Frank Lautenberg, the oldest serving member of the United States Senate and a lay leader in Jewish organizations, passed away Monday at the age of 89.
Born in Paterson, New Jersey, to impoverished Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, Lautenberg worked at a young age and served oversees in World War II. He went on to become a successful businessman.
He represented New Jersey in the Senate from 1982 to 2001, and then again from 2003 until his death, Forward reported. He served in the 1970s as a top lay leader of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), the organization now known as the Jewish Federations of North America.
During that time, he came to Lubavitch Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, NY for a private audience “Yechidus” with the Rebbe. Their fascinating conversation, covering many areas in Jewish life and world affairs, was recorded on audio.
From the conversation, it is clear that the Rebbe was in the process of presenting to Mr. Lautenberg his approach in connection with emigration to Eretz Yisroel, a project supported in part by the United Jewish Appeal.
The Rebbe stated that it was a pity how the UJA was investing its efforts and resources in encouraging adult Jews to emigrate to Eretz Yisroel, when they have no economic or social involvement in the Jewish state. Therefore, it would be far preferable to concentrate upon the younger generation, which can adapt more easily to the new environment and the new language, and can even make a sizable contribution to the state through its natural talents.
The audiocassette begins with Mr. Lautenberg’s reply, stating that the United Jewish Appeal’s primary objective is the emigration of young people to Eretz Yisroel. Despite the fact that they speak about emigration with everyone in order not to discriminate, they place an emphasis upon young people.
The Rebbe was dissatisfied with his answer, and replied: “You invest many resources to bring all types of people to Eretz Yisroel.” Mr. Lautenberg responded: “Rebbe, you have said something most interesting…,” and here the audiocassette was cut off for a few minutes.
The following is a transcript of the conversation (with special thanks to Rabbis Kamenetzky and Dobry):
HOW TO REFUTE SADAT AND KING HUSSEIN
The Rebbe: You understand the difference – if you say that this is a Jewish government, a Jewish state, a Jewish country, or you provide the land for the Jews, or the government for the Jews, or a government that is run by Jews.
I’m talking about a Jewish government, a Jewish country. Eretz Yisroel is a Jewish country, and you can’t change that. This is the only basis by which you can refute [then-Egyptian President] Sadat and [then-King of Jordan] Hussein and all these people – to tell them that this is not a state for Jews, rather this is a Jewish country.
And this is the question – how you look at it…
Mr. Lautenberg: This is what I wanted to ask you. It’s not so clear to me, but we’ll talk about this another time.
HELP SOUTH VIETNAM. THE QUESTION IS HOW?
The Rebbe: In order to sharpen my point, I’ll give a drastic example that occurred a few days ago: Of course, you know about the afflictions and suffering of the people of South Vietnam. Now, one of the activities of HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society], and perhaps the United Jewish Appeal is help them settle in the United States.
Mr. Lautenberg: Right.
The Rebbe: I am not, G-d forbid, opposed to helping them get settled. I am only opposed to doing this as part of the activities of the United Jewish Appeal.
A Jew must, and people are expecting him from a Torah-Orthodox point of view, to help non-Jews make a living, so that the non-Jew will have his house, his home, etc. But he is not expected to do this in the framework of a yeshiva or a (Jewish) hospital. He is expected to do this in the framework of charity to non-Jews.
The United Jewish Appeal is expected to engage in Jewish activities. As a Jew, you are expected to help the South Vietnamese settle in the United States, but not in the framework of the United Jewish Appeal and without using UJA staff and equipment. For this purpose, you need to run a special organization or to use through a charitable organization of Jews, Christians, and Moslems that already exists, and not at the expense of your activities.
You only have twenty-four hours in a day; even the UJA has only twenty-four hours in a day. If you or the UJA or HIAS and the like, which were created specifically for Jewish needs – take these activities upon yourselves to help the South Vietnamese through this organization – this is something that is wrong to do, even from a political vantage point.
Mr. Lautenberg: Rebbe, this is not appropriate. I’m not familiar with all United Jewish Appeal activities, but specifically with this area, I am familiar. We receive money from the government for this purpose, because we are the only organization with experience in settling refugees. They asked us and we volunteered. But only a few people in our organization deal with this, and this is not something important in the organization, rather something small.
