He launched crusades for safer conduct on the roads, rails and in the air. During his short absence from the Senate in 2001-02, the Secaucus Junction train station was named for him, honoring his work on expanding rail transportation in the eastern United States.
The last World War II veteran in Congress, Lautenberg also led passage of the “G.I. Bill for the 21st Century,” extending education benefits to veterans of the post-Sept. 11 wars.
Lautenberg was in Israel on Sept. 11 2001, on a federation mission that included a stop at a park in Rishon Letzion named for him. Upon learning of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, he used his pull as a former senator to secure spots on flights back to the United States, so the Jewish officials on the trip could attend to families affected by the attack.
“Because of him, we were able to make international flights back to the United States,” recalled Max Kleinman, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest in New Jersey.
In 2011, Lautenberg initiated a non-binding Senate resolution that recommended marking Sept. 11 with a moment of silence; it passed unanimously.
Despite his firebrand reputation, Lautenberg was avuncular in person. Jewish staffers on Capitol Hill called him “zayde,” Yiddish for “grandfather,” recalled Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of American Friends of Lubavitch. Lautenberg was a regular at holiday events, and if he noticed Jewish officials in the halls, he would stop and chat.
“He felt connected,” Shemtov said.
Lautenberg’s Jewishness and Americanism were wrapped one into the other, the NCSJ’s Greenberg recalled. Lautenberg was outraged in 1985 to learn that President Ronald Reagan was planning to mark the 40th anniversary of V.E. Day with a visit to Bitburg, a German military cemetery that included the remains of officers of the murderous SS, the Nazis’ elite military unit.
Jewish leaders were outspoken in their fury, but Lautenberg decided his protest would be personal. On May 4, 1985 – the day before the anniversary – Lautenberg toured Dachau with Greenberg and Morris Glass, a survivor of the camp. From there they went to Munich to pay tribute to the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics.
On May 5, the day Reagan was at Bitburg, the trio was at the massive U.S. military cemetery at Henri Chapelle in Belgium, where Lautenberg laid wreaths on the gravestones of three New Jersey soldiers – one Jew and two Christians.
“We were two Jewish boys from Paterson, N.J., doing their part when the president was going to the wrong place to honor the wrong people,” Greenberg said.