Shooting leaves Tucson Jewish community in shock

The event was typical Gabrielle Giffords: no barriers, all comers — Democrats, Republicans and independents welcome to talk about what was on their minds and in their hearts.

At her first “Congress on Your Corner” event since being re-elected in November, the Democratic member of the House was in a conversation with an older couple about health care — with some 25 to 30 other people waiting in line to speak to her — when a gunman strode up and shot her point blank in the head.

The critical wounding Jan. 8 of Giffords and the slaughter of six people standing nearby, outside a Safeway in Tucson, Ariz., brought to a screeching halt the easy, open ambience that typified Giffords’ politics, friends and associates said.

“She’s a warm person,” Stuart Mellan, the president of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, said as he walked away from a prayer service Jan. 9 at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson, one of the southeastern Arizona cities that Giffords represents in Congress. “Everyone called her Gabby, and she would give a hug and remember your name.”

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords speaks to a Chicago Jewish group in Washington, D.C. photo/jta/robert a. cumins

Giffords was the president of the tire company founded by her grandfather when she went into state politics. She switched her registration from Republican to Democrat, and in 2001, at age 30, she was elected to the Arizona Legislature.

She gained prominence quickly in that body and in 2006, at 36, she became the first Jewish woman elected to Congress from her state.

At the same time, her Judaism was becoming more central to her identity. The turning point came in 2001 following a tour of Israel with the American Jewish Committee, she told the Arizona Star in 2007.

“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.”

Her wedding to Cmdr. Mark Kelly, an astronaut, was written up in the New York Times. The item noted that a mariachi band played Jewish music and there were two canopies — a traditional Jewish chuppah, and one of swords held up by Kelly’s Navy buddies.

Giffords’ recovery from a gunshot wound to the head was going as anticipated as of Jan. 12, said Dr. Peter Rhee, a trauma chief at University Medical Center. Giffords, 40, became more responsive Jan. 12 as she came off heavy medication, Rhee added, noting that her condition was stable and had not taken any dips.

Victims who perished in the attack were U.S. District Judge John M. Roll, 63; Christina Taylor Green, 9; Giffords staffer Gabe Zimmerman, 30; Phyllis Schenk, 79; Dorothy Morris, 76; and Dorwan Stoddard, 76.

Five federal charges, including the murders of Roll and Zimmerman, were filed against Jared Lee Loughner in Phoenix on Jan. 9. Loughner also is charged with attempting to assassinate Giffords and to kill two other members of her staff, Ron Barber and Pam Simon, and he is expected to face additional state murder charges.

Loughner, 22, was denied bail when he appeared in a federal courtroom Jan. 10 to face the charges.

“It’s shocking something like this would happen in our town,” said Rodney Glassman, former Democratic Senate candidate. “Gabby and I shared a really strong enjoyment of being out with constituents. This hits really close to home.”

Tucson’s Congregation Chaverim, where Giffords is a member, held a healing service the morning after the shootings, with more than 150 people attending. Six Tucson Police Department cars were on the scene with officers providing security.

“Envision Gabby in her fullness with her radiant smile,” Rabbi Stephanie Aaron told those at the service.

Cantorial soloist Lori Sumberg led the congregation in a song of healing, saying that “when we have no more words we let music take us to a different place.” Congregants also stood and named shooting victims or family members to be sent healing prayers.

As part of the service, Melanie Nelson of the Pima County Interfaith Council spoke, noting Giffords’ support of the organization.

“We must heal the divisiveness in this country,” she said. “Gabby’s always been a fighter and it’s up to us to continue fighting for a different level of conversation.”

A huge memorial service was to be held Jan. 12 in the University of Arizona’s basketball arena, with President Barack Obama and other dignitaries, including House Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D–San Francisco), slated to attend. Earlier that day, the university’s Religious Council held a memorial and prayer on campus; Hillel was one of the participating religious groups.

Giffords’ father is Jewish and her mother is a Christian Scientist, and she was raised in both faiths. Her grandfather, Akiba Hornstein, changed his name to Giffords after moving from New York to Arizona, in part because he did not want his Jewishness to be an issue in unfamiliar territory.

The women on her father’s side of the family seemed to guide her toward identifying with Judaism, she noted in an interview with JTA several years ago.

Giffords, who Jan. 5 took the oath of office for her third term in Congress, has pushed Jewish and pro-Israel issues to the forefront at the state and federal levels. She initiated an Arizona law facilitating Holocaust-era insurance claims for survivors, and in Congress she led an effort to keep Iran from obtaining parts for combat aircraft.

She didn’t stint in seeking Jewish and pro-Israel funding. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), the premier pro-Israel lawmaker in Congress, fundraised for her, as did Steve Rabinowitz, the Washington public relations maven whose shop represents a slate of Jewish groups.

“She was so haimishe, so down to earth,” Rabinowitz, himself from Tucson, recalled of his fundraiser last spring.

Almost as soon as she was elected to the state legislature, Giffords was enmeshed in Arizona’s signature issue — rights for undocumented immigrants — according to Josh Protas, who directed the Tucson-area Jewish Community Relations Council for years before moving to Washington in 2009 to direct the D.C. office of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Protas recalled meeting with Giffords as part of the area faith coalition promoting immigrant rights.

“We met with her around immigration issues and she was sensitive to the faith community’s concerns,” he said.

“Understanding the complexities of the immigration situation was something important to her,” he added, saying it came from “a sense of the Jewish value around how we treat the stranger, a history of the Jewish community — but she had recognition of the strong need for security.”

It was a posture that led Giffords to hit both the state and federal governments last year: She blasted the Obama administration for not doing enough to secure the border, but also slammed as repressive a new Arizona law that allowed police to arrest undocumented immigrants during routine stops.

“She was very moderate in her views and willing to meet with folks on all sides,” Protas said. “She took a lot of heat particularly the last couple of years from both the far right and the far left.”

Despite representing a swing district, she survived the Republican wave in November. And just three days before the shooting she was back in Washington —  with one hand up and one hand on the Jewish Bible, grinning at her swearing-in at the Capitol. ­

Sheila Wilensky is the assistant editor of the Arizona Jewish Post in Tucson. Ron Kampeas is a reporter for JTA. AJP executive editor Phyllis Braun and the Associated Press also contributed to this report.


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