In a recent video to explain her position on impeachment, Rep. Elaine Luria grips a Hebrew Bible and recites the oath she has repeatedly taken to defend the Constitution, first as a Navy officer and now as the first Jewish congresswoman reared in the Deep South.
Those twin identities — career military and Jewish woman — have informed Luria’s increasingly vocal positions on impeachment, Israel and colleagues who have criticized the Jewish state.
“It comes from being Jewish, from things that my parents taught me ... from being an officer in the military,” said Luria, who spent 20 years in the Navy.
The position is perilous for the Virginia Beach Democrat, who beat Republican incumbent Scott Taylor by two percentage points last year. Her military-heavy district leans Republican; President Donald Trump carried it in 2016 even as he lost Virginia.
The White House is so confident in the GOP appeal in Virginia Beach, it sent Vice President Mike Pence there earlier this month to stump for Republicans running in the Nov. 5 state legislative election. Virginia Beach voters returned most GOP incumbents despite a blue wave elsewhere.
Luria, 44, is one of five Democratic women with national security backgrounds who unseated Republicans in 2018 to help their party win control of the House. The women are sometimes referred to as the “badasses” — a moniker Luria echoes on her Twitter account.
Less gregarious than Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., or Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., Luria has stepped into the spotlight as she nears the end of her first year in Congress.
On Veterans Day, she released the two-and-a-half-minute video embracing her support for an impeachment inquiry, an unusual move for a moderate on the cusp of a tough reelection.
Luria is being targeted by the national GOP, and so far, three Republicans say they plan to seek their party’s nomination to challenge her in 2020.
Rosalin Mandelberg, the rabbi at Ohef Sholom Temple in Norfolk, where Luria worships, said she wasn’t surprised. She pointed to the Jewish concepts of tikkun olam, meaning “repair the world,” and observing mitzvot, or commandments.
“As a Jew, I’m responsible to correct injustice when I see it,” she said. “If I don’t, it’s a broken vow. ... It’s about doing what’s right and good. It’s less about what you say and more about what you do. She embodies Jewish tradition in all that she is and says and does.”
At a town hall in her district last month, Luria talked about her support for the impeachment inquiry.
“I understand that in the district I represent, the seat may typically be held by a Republican,” she said. “People would say: ‘Well, why would you do that? You might not be reelected.’ I don’t care, because I did the right thing.”
Luria grew up in Alabama, where her great-grandfather eventually had settled after immigrating from Poland in 1906.
Her grandparents met during World War II and moved to Birmingham, where they were married at Temple Emanu-El, the synagogue where her mother and father later dated as teenagers.
When Luria was confirmed there in 1991, she received a white, hardcover copy of the Hebrew Bible with her name inscribed in gold lettering — the same bible in the video released last week.
She attended the private Indian Springs School, where she recently was named Alumnus of the Year, and earned a black belt in karate.
“We encouraged her to try things and we allowed her to do things that maybe other girls weren’t doing,” said her mother, Michelle.
So they weren’t shocked when Luria returned from a summer science camp at the U.S. Naval Academy bent on enlisting. She was drawn to the promise of exotic travel, job opportunities and the honor in acting with a purpose greater than herself, she said.
She enrolled in the Navy at 17, to the surprise of Patti Wainger, a family friend from Birmingham, who said military service was an uncommon path for teenagers in their social circle. Luria’s parents had nothing to do with the armed forces; Michelle was active in Jewish groups, and Herbert worked in scrap metal.
“It would have been the last thing someone coming out of a reform Jewish background would have grabbed onto,” said Wainger, who now lives in Virginia Beach.
Jonathan Panitz, chaplain at the Naval Academy when Luria was there and head of the Jewish Midshipmen’s Club, remembered Luria as serious and, at times, frustrated by the regimented lifestyle.
“She had a difficult time because she’s a rugged individualist, and sometimes being a rugged individualist and becoming a member of Armed Services don’t always jibe,” he said.
She joined the Navy before women could serve as warfare officers on auxiliary and support ships. But that changed by the time she graduated, making it possible for her to join the Navy nuclear power program and serve on aircraft carriers.
One Passover aboard the USS Enterprise somewhere in the Indian Ocean, Luria planned a Seder for a dozen in the ship’s library, just below the flight deck.
