One detail popping up in many of the profiles of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to appear since she was shot on Saturday is that the congresswoman has increasingly come to define herself as a Jew.
Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006, Giffords was the first Jewish woman from Arizona to serve in Congress. The JTA reports that Giffords made her Jewish background part of her House campaign, which saw her win in a traditionally Republican district:
“If you want something done, your best bet is to ask a Jewish woman to do it,” said Giffords, a former state senator, said at the time. “Jewish women – by our tradition and by the way we were raised – have an ability to cut through all the reasons why something should, shouldn’t or can’t be done and pull people together to be successful.”
Giffords had not always identified strongly as a Jew.
According to a 2007 story in the Arizona Daily Star, she was raised in a mixed-religion home, with a Jewish father and a Christian Scientist mother. Her father explained his and his wife’s approach to their children’s religious formation: “We were kind of neutral. We let them decide for themselves. That’s what Gabby did.”
The Star reported that Giffords’ first visit to Israel came in 2001, on a trip sponsored by the American Jewish Committee while she was serving in the Arizona State Senate:
“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.
Giffords’ grandfather, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi, had changed his name from Akiba Hornstein to Gif Giffords over concerns about anti-Semitism, the Star reported. Gif Giffords had helped to found the Hillel Foundation, a Jewish group, at the University of Arizona.
Gif Giffords’ son married a Christian Scientist, but Rep. Giffords has made increasingly clear that she has come to identify as a Jew.
Her 2010 campaign web site says she is a member of Tucson’s Congregation Chaverim, a reform synagogue, and that she was recently appointed one of five congressional members to serve on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor