60 percent are from the former Soviet Union, 15 percent are Persian and 10 percent are Syrian.
Or one might look to the dozens of newly minted U.S. citizens who lined up at a New Jersey citizenship ceremony in the mid-1990s, waiting for Lautenberg to autograph the back of their citizenship papers, grateful to him that they were able to come to America.
“He stayed and signed every single one,” said David Mallach, who had frequent contact with Lautenberg when Mallach directed the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest in New Jersey. “For him, this was such a powerful statement of what he was all about.”
Lautenberg, who died Monday morning at age 89, was the oldest member of the Senate and the only one representing the World War II generation. During his Senate tenure — he served twice, from 1983 to 2001 and then again from 2003 until his death — he was responsible for numerous major pieces of legislation, including one that outlawed cigarette smoking on domestic flights and another that prohibits individuals who have been convicted of domestic violence from possessing a firearm.
But the signature piece of legislation that most resonates in the Jewish community is the Lautenberg Amendment. Passed in 1989 and enacted in 1990, that law allowed thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union to immigrate to this country by permitting them to use historic religious persecution to receive refugee status.
“I, and many of my Hillel colleagues who work on campuses here in New York, bear witness every day the impact of the Lautenberg Amendment,” Matt Vogel, executive director of Baruch College Hillel, last week told an audience gathered in New York to honor Lautenberg with the Renaissance Award from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
Lautenberg’s wife, Bonnie, told the gala that her husband — too ill to attend — considered the amendment his “proudest achievement.”
“Without the amendment, hundreds of thousands of Jews would not have been able to enter the United States,” said Mark Levin, the director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. “Without the amendment, the profile of the American Jewish community would be very different—in terms of numbers, in terms of making the community better.”
Senator Frank Lautenberg with Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan. Photo from Hillel News & Views.
Levin said that Lautenberg saw that with the fall of the communism, there was a rise in nationalism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. At the same time, “the rate of denial for people coming to the United States was skyrocketing,” Levin said.
Lautenberg recognized that he needed to do something to help these refugees. “Something in his body just clicked; this was something he had to do,” said Stephen M. Greenberg, a longtime friend as well as NCSJ chairman. He said there was a moment when Lautenberg realized, “I’m here for a reason, a Jewish man in the Senate, and I have to do something.”
Alla Shagalova, assistant director of pre-arrival and immigration for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), was one of the refugees waiting permission to come to the United States, having left Russia in 1989 with her husband and 2-year-old son. “We really felt we had to leave as possible,” said Shagalova, who came to this country via Austria and Italy, assisted by HIAS and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “We were in jeopardy,” she said. “Anti-Semitism, which had been kind of controlled by the oppressive regime, was now out of control and could become violent at any time.”
Without the Lautenberg Amendment, she said, “We might have been denied refugee status and would have been stuck in Italy in limbo, stateless for an unpredictable amount of time.”
A New Jersey resident who works for HIAS, Shagalova says she was honored to be able to vote for Lautenberg as her senator.
The legislation has since helped persecuted religious minorities fleeing Iran, Burma and Vietnam as well.
“He never stopped working for populations at risk, particularly those persecuted for their religious beliefs,” said Melanie Nezer, senior director for U.S. policy and advocacy for HIAS. “He was a real inspiration for those who care about immigrants and who fight for immigrants’ rights,” she saod, noting that the immigration overhaul bill currently in the Senate includes an extension of the Lautenberg amendment would give the president discretion to designate particular groups as refugees for humanitarian reasons or if in the national interest.
Lautenberg was also “a fervent believer that government could be a force for good,” said David Mallach, who had frequent contact with Lautenberg when Mallach directed the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest in New Jersey. Lautenberg would speak about “how the GI Bill make it possible for him to get out of being a poor kid,” according to Mallach.
Mallach recalled how the senator used some of the power of government in 1987 in the run-up to the December Soviet Jewry rally on Washington. Mallach thought it would be terrific to charter an Amtrak train to bring participants down to DC. Since Amtrak is federally funded and Lautenberg sat on the Transportation Committee, Mallach said he “called Frank’s office and said, ‘How do I rent a train?’”
“The senator called up Amtrak, and I got a call saying you are to call this person in the Amtrak office,” said Mallach, who would charter a 1,600-passenger “Freedom Train” train for the rally.
A millionaire, Lautenberg made his fortune as co-founder of Automated Data Processing and eventually became involved in the Jewish community, serving as national chair for the United Jewish Appeal (now known as the Jewish Federations of North America), establishing the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology, a major cancer center at The Hebrew University in Israel, and serving on the American Jewish Committee’s national board of directors, Hebrew University’s board of governors, and the Jewish Agency for Israel’s executive committee.
Lautenberg grew up in Paterson, NJ, with little attachment to organized Jewry, but was strongly influenced Rabbi Shai Shacknai of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, NJ. “He and the rabbi really hit it off,” Greenberg said. “Something was in his gut, in his kishkes that came out.”
Initially reluctant to get too involved with Jewish issues as a senator, he “became more comfortable on Jewish and particularly Israel issues,” said Doug Bloomfield, a columnist who worked as a lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee during Lautenberg’s early years in the Senate.