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.