Honoring Sen. Frank Lautenberg


Love of country, love of Jewish community and love of Israel. Those have been driving forces for Frank Lautenberg, who is nearing the end of his career in the United States Senate, and they are the qualities that make an upcoming tribute by the Jewish community something I am proud to commemorate.

At 89, and as the oldest currently serving senator, Lautenberg deserves accolades for his dedication to the Jewish community, our nation and the world. During his first run for the Senate, his Republican opponent, Rep. Millicent Fenwick, asked me to support her; instead, I told her, “Don’t worry — Frank’s good. He will be a most worthy successor for the seat.” Frank, indeed, has been a most worthy and dedicated successor. I have known Frank for more than 40 years. When we first met, he was a successful businessman and very involved in the local and national organized Jewish communities.

Frank grew up in Paterson, N.J., the son of poor Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland. He served in World War II, attended college on the GI bill and built a very successful career. Not having forgotten his own humble roots, he became a major philanthropist in the Jewish community and then worked to become the first Jewish person elected to statewide office in New Jersey, where his connection to Judaism and Israel featured prominently.

In the Talmud, it says, “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh L’zeh,” all Jews are responsible for one another. This belief should shape our relations with our fellow Jews and with humanity in general. Frank sees himself as a “custodian of the Jewish people.” During his first trip to Israel — back in 1969 — he stated that the experience brought him right back to the root of his being. Since that transformative trip, he has visited Israel nearly 100 times, and has been a strong defender of the Jewish state during his years in the Senate.

Among his many accomplishments, Frank was named to the President’s Commission on the Holocaust in the 1970s. By age 50, he was national chair for the United Jewish Appeal (now known as the Jewish Federations of North America), becoming the youngest person to attain that title. He established the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology, a major cancer center, at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and served on the American Jewish Committee’s national board of directors, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s board of governors and the Jewish Agency for Israel’s executive committee.

Among his signature achievements in the Senate is the Lautenberg Amendment, which has been a vital lifeline for historically persecuted groups since it was first enacted in 1989. Renewed regularly since then, the measure lifted the burden of proof on religious minorities who no longer need to demonstrate personal persecution, but can point to historic persecution toward their minority religions. Thanks to the Lautenberg Amendment, hundreds of thousands of Jews were able to emigrate from the former Soviet Union to the United States as refugees fleeing religious persecution. They have added to our nation’s kaleidoscope and many have made significant contributions to Jewish peoplehood.

The legislation has since helped persecuted religious minorities fleeing Iran, Burma and Vietnam. It’s a measure that has made a difference for both Jews and non-Jews, and speaks to Frank’s compassion and care for others.

As the founding chairman of Hillel’s International Board of Governors, I am proud that Hillel will present the senator with our Renaissance Award on May 29. The award is given annually to an individual whose bold vision and initiatives enrich the Jewish community and the world. There is no more worthy recipient.

Edgar M. Bronfman is the founding chairman of Hillel’s International Board of Governors. Hillel will present Sen. Frank Lautenberg with its Renaissance Award on May 29. That same evening, Hillel, in collaboration with NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia, also will award NCSJ’s inaugural Lautenberg Prize to the Genesis Philanthropy Group.