The Rebbe: I am not happy if it’s small… On the contrary: I am not happy that it’s small… What I’m claiming is that it must not be done in the same framework, not through the same organization.
Mr. Lautenberg: Rebbe, let me explain myself. When we are asked by the State Department of the United States Government to help – we can not refuse.
The Rebbe: G-d forbid! According to Shulchan Aruch, you can not refuse! From an Orthodox point of view, you can not refuse!
Mr. Lautenberg: When we received their request for assistance, we allotted the least that we could, without interfering with Jewish activities. This is all that we could do. We merely train government people on how to settle the refugees. Only a few people in the organization deal with this, and they merely teach the government people on how to do it.
The Rebbe: It doesn’t make me happy that they do so little. I’m not talking about this; I’m talking about something else. You print in the newspapers that HIAS takes upon itself to settle the South Vietnamese, and afterwards an organization of many young people came and said to me: If HIAS does it, we also do it.
If HIAS does the same thing, they should do so twice as much, but not in a HIAS role, rather HIAS sends trained people as its representatives to teach them, and they take an active part in these activities – but not as HIAS, rather as a joint organization of Jews, Moslems, and Christians.
Mr. Lautenberg: That’s it. There are many Jews, and many people from the State Department and other organizations.
The Rebbe: I’m talking about the results. It’s printed in the newspaper, and I have no reason to doubt it, that HIAS has accepted upon itself to settle a certain number of South Vietnamese in the United States.
As I said before, from an Orthodox point of view, people expect that someone as a Jew working in HIAS will also help non-Jews settle in the United States. When there are no non-Jews around who will do this – as a Jew, he must do this, even when the non-Jews don’t help him.
What I am saying is that you can’t take (the money from these activities) from the HIAS account, and also the same thing in connection with the United Jewish Appeal.
I’m not talking about this now, but this is only an example: Certain activities of the United Jewish Appeal can be done not in a UJA role, but as a Jewish collection. This can be done through someone who has no connection to Jews, Christians, non-Jews, or Moslems. Nevertheless, the Jewish collection gives money for this, and this is a good activity, but it should not be an activity of the United Jewish Appeal.
ON DRUG REHABILITATION
Mr. Lautenberg: For example….
The Rebbe: Drug addicts.
Mr. Lautenberg: You are apparently talking about the Jewish Federation of New York – they work with drug addicts, but not the United Jewish Appeal.
[But let me tell you a secret. How do you say ‘secret’ in Yiddish?]
The Rebbe: Sod…
Mr. Lautenberg: I am not from the Jewish Federation of New York, but they get a lot of money from the government. Among the budget conditions is that they must grant services to all types of people, even non-Jews, and therefore, many Jewish hospitals grant services even to non-Jews, as these are the conditions to receive funding. To say that I like it? No, I don’t like it!
The Rebbe: I do like it! But what I’m saying is that this does not have to be done at the expense of Jewish activities.
HELP ARABS THROUGH TAXES, NOT CONTRIBUTIONS
The Rebbe: What I told you in connection with drug addicts – I’m not talking about activities with drug addicts in the City of New York, rather about activities with drug addicts in Eretz Yisroel. Part of the money of the UJA Organization in Eretz Yisroel goes to Arabs, Christians and non-Jews.
Of course, the government of Eretz Yisroel must provide all things vital for all of its citizens, whether he is a Jew or an Arab, or a Moslem or even if he’s a Nazi. If he lives in Eretz Yisroel, they must provide him with police and medical services…
Mr. Lautenberg: But we don’t have to provide this to a Nazi…
The Rebbe: If he’s a citizen…
Mr. Lautenberg: But we don’t have give this to him.
The Rebbe: In any event, they do so.
I’m speaking about the fact that if they take the money from taxes paid by Israeli residents, they must spend it on all Israeli residents. This is the right thing to do.
But the United Jewish Appeal, whose money comes from a collection by Jews for Jews and for a Jewish purpose – has no possibility of spending it on anything else. This is not the right thing to do. Not because they don’t have to help Arabs – an Arab must be helped as an Israeli citizen, but they must help him from the money that comes from Israeli citizens, from the taxes that were paid by Jews or by Christians or Moslems.
