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!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • 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.