It remains unknown what motivated suspect Jared Loughner's alleged assassination attempt that left six dead and Gifford "holding her own" in a critical care unit at a Tucson, Ariz., hospital. But even if anti-Semitism is found to have played a role, those who know the lawmaker say she would never have denied such an integral part of her identity.
"A lot of people in Tucson didn't know the family was Jewish," said Steve Rabinowitz, a public relations executive who represents Jewish groups and who knew the Giffords family when he was growing up there. "It's now a huge ethnic identifier for her and clearly not for the political value because in Tucson and in Arizona, it can cut both ways."
Jewish media immediately picked up on clues that Loughner may have hated Jews, most notably his listing Hitler's "Mein Kampf" among his favorite reads, USA Today religion writer Cathy Lynn Grossman noted. There are reports investigators are looking into a possible link between the shooter and a white supremacist group with alleged anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant views.
Did Loughner know -- or care -- that Giffords was the first Jewish congresswoman from Arizona? Or that one of the aides he is charged with killing, Gabe Zimmerman, was also Jewish?
Some white supremacist websites are reporting that Loughner and his family are Jewish, and that his mother, Amy, attends a Reform synagogue. A woman who answered the phone at Giffords' synagogue, Congregation Chaverim, told AOL News that staff had been told not to talk about it, but said, "We have no proof that they were ever members."
The relevance of Giffords' religion in the shooting remains unclear, but the tragedy has focused attention on a part of her life that was central to who she was.
On Sunday, friends and congregants packed Congregation Chaverim for a healing service for Giffords and other victims. Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, a friend and spiritual adviser who married Giffords and her husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, in 2007, said the Jewish idea of tikkun olam -- healing the world -- motivated the congresswoman.
"In Jewish practice, we have an idea of repairing the world," Aaron said, adding that Giffords "was very active in doing that work and being a pursuer of justice."
Giffords was sworn in three days before the shooting with her hand on a Jewish Bible. She is one of 39 Jews serving in Congress, making up 7.3 percent of lawmakers, compared with 1.7 percent of Americans. The next day, during the House reading of the Constitution, it fell to her to read the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion.
"If you want something done, your best bet is to ask a Jewish woman to do it," Giffords said after she was elected to Congress in 2006 by way of explaining why she was right for the job. "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."
The congresswoman cares deeply about "Yiddishkeit," Rabinowitz told AOL News in a phone interview. He said that after hosting a fundraiser for her last spring at his home in Washington, she sat at his kitchen table for two hours talking about everything from being raised with two religions to embracing her Jewish heritage after a trip to Israel in 2001.
Giffords' mother is a Christian Scientist and her father is Jewish.
Jewish law is open to interpretation and some of Giffords' more Orthodox co-religionists don't consider her technically Jewish. That's because traditional Judaism considers only those with a Jewish mother or who have gone through a rigorous conversion to be Jewish. Another famous Arizonan, Sen. Barry Goldwater, was Jewish on his immigrant grandfather Goldwasser's side but was raised Episcopalian by his mother.
In the Reform movement, which Giffords counts as her own, a child is Jewish if the mother or the father is Jewish and he or she is brought up in the faith.
According to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Giffords' grandfather was born Akiba Hornstein and was the son of a Lithuanian rabbi. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who through her father, director Bruce Paltrow, is descended from a long line of prominent Eastern European rabbis, is a cousin.
Hornstein moved to Tucson from New York in the 1940s and changed his name. It was as Giff Giffords that he founded El Campo Tire Warehouses, an automotive chain that advertises often on Tucson TV and that Gabrielle Giffords ran before going into politics.
Giffords was raised in the faiths of both her parents but embraced Judaism exclusively after visiting Israel for the first time as a state senator in 2001.
Rabinowitz said visiting Israel is standard for politicians seeking credibility with Jewish voters, but for Giffords it was much more than a talking point. "As for so many Jews, it is a piece of her identity," he said.
When she returned, Giffords not only spoke out as a strong supporter of Israel but got involved in issues important to Tucson's Jewish community. She introduced a bill to help Holocaust survivors living in Arizona. She joined Hadassah, the Jewish women's organization, and served on the Arizona Regional Board of the Anti-Defamation League.
"My Jewish heritage has really instilled in me the importance of education and caring for the community," she told The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix in 2006. "I consider myself Jewish without any equivocation."
Her religious beliefs inform Giffords' position on the controversial and close-to-home issue of immigration, those who know her say. As the representative from the 8th Congressional District along the border with Mexico, she opposed Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants and defended their rights. But she also spoke out against boycotts of the state and in favor of more border guards.
Rabinowitz said her views were very much in line with the vast majority of American Jews whose families came to America around the turn of the last century and identified with the Italian and Irish immigrants of the time and now have "the same ethos" for Hispanic, Asian and African newcomers today.
"We are all fairly recent immigrants who for the most part made it and want to make sure newer immigrants have the same opportunities. This is a defining issue for Jews," he said. "She was with that as much as an Arizona politician could realistically be in a swing district."
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