Mr. Lautenberg: I don’t think that the United Jewish Appeal in Israel has a special support program for Arabs and Christians. We do give support to the universities, such as Hebrew University and Bar-Ilan. If they accept Arab students – we have no control over that.
For example, when we give money to build a building – if they put a number of Arabs in there, what can we say? I think that this is the right thing, but Rebbe, we have no program for Arabs, Moslems, or Christians in Israel. Our programs are solely designed to help Jews.
The Rebbe: If you are answering me in an official way – you are absolutely right. One hundred percent. This is not your job; you give money, and afterwards they can do according to their understanding.
Mr. Lautenberg: I am not a member of the Jewish Agency Committee.
The Rebbe: You can do much informally.
65,000 ARABS VS. 1,000 JEWS
The Rebbe: As I said before, I am not opposed to providing every citizen living in Eretz Yisroel with all that he needs. I am against maintaining Arabs in the Old City of Jerusalem! They maintain them through financial support in order to help them build neighborhoods in the Old City!
We’re not talking here, as I said before, about two Arab students among one hundred Jewish students in the university. In the Old City of Jerusalem, there are sixty-five thousand Arabs and five hundred or six hundred, maybe about one thousand Jews. That means that every dollar or every pound that is directed to the Old City of Jerusalem supplies the needs of 65,000 Arabs and 1,000 Jews. That means in proportion – 1:65, sixty-five give to Arabs, and one to Jews.
Officially, you can’t influence [then-Mayor of Yerushalayim] Teddy Kollek on how to distribute the money in Jerusalem, but unofficially, you can do something on the matter. What is more important – if Teddy Kollek will know that the United Jewish Appeal is interested that the Old City of Jerusalem will not be controlled by the Arabs by a proportion of 65 to 1, he will do something on the matter, since he is not an Arab. He is neutral, and not only is he neutral, he leans towards the Jewish side.
What is the reason that he doesn’t do so? Because of international law, because of Israeli law, he can not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, and faith, etc., etc., and this is correct. However, he can distribute the designated money according to the will of the donors. But until now, the United Jewish Appeal has not interfered with this distribution!
Mr. Lautenberg: We don’t interfere with the money that Israel collects for taxes from its citizens.
The Rebbe: I’m talking about this money (from the UJA)!
Mr. Lautenberg: This money doesn’t go to the Old City of Jerusalem; it does not go to Arabs.
The Rebbe: It generally goes to the Ministry of Housing or the Ministry of Education, part of which must go to support 65,000 Arabs. The government in Israel doesn’t know that the United Jewish Appeal is more interested in doing something in one direction as opposed to another.
If they were pro-Arab, you couldn’t have any influence over them. But they’re pro-Jewish! Yet, they’re restricted by the law, and they have no power on one side. On the other hand, they have tremendous power on the other. The foreign minister of Eretz Yisroel, if it’s [Abba] Eban or Yigal Allon – I am in contact with him every day, day and night, twenty-four hours a day. They have the Vatican on their shoulders, and they have the governments of the Gentiles, and they have the Arabs.
They must not discriminate, and as a result, if they try not to discriminate – as it happens in every case, they exaggerate! And the example that cries out the most is the Old City of Jerusalem!
So it is in Jerusalem in general, in Tel Aviv, everywhere, and particularly now in the occupied territories. They invest much money, not in order to (???), but to show an example to the whole world that they don’t discriminate, and as a result, they exaggerate.
As I said before, among themselves they are against this, but they’re afraid, because it will anger the Vatican, it will anger the Administration in Washington, and it will anger the Arabs. If they could reply that are under pressure from those who gave them the money – they would be happy to do so.
Mr. Lautenberg: Do you recommend that we say this to the government?
The Rebbe: Not officially. Don’t make a big deal out of this…
PRIORITY TO JEWS
Mr. Lautenberg: Next week, I will be in Israel. And if I tell them: Look, let the Arabs take responsibility for themselves, and we have to worry about the Jews. This is our responsibility. Do you think that this is a better approach?
The Rebbe: If you change the words. For if you say these words, you will be considered a chauvinist or a Neturei Karta’nik.
Mr. Lautenberg: You’re right…
The Rebbe: I’m talking about the manner of speech. (You should say) that you’re interested that they (the Arabs) should receive the payment from this money (only) after they tend to the needs of the Jewish people that we provide for them.
