This weekend, tragedy unfolded when a gunman opened fire in front of a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz. Six people were killed and 14 others were wounded, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
Giffords was the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona state Senate, and then in 2007 became the third Arizona woman ever to serve in Congress. At that time, she also became Arizona’s first Jewish congresswoman. Raised in an interfaith family, Giffords didn’t always identify as Jewish.
[Giffords’ father], Spencer, married outside his faith. Gloria Giffords is a Christian Scientist. The couple say they always encouraged their children to learn about other religions.
“We were kind of neutral,” Spencer Gifford said. “We let them decide for themselves. That’s what Gabby did.”
When his daughter was a state senator in 2001, she traveled to Israel for the first time with the American Jewish Committee on a trip that turned out to be life-changing.
“It just cemented the fact that I wanted to spend more time with my own personal, spiritual growth. I felt very committed to Judaism,” she said. “Religion means different things to different people. It provides me with grounding, a better understanding of who I came from.”
Upon returning from Israel, Giffords introduced legislation, which became law, to help protect the claims of Arizonans seeking unpaid benefits under Holocaust-era insurance policies.
On a personal level, she made contact with Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of the Reform Jewish Congregation Chaverim in Tucson, and began a deeper exploration of both her faith and heritage. She already was technically considered Jewish since the Reform movement of Judaism says that the child of one Jewish parent, mother or father, is presumed to be Jewish. (Read more in a profile in the Arizona Daily Star of Giffords.)
We find more about Gifford’s Jewish heritage in the Forward:
Giffords’ Jewish roots run deep. As the Forward reported back in 2006, her paternal grandfather, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi, was born Akiba Hornstein. He changed his name, first to Gifford Hornstien and later to Gifford Giffords, apparently to shield himself from anti-Semitism out West.
“I was raised not to really talk about my religious beliefs,” Giffords said, in an interview with Jewish Woman magazine. “Going to Israel was an experience that made me realize there were lots of people out there who shared my beliefs and values and spoke about them openly.”
She is also among five members of Congress to serve on United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
We wish her an easy and fast recovery, while her husband says, “There is little that we can do but pray for those who are struggling,” Giffords included.
Our condolences go out to the families and friends of the victims: Christina Taylor Greene, 9; Dorothy Morris, 76; John Roll, 63, U.S. District Judge; Phyllis Scheck, 79; Dorwin Stoddard, 76; and Gabe Zimmerman, 30, director of community outreach for Giffords. May their memories be for blessing.