Local Jews who emigrated from the Soviet Union recall the senator's pivotal role in helping them come to the United States.
Marina Furman first heard of New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg in the 1980s, when she and her husband were refuseniks in the Soviet Union, fearing for their lives and prohibited from emigrating. Lautenberg wrote letters to Soviet officials, including former President Mikhail Gorbachev, on their behalf.
“It was a barrier between the KGB destroying us and just threatening us and harassing us,” said Furman, now regional director of the Jewish National Fund. “It showed the Soviet government that the American government was watching the situation very closely.”
Furman was among the many local Jews mourning Lautenberg’s passing on Monday as news spread that the oldest member of the U.S. Senate had died of viral pneumonia. He was 89.
Two far-reaching laws bear the name of the Democrat, who served a combined 30 years in the Senate in two separate stints.
The first Lautenberg Amendment passed in 1990 and facilitated the emigration of Soviet Jews. The law relaxed stringent standards for refugee status by granting immigrant status to those who could show religious persecution in their native lands.
Before the amendment’s passage, potential refugees needed to show a risk of imprisonment or death. After the change, refugees could show that their religion restricted their lives and careers in order to enter as legal immigrants.
The amendment led to the emigration of tens of thousands of Soviet Jews and also was extended to religious minorities in Iran, Vietnam, Burma and other countries.
The second Lautenberg Amendment, passed in 1996, bans the sale of guns to those convicted of domestic violence. Gun control was another of Lautenberg’s signature issues.
“It’s a huge loss. He’s done an incredible amount of work for Jews from the Soviet Union,” said Andre Krug, director of the Klein JCC, who came to the United States from the USSR in 1989. “He had a deep understanding of the Soviet Union and deep understanding of what Jews faced.”
During the darkest days of Soviet persecution, Furman said she never thought she’d have the chance to thank those who sought to help her and so many other Jews. But later on, she had several opportunities to express her gratitude to Lautenberg in person.
“When I described to him what he did, he had tears in his eyes,” she said. “Many, many refuseniks will take it as a personal loss, as the loss of a friend.”
Lautenberg, born to Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, was honored last week by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. He spent most of his life in northern New Jersey and was a successful businessman and Jewish communal lay leader before entering politics.
Robin Schatz, director of government affairs of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, called Lautenberg’s passing a “terrible loss — not just for New Jersey, but for everyone.”
Material from JTA was used in this report.