And this is not just from a diplomatic point of view, but also according to Shulchan Aruch. As I said before, it’s possible to make use of this money, but (only) after they provide the needs of the Jews.
Tell this to [then-Israeli Prime Minister] Rabin, or Yigal Allon or someone else. You are the chairman of the United Jewish Appeal. Approach people and tell them you collect the money for Jews, and you beg them and ask them, you don’t force them, G-d forbid. But you demand from them that with this money, they must take care of all the Jews in a just manner – adult Jews, young Jews, Jews at the age of standing up, etc., etc., and they can take the money that is left for the needs of everyone.
Mr. Lautenberg: As much influence as we have in Israel, it is difficult to come and say that Arabs should take care of themselves. If we say that we will take care of ourselves first, and afterwards we will do the best we can to help them – this is liable to make a stir. And if we have an uprising of 65,000 Arabs in the Old City, and how many thousands are there on the West Bank?…
The Rebbe: Much more.
Mr. Lautenberg: There are much more in Gaza, but not on the West Bank.
SPIRITUAL DIRECTION FROM THE SOUL
Mr. Lautenberg: Rebbe, you are more right than I am, and I hope that it will always remain so, since your direction is spiritual and it comes from the soul, and this eventually must be the salvation of the Jewish People. I come from another world, the world that says that we are not perfect. We have money, we have raised a lot of money, and we have to make sure that we can continue to raise this money. Perhaps we will eventually reach the same objective.
The Rebbe: We have time…
Mr. Lautenberg: No, there is no time, for you said that we only have twenty-four hours in a day. I run both a business and the United Jewish Appeal, both of which are full-time jobs. How do I manage with two full-time jobs in one day? I do it! Other people can’t do it, but Jews are a different type…
What we have to try to do is that I should gather the wisdom and information that you have, Rebbe, and I’ll learn from this experience what, in your opinion, I must improve and do better. But on the other hand, I hope that you understand that it’s impossible to carry out all the priorities simultaneously.
For example: When I see Jews from Russia trying to leave, let’s say first physically and afterwards spiritually, and you say that we must save a Jewish soul in North Carolina. I ask you, Rebbe, all things considered, what must we do first?
The Rebbe: The Jews of Russia.
IMMIGRATION FROM AMERICA
The Rebbe: What I said regarding emigration from the United States, Canada, and England…
Mr. Lautenberg: I agree with you one hundred percent. I am fifty-one years old, and since I have no special expertise (while I have a computer business, but I have no special expertise) that I can teach them to make Israel better – therefore, I stay here.
I’m not a big Zionist, and even many people with the United Jewish Appeal are not big Zionists. But if you ask me if there’s a chance that one of my four children will settle in Israel – I think so, and I would want that they should do so.
The Rebbe: If they can’t achieve more in Judaism in the United States.
Mr. Lautenberg: They can’t achieve more?
The Rebbe: They can achieve more living in the United States than living in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
Mr. Lautenberg: I agree with you in part.
LEARNING FROM COMPUTERS
The Rebbe: I am happy that you mentioned that you are in the computer business. This gives you a livelihood.
Mr. Lautenberg: (The Rebbe wants to know) what it is?
The Rebbe: I know what it is, but I’d be happy if you would emphasize it. The innovation of computers is not expressed in a result. The innovation is that something that takes two months, two weeks, or two hours in order to attain results – is now presented in one second. And this brings millions of dollars to this computer industry.
Why is this so important?
Mr. Lautenberg: Why is this so important? I’ll tell you why…
The Rebbe: Now apply the same thing with the United Jewish Appeal. You tell me that you will attain results in another two months, two weeks… That’s not the way they work in the computer business!
Mr. Lautenberg: Rebbe, you don’t understand what I’m saying.
Rebbe, I know that many people are waiting in line to come in to you, but I would like to raise a very complicated issue that we spoke about on our way here: Is the world today better because of all the innovations we have made in it, including the bombs and other things?
