Fond farewell to the Lion of the Senate

Like so many others the world over, we mourn the loss of Sen. Edward Kennedy, who died of a brain tumor this week at age 77. He was a political giant, and a champion for the underdog.

In addition to his countless accomplishments in the Senate, Kennedy was also a great friend to Israel and the Jewish people. He championed foreign aid to Israel throughout his career, and even backed recognizing Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel.

Israeli leaders from President Shimon Peres to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have expressed their heartfelt condolences.

Before the Soviet Jewry movement captured the conscience of the world, Kennedy took a leading role. He was one of the first Western politicians to meet with refuseniks, and he never met with Soviet officials without demanding the freedom of Soviet Jews.

For all that, we Jews owe him our thanks.

All Americans, too, owe him thanks. Where to begin? How about at the beginning of his Senate career, when he wrote and passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended America’s racist quota system.

This son of privilege went on to champion minorities, women, workers and the poor. He fought for public education, civil rights, voting rights, fair housing and a clean environment, becoming known as the “Lion of the Senate.”

Over his 46-year career in the Senate, there was probably no piece of progressive legislation Kennedy didn’t help craft. He counted among his closest allies liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. He would work with anyone to get the job done for the American people.

Then there is health care, his signature issue. In 1997, he spearheaded the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers millions of children from low-income homes.

In recent years, nothing meant more to Kennedy than passing health care reform, something that might be harder to pass without him. It is up to the current Congress, the administration and us to make Kennedy’s great passion his greatest legacy.

Recently, we spoke out in favor of health care reform with a robust public health insurance option. Despite the media melodrama, we hope this long overdue legislation will pass. Let it be named for Kennedy, who fought to the very end to make it a reality.

Indeed, he had a tumultuous, at times profligate, private life. But as a mature adult, Kennedy devoted himself completely to family and country. He served both well.

Rest in peace, Sen. Edward Kennedy.

May his memory be for a blessing.