(photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
'Late bloomer' Frank Lautenberg learned the ropes of public service while working for Jewish organizations before being elected to five terms in the Senate. Along the way, he also established the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology at the Hebrew University Medical Faculty.
With a reputation for honesty, talent and activism, five-time New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg has twice in critical points in his career been called to fill in when someone was wrapped in scandal.
In 1974, when he was a member of the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors, it was disclosed during the agency assembly in Jerusalem that the agreed-upon candidate for general chairman of the United Jewish Appeal was involved in financial misdeeds. Desperate to find immediately a "clean" replacement, agency heads chose Lautenberg, then 50, to head the world's most important Jewish and pro-Israel fund-raising organization, a post he held for three years. The experience gave him a taste for public life and politics.
Then, in February 1999 - after being elected to the Senate in 1982, 1988 and 1994 - he announced that he would retire the following January. In fact, the day after leaving Washington, he realized he already missed it terribly and had made a "terrible mistake" by retiring at 75. His replacement, Robert "the Torch" Toricelli, served a single term. Toricelli was prevented from running for reelection after it was disclosed that he had been involved in a campaign finance scandal. Democratic Party leaders begged Lautenberg to come back; he ran for the fourth time and handily defeated his opponent, despite charges that he was "too old" at 78. But Lautenberg benefited from a warm endorsement from The New York Times then and in 2008. He was reelected for a fifth term last year.
Lautenberg is undoubtedly the only US senator who learned the ropes of public service from political machinations in the Jewish Agency and from American Jewish fund-raising.
HIS RECENT short visit to Israel, staying at Jerusalem's King David Hotel, was "something like" his 80th since the Six Day War (although he had not been here since 2004). Now 85 but alert, with an excellent memory and a quick gait, the senator recognized the Arab waiter who served him breakfast. "I know you!" he said. At first, the waiter teased him and declared that he had just been hired a few months before, but the senator insisted. Finally, the waiter admitted that he had been at the hotel since Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's visit in November 1977. "I was there then too," Lautenberg said, grinning.
I had interviewed him at the Jewish Agency assembly of June 1974. The headline given to the story was "The agency's 'late bloomers'" - which amused Lautenberg when he wondered why his "underwear" was mentioned. The senator confirmed that the attention he received due to the article was largely responsible for his choice as UJA chairman.
I had followed his 24-year-political career, but was also an observer of another Lautenberg project. Forty-one years ago, he established the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology at the Hebrew University Medical Faculty. He did so in memory of the Jerusalem-born rabbi, Shai Shacknai, who presided over Lautenberg's Reform synagogue in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, and died of cancer at 36, leaving a wife and two young children. Lautenberg was so upset over his passing that he endowed the Rabbi Shai Shacknai Prize awarded annually by the center to honor leading cancer researchers from abroad.
HE WAS born in Paterson to Mollie and Sam Lautenberg, poor Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland who were brought as babies to the US. His father worked at various jobs such as selling coal, farming, processing silk and even running a bar. But he died of cancer at 43, when Frank was 19.
He had no bar mitzva. His family couldn't afford synagogue membership, and also wandered from one home to another. His widowed mother worked very hard as a saleswoman in an insurance company to keep the family going.
After graduating from high school, Lautenberg served in the US Army Signal Corps in Antwerp during World War II. He would never have had a chance go to to college if the G.I. Bill hadn't entitled him to free higher education. He graduated from Columbia University's Business School in 1949 after majoring in economics. Soon after, he was hired by the Automatic Data Processing company - one of America's pioneers in providing computerized salary slips - as a salesman. He ended up as chairman and CEO of the multibillion-dollar firm, which at one point had 46,000 employees, and then was appointed executive commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, after which he ran successfully for the Senate. He has four children and 10 grandchildren from his first wife Lois, and his second wife Bonnie, whom he married eight years ago, has one grandchild.
LAUTENBERG IS today one of 13 Jews (culturally if not all halachically) among the 100 senators. Among his proudest achievements as a US legislator was to present a bill that prohibited smoking on domestic commercial airline flights; it later served as a model for similar legislation in other countries. He was a member of the President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism, which was established to investigate aviation security policy after the Pan Am flight 103 was sabotaged and crashed in 1988. He is the longest-serving senator from New Jersey in the history of the US and regarded as one of the Senate's most activist members. He backs gun control, opposes anti-abortion legislation, supports limits on alcohol consumption by young people, wants to close loopholes that permit the purchase of weapons by people classified as "dangerous terrorists," demands state services for AIDS patients and - of course - is an advocate for Israel.
As a Democrat, Lautenberg has to support President Barack Obama on most issues. He does on many, but he disagrees with Obama's current policy of linking US action against Iran with Israel's limitation of settlement activity. "I agree that each is a major problem deserving of attention, but one is not dependent on the other." Lautenberg says.
Israel deserves America's continued support, he insists, because it is a "humane democratic society, a bastion of decency and freedom. It is a vital asset for America. It deserves not only respect but support. It is a necessity for the US, a drop of sanity in the middle of so much madness."
EARLY IN his Washington career, he worried that he might have to face a situation in which America's position stood in bold contradiction to the good of Israel. "There have been occasional moments when relations were chilly, but [a confrontation between the two countries] has not been a problem."
He is sorry that Obama's image among Israelis has been negative so far and that polls have shown that only 31 percent perceive his views as pro-Israel. "Obama has many Jewish supporters in the US. Israelis' opinions about him are neither fair nor accurate. He has a different style than [former president George W.] Bush, who conducted a discredited presidency that was bad for world stability. A lack of world stability is not good for Israel. Obama has come to change the status quo and not to alienate the rest of the world from the US. To be a leader, you have to talk to other countries. We have to talk even to Iran."
While US government policy has consistently been for Israel to return to the pre-Six Day War lines, Lautenberg is sure that Israel "won't return to the '67 borders. They are insufficient to permit Israel to function. I can't predict what the map will look like. As for the old settlements, Israel captured the territories when it was attacked, and it won the war. It was entitled to build defenses to promote its security. Older settlements are a reality. But the newer settlements and outposts are counterproductive and threatening in a way that almost prevents discussions with the Palestinians."
Lautenberg met with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman during his short visit and also held meetings in Jericho and Ramallah in the Palestinian Authority. "Some accommodations with the Palestinians have to be made," he says.
But Lautenberg agrees with Obama that due to Palestinian demographics, the only solution to their conflict with Israel is the two-state solution. "If you look at Palestinian population growth in the territories, you can see that one day in the not-too-distant future, there will be a Palestinian majority. Israel must talk to people in the West Bank and offer them help with agriculture, education and the necessary structure for a functioning society when they get a state of their own."