Frank Lautenberg, Dead at 89, Recalled as Jewish Senator Who Never Ran as One

World War II Veteran Touted Rags-to-Riches Business Success

Great Generation: Frank Lautenberg was proud of his role as a Jewish community activist. But he ran on his record of business success and policy achievements.
getty images
Great Generation: Frank Lautenberg was proud of his role as a Jewish community activist. But he ran on his record of business success and policy achievements.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis and Nathan Guttman

Published June 03, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Frank Lautenberg, the U.S. Senate’s oldest sitting senator and a former longtime Jewish community activist, died Monday morning at 89.

Lautenberg represented New Jersey in the Senate from 1982 to 2001, and then again from 2003 until his death. He served in the 1970s as a top lay leader of the United Jewish Appeal, the organization now known as the Jewish Federations of North America. He had also served on the governing boards of the American Jewish Committee and the Hebrew University.

Amidst growing pressure, Lautenberg announced in February that he would not run for reelection in 2014. He had been visibly slowing down in recent months, with few appearances in Washington. Lautenberg visited the capital once in mid-May in a wheelchair.

The last World War II veteran in the Senate, Lautenberg was born into poverty in Paterson, N.J., before amassing enormous wealth as the CEO of Automated Data Processing, which he joined when the payroll-processing firm was a three-man storefront operation.

Though identifiably Jewish, and active throughout his life in Jewish causes, Lautenberg’s political achievements were largely not in areas of particular Jewish interest. At times, particularly early in his Senate career, he seemed to take pains not to be reduced to being simply a Jewish senator.

“He is a representative of the greatest generation and their values, which for many of us in the Jewish community are the values we subscribe to,” said Joel Rubin, a former aide to Lautenberg, speaking days before the Senator’s death.

Lautenberg was honored at a packed gala benefiting Hillel at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan on May 29, just days before his death. Lautenberg himself canceled his appearance at the last minute, citing a chest cold. Billionaire Jewish donors Lynn Schusterman, Michael Steinhardt and Edgar Bronfman attended, as did Rush Holt, a Democratic congressman from New Jersey.

Jewish leaders speaking at the event praised Lautenberg as having helped shape their own commitment to Jewish life. Mark Levin, executive director of the National Council for Soviet Jewry, said that Lautenberg spoke to Levin and other young Jewish activists in the 1970s, “inspiring us to a life of commitment to the Jewish people and Jewish values.”

While Lautenberg was a highly visible leader in the Jewish community when he launched his first Senate run in 1982, friends say that he did not emphasize that Jewish activism in his campaign.

Stephen M. Greenberg, an attorney who worked with Lautenberg at ADP and a longtime friend, said that political advisers told Lautenberg that putting too much emphasis on his Jewishness could run the risk of provoking anti-Semitism.

“In terms of being a successful politician, the fact that he was the national chairman of UJA or that he had been involved in founding a cancer research center in Jerusalem…they weren’t helpful,” Greenberg said. Instead, Greenberg said, it was Lautenberg’s success building ADP that was touted during the campaign.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.