At 36, Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has already piled up many claims to fame in her political career:

The third-generation Arizonan was the youngest woman ever elected to the state Senate, and then in November became the third Arizona woman ever to serve in Congress.

But one of her lesser-known distinctions is that she's the first Jewish congresswoman from Arizona and part of the largest-ever contingent of Jews to hold seats in the U.S. Congress.

While Jews comprise roughly 2 percent of the U.S. population, they're now at a record-high level of 8 percent in the 110th Congress, statistics provided by the National Jewish Democratic Council show.

Giffords, who attends Tucson's Congregation Chaverim, is one of six freshman Jewish members in the U.S. House of Representatives, and one of 30 Jews with House seats. Thirteen of the U.S. Senate's 100 seats are held by Jews.

"It's a reflection of more participation by the American Jewish community in politics," said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. "Fifty years ago, Jews didn't participate in politics. I don't know why. The Irish came to the U.S. in the 1840s and though they were discriminated against, they took to politics very quickly. Jewish-Americans did not to the same degree."

During the mid-20th century, Jews were more likely to work in the arts, entertainment, medicine, law, scrap-metal and retail industries, Forman said.

Such was the case with Giffords' grandfather, Akiba Hornstein, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi, who in the 1940s founded El Campo Tire after he moved to Southern Arizona from New York.

Hornstein, who had acquired the nickname of Gifford during elementary school, changed his name to "Gif Giffords" once he was in the desert, to protect himself from anti-Semitism. Gif and his wife, Ruth, were always committed Jews.

Among other things, Gif helped establish the Hillel Foundation, a Jewish student organization, at the University of Arizona.

Gif's son, 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.

One interesting note about Giffords' heritage is that her grandmother's side of the family — also Jewish — had the surname Paltrowitz, or some variation of that spelling, which later was changed to Paltrow.

Spencer Giffords was first-cousin of the late Bruce Paltrow — father of Gwyneth Paltrow — meaning Spencer's daughter and the Academy Award-winning actress are related, though they've never met.

Giffords made her second trip to Israel last month for a brief visit along with Republican Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl as part of the U.S. Congress-Israeli Knesset Interparliamentary Commission On National Security. She hopes to return this summer.

She recently told an audience at Tucson's Midtown Temple Emanu-El that America must remain committed to Israel because it is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East.

In the Arizona Jewish Post last year, Giffords wrote that until the Palestinian leadership and other hostile regimes are willing to accept Israel's right to exist, it will be impossible to achieve peace.

Giffords is not the first Jewish person from Arizona to serve in Congress. There have been at least two others — Democrat Sam Coppersmith served one term in the House from 1993 to 1995 and Republican Sam Steiger served in the House from 1967 to 1977, Forman said. Five-time U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, a Republican from Arizona, had Jewish roots, but was an Episcopalian.

The other Arizona women who have served in Congress also were Democrats — Isabella Selmes Greenway, a Protestant from Tucson, served from 1933 to 1937, and Karan English served from 1993 to 95. English, who is from Northern Arizona, has never publicly disclosed her faith but said Friday she is not Jewish.

Find more faith and values coverage at

Did you know …

Faiths of Arizona's congressional delegation:

Sen. John McCain: Episcopal

Sen. Jon Kyl: Presbyterian

Rep. Rick Renzi: Catholic

Rep. Trent Franks: Baptist

Rep. John B. Shadegg: Episcopal

Rep. Ed Pastor: Catholic

Rep. Harry Mitchell: Catholic

Rep. Jeff Flake: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Rep. Raúl Grijalva: Catholic

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords: Jewish

● Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or at