He was a man with a mission and for 30 years, Frank Lautenberg pursued that mission as a U.S. senator with a distinctly Jewish passion and a Jewish heart.
While obituaries all week have noted his pursuit of a traditional liberal agenda — gun control, abortion rights and more — less known outside the Jewish community was his tremendous impact on the Soviet Jewry movement.
Because of his efforts, Congress passed the Lautenberg Amendment in 1989, enabling tens of thousands of Jews to gain entry to the United States. The legislation eased standards for refugees by granting immigrant status to those who could show religious persecution in their native lands.
A law that initially pertained primarily to Jews seeking to leave the USSR was extended, and still helps religious minorities in Iran, Vietnam, Burma and other countries.
In the Philadelphia area alone, thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union can credit that legislation for their arrival here.
Marina Furman, who heads the local Jewish National Fund, said she first heard of the senator from New Jersey when she and her husband were refuseniks, seeking a way out from behind the Iron Curtain. The senator wrote letters on their behalf to Soviet officials, including former premier Mikhail Gorbachev.
A self-made businessman who struck it big with his data processing firm, Lautenberg played a large role in Jewish communal life before entering politics. He was the chair of the United Jewish Appeal, which was the precursor to what is now the Jewish Federations of North America.
That commitment to Jewish causes, including Israel, remained with him throughout his career.
He established the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology at The Hebrew University in Israel, a major center for research and instruction on cancer treatments. He also served on the board of directors of the American Jewish Committee, the board of governors of Hebrew University and the executive committee of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
How fitting that just days before his death, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, honored the senator with its Renaissance Award, in recognition of his lifetime of service to the Jewish community.
He was too ill to attend, but his wife, Bonnie, accepted the award on his behalf. She called the amendment named for him that affected so many Jewish lives his “proudest achievement.”
That kind of Jewish statesman, deeply political but never wavering from his commitment to Jewish life, has become a rare breed. May his memory be for a blessing.