The Rebbe: If you will have tomorrow an order for computers – will you sell the computers or will you start a discussion on all this?…
Mr. Lautenberg: No, no, no. Of course I would sell… But not because of the money, rather since for me, this is a means to a goal. Today, my objective is not to earn money from my computer business, rather that this money helps me to do other things that I enjoy to do. I need to do something in life that will satisfy me more than money. I don’t enjoy making money; that’s not my pleasure. My enjoyment comes from my involvement in Judaism. I began learning about my past, and I am giving this over to my children. These are things more valuable in life than money, and my computer business constitutes a good means for this.
In the meantime, children from Israel are also learning with us, and afterwards they return to Israel with knowledge, through which they can make improvements there in agriculture, the defense systems, and develop industry to make the system more efficient. In general, it is my desire to use computers to run the United Jewish Appeal.
I understood what you said, and I hope that you understand what we are doing, since it wouldn’t be fair that your impression of the United Jewish Appeal would be that we assist directly and consistently to Arabs or Gentiles.
The Rebbe: You don’t get involved directly, but you don’t do what you can do directly. And if it can be done – it must be done.
START FOCUSING ON AMERICA
The Rebbe: Now I am more interested in your activities in the United States than your influence in Eretz Yisroel. As I said before, you can have an influence in Eretz Yisroel, but not directly, not officially, since they can not be certain of receiving all types of instructions, if you know the people in Eretz Yisroel.
In the United States, you are an American and you know the approach. You don’t need the help of a party or someone else; you can do it by yourself.
Mr. Lautenberg: I wanted to ask a question: Since I have an interest in Israel’s well-being, would I be doing a good service for Jews if I would get involved in the American government, if I would run for Congress or something similar? In my current position, I merely collect money for the United Jewish Appeal, and maybe I have a little influence. And if I would have position in the government, I could create more influence. What is your reply to such a question?
This is a decision that I should have made when I accepted the position with the United Jewish Appeal. I wasn’t looking for this, but I’m happy that I did it, since this is a very responsible and useful role. But, I was in a good situation for entering politics, and if Nixon wouldn’t have won, and [McGovern] had won, I would be in a very good position. Of course, I would do this in order to assist Jews, not to help myself. I make no money from this; I make my own money from my computer business.
1,900 YEARS OF PROOF
Mr. Lautenberg: What you said before, this is also quite correct. I believe that the good Jewish community here can be more of assistance to Israel in many ways, specifically when we remain here, we work here, and we develop here. This is a very strong feeling that I have.
Nevertheless, I would want that my children should make aliyah. If all four of them would emigrate, I wouldn’t be happy, because all of them would be far from me, but I would be very happy if one or two would emigrate and if other Jews here would take their positions. I think that if all of them would decide to remain here, then the 95% that you spoke about would benefit. It’s impossible to live in a non-Jewish environment and to expect that your children and grandchildren will hold on and observe Judaism.
The Rebbe: You have nineteen hundred years that prove the opposite!
Mr. Lautenberg: Nineteen hundred years?
The Rebbe: The Jewish nation has lived for the past nineteen hundred years in an atmosphere where the Jews were the minority, and they survived.
Mr. Lautenberg: Rebbe, if they would have given them like everyone else, how many would the Jewish People number today? Fifty million? Seventy million?
The Rebbe: This is my point – G-d took you out into freedom for forced separation, and that forced separation was the factor that helped the Jewish People to survive. Now, there is the possibility to do this willingly, and to survive this separation willingly. Do you understand my point?
Mr. Lautenberg: No, I’m sorry.
The Rebbe: The nineteen hundred years that the Jews survived as a nation was because they were forced to be separate from the Gentiles around them – in the ghettos. This was the factor that prevented them from assimilating and disappearing from the face of the earth.
Mr. Lautenberg: Only in certain places, excuse me, Rebbe. Not in Germany. In Germany, the Jews were already wandering in the direction of assimilation.
The Rebbe: Because the separation there was less by force.
Mr. Lautenberg: Correct.
The Rebbe: Now, in the United States, in this era, the forced separation has been removed. There are Jews who are happy about this, and they don’t do anything to create a separation between Jew and Gentile. If this cause will be removed, it will bring these results: total assimilation.
But you can make this cause willingly! Not by refraining from going to Times Square or going around with a yellow patch. You can be separate – not in business, but you can be separate in your daily conduct at home.
Now (I ask you): In your estimation, where is this separation more noticeable? In a Reform house or in a Conservative house?
