By Debra Rubin/JNS.org
Click photo to download. Caption: The late Senator Frank Lautenberg. Credit: United States Senate.
Someone searching for the legacy of Frank Lautenberg, the
longtime Democratic U.S. senator from New Jersey, might simply look to Baruch
College in New York. Of the 1,900 Jewish students there, 60 percent are from
the former Soviet Union, 15 percent are Persian and 10 percent are Syrian.
Or one might look to the dozens of newly minted U.S.
citizens who lined up at a New Jersey citizenship ceremony in the mid-1990s,
waiting for Lautenberg to autograph the back of their citizenship papers,
grateful to him that they were able to come to America.
“He stayed and signed every single one,” said David Mallach,
who had frequent contact with Lautenberg when Mallach directed the Community
Relations Committee of MetroWest in New Jersey. “For him, this was such a
powerful statement of what he was all about.”
Lautenberg, who died Monday morning at age 89, was the
oldest member of the Senate and the only one representing the World War II
generation. During his Senate tenure—he served twice, from 1983 to 2001 and
then again from 2003 until his death—he was responsible for numerous major
pieces of legislation, including one that outlawed cigarette smoking on
domestic flights and another that prohibits individuals who have been convicted
of domestic violence from possessing a firearm.
Click photo to download. Caption: Senator Frank Lautenberg with Yitzhak Rabin, former prime minister of Israel. Credit: Hillel News & Views.
But the signature piece of legislation that most resonates
in the Jewish community is the Lautenberg Amendment. Passed in 1989 and enacted
in 1990, that law allowed thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union to
immigrate to this country by permitting them to use historic religious
persecution to receive refugee status.
“I, and many of my Hillel colleagues who work on campuses
here in New York, bear witness every day the impact of the Lautenberg Amendment,”
Matt Vogel, executive director of Baruch College Hillel, last week told an
audience gathered in New York to honor Lautenberg with the Renaissance Award
from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
Lautenberg’s wife, Bonnie, told the gala that her
husband—too ill to attend—considered the amendment his “proudest achievement.”
“Without the amendment, hundreds of thousands of Jews would
not have been able to enter the United States,” said Mark Levin, the director
of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States
& Eurasia. “Without the amendment, the profile of the American Jewish community
would be very different—in terms of numbers, in terms of making the community
Click photo to download. Caption: Senator Frank Lautenberg with Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan. Credit: Hillel News & Views.
Levin said that Lautenberg saw that with the fall of the
communism, there was a rise in nationalism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. At
the same time, “the rate of denial for people coming to the United States was
skyrocketing,” Levin said.
Lautenberg recognized that he needed to do something to help
these refugees. “Something in his body just clicked; this was something he had
to do,” said Stephen M. Greenberg, a longtime friend as well as NCSJ chairman. He
said there was a …read more