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!
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • 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.