The senator, the first Jew ever elected to statewide office in New Jersey, was warmly introduced as a strong friend of Israel and supporter of other Jewish causes.
But Lautenberg was also asked to explain his reasons for joining 29 other senators recently in signing a letter to Secretary of State George P. Shultz that expressed dismay that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had rejected the idea of giving up occupied territory in exchange for peace.
Such an exchange - as part of a "land for peace" approach - is a cornerstone of Shultz's most recent peace proposal, and has been a basic part of U.S. policy since Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza strip in the 1967 Mideast war.
"If there are differences," Mendy Ganchrow, the national chairman of the Political Action Advisory Commission of the Orthodox Union, told Lautenberg yesterday, "it is a disagreement within members of a family."
Nevertheless, there was an air of tension at times as a few members of the audience of about 175 angrily challenged Lautenberg. One accused him of pursuing a policy of appeasement to the Arabs. Others criticized him for taking his criticism of Shamir public.
"This is a trying time for Israel," said Ganchrow as he introduced Lautenberg. "The daily distortions portrayed by TV must not confuse and overshadow the long-term issues of Israeli security. Nor should the American Jewish community allow itself to be divided. We do not believe it is in the best interest of U.S.-Israel relations to openly criticize any faction of the Israeli government, or to take sides in an internal political debate."
Defending himself, Lautenberg told the crowd that he had signed the letter
because he believed that it would help move along the Mideast peace process.
"I didn't say, 'Return all the territories,' " Lautenberg said. "I said, territories, as such, should be considered" in any peace effort.
A former chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, Lautenberg delivered an impassioned defense of his own commitment to Israel, and at one point, angrily told a critic:
"You're not talking to someone who is detached, who doesn't understand, who doesn't have friends who have died in the wars. . . . You're not the only one who is the custodian of the Jewish people. That's my family, as well."
While Lautenberg did not appear to convince the group that he was right to have signed the letter, the applause for him at the end suggested that most were not ready to abandon their support for him and his re-election effort.
One member of the audience, Harry Levinson, a lawyer from nearby Rockland County, N.Y., told Lautenberg that he believed the letter had been a ''terrible error in judgment."
But to much applause from the crowd, Levinson added: "We're all one family. We've had an argument, husband and wife. But I'm not ready yet to call the divorce lawyers. . . . I feel Sen. Lautenberg has been a friend, he has been a proven friend. . . . You're still a member of our family."