There was an oft-heard catchphrase uttered by those involved in AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby that Naomi Lauter helped build from the ground up: “You can’t say no to Naomi.”
Lauter spent her life, including many years with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, getting people to say yes. Yes to making Israel safe and secure, yes to supporting the Jewish community, yes to repairing the world day by day.
Naomi Lauter died of congestive heart failure on Dec. 4 in San Francisco, the city where she was born and lived most of her life. She was 87, a mere eight years into retirement.
Family, friends, colleagues and admirers were devastated by the news. Among them, her neighbor, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who called Lauter “my cherished, close friend and an inspiring force in our community for civil rights, justice and meeting the needs of all people. As a pillar of the San Francisco Jewish community, she worked tirelessly to uphold and enhance the strong U.S.-Israel relationship not just in California but around the country.”
Lauter served AIPAC for more than half a century, starting as the organization’s chief volunteer recruiter in the 1950s, going on to open AIPAC’s Bay Area office in 1983 and serving as regional director (its first), and, approaching her 70s, becoming a consultant in the late 1990s.
She also played a pivotal role in establishing the San Francisco Holocaust Memorial near the Palace of the Legion of Honor, helped launch services for the Bay Area’s Holocaust survivor population and co-founded the New Israel Fund.
Remembered former JCRC executive director Doug Kahn, “Naomi was a real life superwoman who simultaneously (and with the support of her beloved Bob) raised a large and loving family, fought for the causes about which she was passionate – civil rights, quality public education, strong Israel-American relations, and Holocaust remembrance, and politically engaged and mentored thousands of pro-Israel activists. Her ability to take over a room reminded me of the famous E.F. Hutton commercial where you can hear a pin drop and everyone stops to listen when someone says, “My broker’s E.F. Hutton and E.F. Hutton says….” That was Naomi in action and I felt privileged to see it first hand. Many will carry on her work because she was such an effective teacher – and that is her remarkable legacy. And, at the same time, this force of nature will be greatly missed.”
Everyone who knew her understood that Lauter’s top priority was always her family, including husband Robert, who died in 2012, her four children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“There was nothing that came before family,” said her son, Sam Lauter, a San Francisco political consultant. “Nothing. Which was actually remarkable [given] how she was able to make that the obvious priority while still accomplishing everything she did.”
Naomi Ets-Hokin was born in San Francisco to a father who ran an electrical engineering firm and sat on numerous Jewish communal boards and a Hungarian-born mother who volunteered for Hadassah. There were nightly discussions at the kitchen table. “There was never a night we didn’t go to the Encyclopedia Britannica,” she told J. in a 2010 interview.
While a student at Lowell High School, she met Robert Lauter on a blind date. Before long she joined him at UC Berkeley. The two eventually wed and were married for 61 years.
I.L. (Si) Kenen, who in 1951 founded the agency that later became AIPAC, recruited Lauter to expand the organization’s volunteer base, and she remained one of its most active volunteers for decades. In 1983, she opened AIPAC’s Bay Area office, and after 16 years there she became the organization’s community consultant, traveling the country to train AIPAC staff. She visited Israel more than 35 times.
“She had this very sweet, angelic face,” said Amy Friedkin, a former AIPAC president and board chair who came up through the organization under Lauter’s guidance. “She looked like your favorite bubbe, but she was tough. We use the term ‘mentor’ a lot, but it was really true in her case. She really taught us so much.”
Reflecting on those years, she once told J. it had been a pleasure to meet people “who love Israel the way I do.”
In addition to her Jewish community activities, she became involved with the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, volunteering with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later working to desegregate San Francisco schools.
Sam Lauter said growing up in the Lauter home, it was impossible not to be influenced by the spirit of volunteerism.
“It was all about repairing the world,” he said. “It was who we were as a family, who our mom and dad were. It was just second nature.”
In 2010, Lauter stepped back from the daily grind of her AIPAC duties, but she remained fully engaged with politics, the Jewish community and her growing family.
In fact, grandmothering zoomed to the top of her favorite activities. “No surprise, they loved her immensely,” Sam Lauter said of the grandchildren. “They felt the same way her kids felt, that she is this amazing leader, but to us she’s just grandma. Nothing made her happier.”
In recent years, Lauter faced health issues, but maintained her passion for life to the end.
“I never knew anyone who combined such humility, ability and accomplishment,” said her son. “Not a single person.”
Naomi Lauter is survived by children, David, Jonathan, Sarah and Sam Lauter; daughters-in-law Liz, Deborah and Stephanie Lauter; 10 grandchildren and four great-granddaughters. Donations may be directed to AIPAC or S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services.