Judaism’s Timeless Response to the Giffords Shooting


koselBy Yvette Alt Miller

“If you want something done, your best bet is to ask a Jewish woman to do it. Jewish women 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.”

So said an Arizona state senator, Gabrielle Giffords, when she was running for Congress in 2006. Ms. Giffords narrowly won, and became the first Jewishly identified representative from her state.

Rep. Giffords did not always consider herself Jewish. With a Christian mother and a Jewish father, Rep. Giffords began to identify herself as Jewish after a political visit to Israel ten years ago. It wasn’t always a popular move, particularly in the conservative southern Arizona district she represents. But her decision to be public about her Jewish identity speaks to Rep. Giffords’ commitment to Jewish causes.

(Rep. Giffords often speaks of her grandfather, Akiva Hornstein, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi, who moved from New York to Arizona and founded the successful tire business that Rep. Giffords later ran before her entry into politics. Mr. Hornstein changed his name to Giffords because of the persistent anti-Semitism he encountered in southern Arizona.)

In fact, one of Ms. Gifford’s first – and most significant – political acts after her life-changing trip to Israel was to sponsor a bill in the Arizona Senate eliminating the statute of limitations for collecting insurance claims by victims of the Holocaust and their heirs.

A gathering menace

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is a “Blue Dog Democrat”: a conservative Democrat in a Republican-leaning state. Obviously, not everyone agrees with the positions she holds and the votes she makes. In a kinder America, perhaps Rep. Giffords would still be whole. But over the past year, Rep. Giffords has been targeted with violence and with violent images for the positions she holds.

First there were protests outside Rep. Gifford’s office every Saturday.

Then came the office vandalism. Hours after she voted for the Health Care Reform Act on March 21, 2010, Rep. Gifford’s office door was smashed down and her office vandalized.

There were also death threats: Arizona police are now disclosing that Rep. Giffords had received threats of various natures for years.

Finally, there was the shooting. On January 7, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner walked up to Rep. Giffords at a political event and shot her through the brain, before turning the gun on the crowd and shooting 18 other people. Some news outlets have reported that Loughner, who expressed extremist political beliefs, was motivated in part by anti-Semitism.

Rep. Gifford’s prognosis is good but six people have been killed, including a 9-year-old girl.

A Jewish response

What can we say in the face of such tragedy? What can we as Jews do on behalf of a friend and supporter who is struggling for her life? So many of us feel powerless to help. Is there anything we can do?

Judaism provides us with a timeless formula for moments like this. As we say every Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, while God in His infinite wisdom maps out the course of our days, the three-fold formula of “tzedaka, prayer, and teshuva” have the power to sway our fates.

Teshuva means returning to our roots, and resolving to correct some flaw or behavior and do better. Today, resolve to take on one step toward spiritual growth in the merit of a speedy recovery of all those who were injured, and in honor of the memory of those who were slain.

Prayer taps into each person’s unique ability to speak with God. So often we forget about this awesome power that we have; a tragedy like this is a good chance to remind ourselves that we have the power to talk directly with God. One option is to say Psalms. A common psalm that is frequently recited in order to help a sick person is Psalm 20. Alternately, you can write your own prayer and have it placed in the Western Wall, the holy site of our ancient Temple in Jerusalem; many people feel that prayers placed in this location have even greater impact.

Tzedaka is the Jewish form of charity. Unlike the secular notion of “charity”, tzedaka is not optional: our Torah demands that we give a fixed portion of our income to support those less fortunate than us. Today, make a resolution to give a portion of money to charity in the name of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of her shooter.

A message from Gabrielle Giffords

Reflecting her concern for and activities on behalf of Holocaust survivors, Rep. Giffords sits on the board of the United States Holocaust Museum. A year ago, when a gunman opened fire at that museum, Rep. Giffords released the following statement:

The shooting at the United States Holocaust Museum is a tragedy for all Americans. It is a sad, compelling reminder that we must remain forever vigilant in combating hatred and intolerance.

The Holocaust Museum – a 10 minute walk from my Washington office – is dedicated to preserving the memory of one of the darkest chapters in human history. Its noble purpose is to make sure we never forget what happened when evil was allowed to go unchecked. Wednesday’s shooting tells us that the museum’s mission is as relevant as ever.

On behalf of the people of Southern Arizona, our prayers go out to the victims and their families.

Today, prayers go out to Rep. Giffords, the other victims and their families.



  1. While I applaud her position, deplore the attack upon her, and wish her a complete, speedy recovery, from what I heard Rep. Giffords is not Halachically Jewish because her (Jewish) father married a non-Jewish woman.

  2. She is not Jewish, nor is she the first “Jewishly identified” from AZ. Baron Morris Goldwasser aka Senator Barry Goldwater, just like Giffords, was a Christian who had a Jewish father.

  3. As a community, we must improve our way of dealing with “Jewishly identified” individuals.
    Halachically, not Jewish. But they identify with, and are frequently identified as, Jews.
    When the Torah observant community gets more wrapped-up about the status of a person rather than the violence done, I think we need to examine ourselves. No, I’m not advocating a change of halacha or seeking an accommodation with segments of the Jewish community that do not support halacha. I am concerned that we give the impression that we should not care about Rep Giffords because, al pi halacha, she is not a Jew. So many responses in some many forums pointing out “she’s not a Jew!” OK.
    But she was shot in the head! Where is our mida of rachamim? We also, IMO, come perilously close to Hilul HaShem when we publicly show our *apparent* disregard for the life of a non-Jew.