“While there’s aircraft taking off and landing literally through a few inches of steel over our heads, we’re going through the Passover Haggada,” she said. “It’s one of those experiences where you feel like you kind of have a family away from home.”
Despite her military career, Luria said she’s “never been much of a conformist.”
But she’s no flamethrower, either. She said she tries to work within a system to effect change.
“That would apply to what I’m doing now,” she said. “As you get more senior within the military, you realize you have the capacity to make changes. We can do that in Congress, too.”
Weeks before she was sworn in, Luria traveled to Israel for the first time with five other freshmen, including Reps. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., and David Trone, D-Md., as guests of the charitable arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
AIPAC has been criticized for presenting an image of the country that neglects the plight of Palestinians.
Luria said she felt the trip offered a well-rounded perspective. She noted while the group visited Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, they also toured Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the West Bank, and met with Saeb Erekat, who served as chief negotiator of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Luria, who had been deployed to the Middle East during her Naval career, viewed Israel, the only democracy in the region, as a strategic U.S. partner.
She never expected to find herself defending the country against criticism from fellow Democrats.
In January, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., appeared to question the loyalty of Jewish lawmakers when she tweeted that those who oppose the Boycott Israel movement “forgot what country they represent.”
Luria and Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., met with Tlaib, at the behest of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to tell her that her comment echoed old anti-Semitic tropes about dual loyalty on the part of Jews. Tlaib, who has said she felt bullied, did not respond to requests for comment about Luria.
Weeks later, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., suggested in a tweet that Israel’s allies in America were driven by money. “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she wrote, a remark widely criticized as anti-Jewish.
A resolution was drafted to condemn anti-Semitism, and Luria was chosen to introduce it on the House floor. But after the measure was amended to include other forms of bigotry, Luria said it had been watered down and let someone else take the lead.
The episode was dismaying to Luria, particularly at a time when anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. are spiking.
“Why are we in a situation where it is impossible to call a spade a spade, to just say this is what it is and we want to stand up against it?” she said.
In her first speech on the House floor, on March 7, Luria cleared her throat, and declared, “I’m a Jewish American woman,” and went on to criticize the notion of dual loyalty.
She explained she had deployed six times to the Middle East and Western Pacific in her Naval career. She and her husband spent almost two years apart early in their marriage so they could serve on ships. After each line, she repeated the refrain, “Is that not enough to prove my loyalty to our nation?”
Luria’s unlikely path to Congress started with an uneven performance on the campaign trail. As the race wore on, she grew more confident. A scandal involving Taylor’s campaign workers weakened him and created an opening for Luria.
And there were early hints she was unafraid to step out alone.
The month after Luria took office, a racist photo surfaced from the 1984 medical school yearbook page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, D. The image of one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes at what appeared to be a costume party stunned political circles.
Luria was the first of seven Virginia Democrats in Congress to call on him to resign. He apologized at first but then backtracked and said he wasn’t sure he was in the photo.
“As a Jewish woman from the South, how can I not be offended if my governor says he doesn’t know if he’s in the Ku Klux Klan outfit or the blackface?” she said at the time. Months later, after Northam said he would dedicate the rest of his term to racial equity, Luria said he has made significant strides toward reconciliation.
Her outspokenness on Israel and American Jewry has introduced her to donors she might not otherwise have met, like those from NORPAC, a pro-Israel group in New Jersey.
Arthur Sandler, an AIPAC board member and Norfolk, Virginia, resident, supported Taylor, Luria’s predecessor, but is now in her corner.
Tablet, the online Jewish magazine, published a story in July with the headline, “Is Elaine Luria the Democratic Party’s next great Jewish hope?”
After news broke about the whistleblower’s complaint alleging Trump tried to pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, Luria joined six other freshman Democrats with national security backgrounds in calling for an impeachment inquiry. The next day, Pelosi announced it was moving forward.
As she spoke out on impeachment, media invitations rolled in: Morning Joe, The Rachel Maddow Show, CNN.
Beneath it all, Luria said, is an unwavering faith she is doing the right thing.
“I’ve come to find throughout the course of my career that there are things I should speak up for,” she said.