December 22, 2011
By Sheila Wilensky, AJP Assistant Editor
Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Tucson’s Congregation Chaverim has plenty of “Gabby moments” on her mind these days. Aaron, who has been Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ rabbi for a decade, will never forget the sight of Giffords lying gravely wounded at the University Medical Center when Aaron visited her on Jan. 8, around 8:30 p.m.
That morning, at Giffords’ first Congress on the Corner event, following the swearing-in for her second term on Jan. 6, a lone gunman opened fire on constituents meeting with her in front of a Safeway in northwest Tucson. Giffords was shot in the head, miraculously survived, and is continuing to recover in Houston, where she spent five months as an in-patient at TIRR Memorial Hermann (The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research) and is now an out-patient, commuting from the nearby home of her husband, Mark Kelly. Twelve others were wounded and six people were killed in the Jan. 8 shooting rampage.
On that day, “I was trying to be a pillar for her, along with members of her staff, who were pillars for each other,” Aaron told the AJP. Kelly went into Giffords’ UMC room with Aaron, who chanted the Mishebeirach prayer for healing. Then Aaron invoked the bedtime Shemah prayer: “I called in the angels of Jewish tradition to form a protective shield surrounding her,” she says. She called in the angel Gavriela — which is Giffords’ Hebrew name, meaning “the strength of G-d” — to stand on her left. “On my right was the angel Michael, standing for compassion,” says Aaron. She asked Giffords’ mother, Gloria, to touch Giffords’ left side, and Kelly to touch her right.
“It was very powerful and reassuring. There was no question that we were standing there in the presence of G-d, and that Gabby would return to being Gabby,” says Aaron, who recited the same prayer at Giffords’ bedside nearly every day for the next two weeks.
The day before Giffords left for rehabilitation at TIRR in Houston, Aaron added the Hebrew name Chaya, or life, to her Hebrew name Gavriela. The last time Aaron saw Giffords was in April in Houston. “We were sitting face to face, chanting the bedtime Shema, calling in the angels in God’s presence,” she says. “She was with me in the melody of the prayer. There was a deep connection. I had no question that she was [the same] Gabby.”
On Sept. 9, 2010, Giffords stood with Aaron and more than 300 Chaverim congregants on Mount Lemmon for a Rosh Hashanah service. Karla Ember, Chaverim’s cantorial soloist, had been brutally attacked by a former boyfriend and died the morning of Sept. 8, Erev Rosh Hashanah.
At the service, “I’m standing on Mount Lemmon for one brief meditative moment, trying to summon my courage,” recalls Aaron, tearfully. “Honestly, the next thing I knew Gabby was standing in front of me, putting her hands on my shoulders, saying, ‘You are one of the strongest women I know. You will be strong for this community.’”
What’s so interesting, says the rabbi, “is that she focused me on my strength. But I looked at her and said, ‘You are the strong woman,’ and this was four months before she was shot. This was a Gabby moment for me.
“When she gave me that blessing I felt very fragile at that moment,” says Aaron. “Would I be able to carry the community through that tragedy, this great loss?” She turned to the expression chazak chazak v’nitchazek, or “strength to strength, may we go in strength” then, and during this past year. “The inner anguish I’ve felt with all of this I’ve expressed with my rabbinic friends,” she says. “I have to hold the community and give hope. I have to lead prayers of healing. I believe in the power of praying and I also believe that when people can connect to those ancient words, it allows us to become deeply connected to G-d, to one another and the person we’re praying for,” says Aaron. “We ask for refuah sh’leimah, complete healing of the body and soul. When you hear yourself chanting those words, it allows you to quiet your worry. Your angst, your fears can be quieted — and held by the much bigger universe than we small humans.”
Since April, “I’ve been taking care of things that need to be done in Tucson in Gabby’s name, being her representative,” says Aaron. She presided over the ribbon cutting for the recently opened Gabrielle Giffords Assistance Center at the Tucson Community Food Bank, and also accepted Tucson Hebrew Academy’s Tikkun Olam Award for Giffords at THA’s fundraising dinner in November.
Suzi Hileman was another member of the Tucson Jewish community wounded on Jan. 8. Hileman’s 9-year-old friend and neighbor Christina-Taylor Green was the youngest to die in the shooting. Hileman is recovering after being shot three times, now walking but with a severe limp. She told the AJP that she’ll never fully recover from Christina’s death. “Thanksgiving was hard,” says Hileman, recalling spending the holiday with the Green family in 2010, when Christina set the table. “I can see her standing there with her hands on her hips, smiling, telling me not to be sad,” she says.
“There’s nothing we can do to fill the holes in our hearts,” adds Hileman, noting that Christina’s father, John Green, “tells everyone that Christina wouldn’t want us to be sad.” He also frequently says, “Don’t underestimate the impact that one little girl can have,” Hileman told the AJP. For example, Christina was the only girl playing baseball on the Canyon Del Oro Little League team in 2010; now more girls are involved.
Hileman has started a mentoring program, GRIN (grandparentsinresidence.com) in local schools. “People were surprised at my relationship with Christina,” she says. She formed GRIN, a 501 (c) (3), for retirees to become involved, “especially in a place like Tucson where there are so many educated [older] people, to harness the energy of people like me, being an adopted grandmother. Having been transplanted, how can we share the love?”
Even watching movies with a child is a way to get involved. Hileman is currently having an “Elizabeth Taylor movie festival” with the 13-year-old daughter of a friend. “She had never seen ‘National Velvet.’ Anybody can do this,” she says.
Although Hileman “gained entry to the schools through a horrible set of circumstances,” she says, her new program will open the way for others. “It’s impossible [for me] to be sad when 28 kids throw their arms around me and give me hugs. Having kids in my life helps me heal.”
Hileman was planning to walk with her husband, Bill, and other family members and friends on Jan. 7, the day before the anniversary of the shooting. But her plan has expanded to a “Stroll & Roll” in memory of Christina. “Grab someone who needs a smile, someone who makes you smile,” says Hileman, “and bring them along … to walk, ride a bike, push a stroller, be pushed in a wheelchair … and be together” at the CDO Christina-Taylor Green Memorial River Park” from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
Getting over the first anniversary of the shootings, Hileman hopes “to move on to focus on other projects,” she told the AJP. (See azjewishpost.com/?p=11576, Feb. 22, 2011.)
As for Aaron, “I still have that pain in my heart,” she says, “but I’m in a prayerful, hopeful place. My hope for Gabby is that she returns to Congress; G-d willing that she can be in the [U.S.] Senate. I’ll hold that vision until such time that she says otherwise.”
For more commemorative Jan. 8 community events, see rememberingjanuary8.org and “Beyond Tucson: Commemorate, Celebrate, Commit” at beyond-tucson.org. On Saturday, Jan. 7, Beyond will hold a day of mostly outdoor events, including a project to create a garden of metal flowers led by Jewish community artist Tidi Ozeri. Beyond is the inaugural event of the Tucson Trails Tribute Fund, spearheaded by the family of Gabe Zimmerman, Giffords’ director of community outreach, who was killed on Jan. 8.