Mr. Lautenberg: In a Reform house.
The Rebbe: More separation in a Reform house than in a Conservative house?…
Mr. Lautenberg: Oh, more separation? No, among Reform, it’s too light. Of course, this must be among the Conservative or Orthodox, since this is a way of life unto itself. I understand this, Rebbe.
TO TURN TO THE SOUL
The Rebbe (smiling): Now, I am also trying to raise money…and I said before: I’m also trying to turn to the soul. At the moment, I’m turning to you, not as the president of the United Jewish Appeal…
[At this point, there is a gap in the audio, resuming with the words] a Reform home or a Conservative home. And afterwards, a year from today, you’ll make from a Conservative home, Orthodox.
I’m telling you (smiling): I am not a diplomat, and I don’t go in this direction, G-d forbid – I won’t be satisfied if you’ll be Conservative.
If you try to go in this direction, you will have a great influence upon your children. If they see that you have changed in the coming days from Reform to Conservative, it will hasten them towards a new reckoning of the future of their lives. Now, they are only in the preparatory stages of their independent lives, and every thing, every small change in their attitude now can bring about a significant change in their future lives.
A person who after sixty years or seventy years (I’m after seventy) makes a change – this is a change that goes in the proper direction, and it’s a good change. It’s a good change in and of itself. But a change that is made at an age of maturity, this is a kind of seed, and a small change in a seed can change the whole tree and fruits, etc., in an extreme way. And if this small change is in the right direction – the fruits can be beautiful, magnificent, etc., etc.
With all the things that they say about children these days, they automatically and subconsciously copy their parents. And if they see that Mr. Lautenberg, who is a successful businessman, a successful social figure, a community activist, and nevertheless – he is not embarrassed to change his way of life, despite the fact that he is now past the age of fifty, and he lived fifty years according to a certain pattern, and yet he has the courage to take the challenge to make a new reckoning of the purpose of life, and not merely in philosophical terms, rather as a result, he has changed his way of life as of tomorrow morning to keep Shabbos, put on t’fillin – it will be a shock to your children, but it will be a good shock.
Mr. Lautenberg: It will be a shock for me as well…
The Rebbe: I am not afraid of your shock, because you are strong with two feet firmly on the ground… But for them, this can be a shock that will bring them to a drastic change in their ways, how to adjust their perception of life and their way of life – according to your expectations.
One of those present: Now he will have to begin learning the brochos, the language, and to read…
The Rebbe: He can do all this in English.
One of those present: All in English?
The Rebbe: Yes, in English. Every young man or young woman, who doesn’t understand Hebrew or Yiddish, does all this in English. It’s simply a pity on the lost time. I am not in favor of [the] Yiddish [language] in yeshivos. There are many yeshivos that are eager to force people to learn all types of subjects in Yiddish – Gemara, etc. I am not eager for this. They waste much time learning a new language, and after they have learned the language – they can’t speak it fluently and they think in English.
It’s a waste of time. As I said before, the building is burning, and this is not a normal time. To express this properly: This is an era of computers, and in a period of computers, you must have results in a second from now. This is the reason that they pay millions on computers.
ACHIEVED A GREAT DEAL, REBBE
One of those present: When was the last time you put on tefillin? Is it possible to put tefillin on here?
The Rebbe: Yes, but not at night. At night, it’s forbidden. But if you’ll permit me, I would be most happy to present him with a pair of tefillin. But you have to ask Mr. Adler (?) that he should show you how to put them on. And as I said before: Don’t be afraid to come to me again, maybe I’ll try to do something big…
I’ll be very happy (if you’ll change). As I said before, if you say that I have my ways of doing something, then look in the mirror tomorrow morning. If you see the same Lautenberg of yesterday – I didn’t achieve anything…
Mr. Lautenberg (with much emotion): You have achieved a great deal. Rebbe, thank you very much!
There are people waiting for you. I thank you that you granted us so much time. This was a wonderful opportunity.
The Rebbe: I hope that you will accept not only my time, but also a pair of tefillin.
(The Rebbe turned to one of those present and said:) It depends on you – don’t be embarrassed to impose yourself on Mr. Lautenberg to show him how to put on tefillin.
Mr. Lautenberg: I’ll do it!
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