Most Iranian-American Jews would not recognize the name Frank Lautenberg. But they should.
Senator Lautenberg was the Senate's oldest member, its last-surviving WWII veteran, a staunch advocate of Israel, and personally responsible for the entry of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union and Iran to the United States as protected refugees. He died Monday at the age of 89.
Since 1990, the Lautenberg Amendment has resettled and saved the lives of more than 440,000 individuals that were once persecuted religious minorities in their former countries. As Iranian Jewish refugees (or the children of refugees) ourselves, our community understands better than anyone how escape from oppression and re-settlement in a country like the United States have been one of the greatest blessings of our lives.
Senator Lautenberg once said of the Amendment that bears his name, "More than twenty years ago, I created this program to allow religious minorities to escape persecution and live safely in the United States."
According to the Hebrew International Aid Society (HIAS), the Lautenberg Amendment was "a crucial lifeline by helping to facilitate the resettlement of Jews, Christians, Baha’is, and others."
That's almost half a million people, all of whom found respite and freedom, due to the passion and dedication of one man.
The son of poor Jewish parents who emigrated from Russia and Poland through Ellis Island, Senator Lautenberg proudly represented New Jersey from 1982-2001, and again from 2003 to 2013. A staunch defender of Israel, he had visited the Jewish State over 100 times and had even put his own name on the line by harshly criticizing various Arab states' refusal to support U.S. policy towards Israel and Iran.
His record of public and Jewish communal service was extraordinary and especially inspiring to a new generation of American Jewish leaders, particularly young Iranian-American Jews that not only seek to make a real difference in the world, but perhaps for the first time in history, have the opportunity to do so, living as free Americans.
His legacy has particularly touched the next generation of our community. Most members of 30 YEARS AFTER were born in the 1980s, and many were born in Iran themselves, along with their parents. As second-class Jewish citizens living in the Islamic Republic, our own government showed a heartless lack of care and concern for us. It is therefore even more powerful to think that in the halls of the U.S. Senate, thousands of miles away from Iran, there was an American elected official that used his clout and passion to fight for the lives of hundreds of thousands of people abroad whom he had never met.
Indeed, even when our own government back in Iran had abandoned us, or worse, persecuted our Jewish communities, American leaders such as Senator Lautenberg never stopped fighting for us. In this, he changed lives and he changed destinies forever, and profoundly for the better.
But perhaps more remarkable than the blessings that Senator Lautenberg created for refugees themselves were the blessings that his legislation created for America, by way of the countless contributions that Iranian-American Jews and hundreds of thousands of others have made towards this country, whether in educational, civic, philanthropic, political, or Jewish life.
May his memory be for a blessing, and may future American leaders retain the legacy of courage, integrity, and clarity that Senator Lautenberg left behind. We are so grateful to the late Senator for his vision, his perseverance, and his service.
Founded in 2007, 30 YEARS AFTER is a non-partisan, non-profit 501(c)(3) organization based in Los Angeles with a chapter in New York, whose mission is to promote the participation and leadership of Iranian American Jews in American civic, political, and Jewish life. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.