American Judaism lost one of its keenest, most unblinking observers with the death on July 6 of Gary A. Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco. Tobin died at the age of 59 after a long battle with cancer and is survived by his wife, six children and a grandson.
A leading scholar of Jewish population and identity, he was an iconoclast whose studies routinely challenged the conventional pessimism of other community analysts. During a quarter-century of research, he documented a community that was more robust, more diverse and, most controversially, more populous than commonly believed.
Over time, his findings convinced him that the gloomy insularity of mainstream Jewish institutions was turning away potential adherents. Genial and affectionate in his private life, he became, paradoxically, a passionate battler for a more relaxed, less alarmist Judaism.
Equally paradoxical, Tobin’s views on anti-Semitism and Israeli security were as hard-line as his views on Jewish identity were liberal. He produced a series of studies after 2001 showing rising hostility toward Jews and Zionism on campus. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, he partnered with the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies to survey attitudes toward Islamic militancy and American defense. His liberal friends would argue that his alarmism in international affairs didn’t square with his denunciations of alarmism within the community. Tobin would reply, often with a bemused smile, that he was simply reading the public pulse. It was easy to disagree with him, but impossible to dislike him.
A native of St. Louis, Mo., Tobin studied urban planning for a doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, then returned home in 1974 to teach at Washington University. In 1982 his career path took a dramatic turn when he was asked to produce a demographic study of the St. Louis Jewish community.
Tobin had found a new calling. In 1985 he moved to Brandeis University to be director of its Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, just five years old and already a leader in the field of Jewish social research. In 1999 he quit Brandeis and set up his own think tank, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, with his wife Diane as co-director.
At the institute Tobin continued his research, producing studies of Jewish leadership patterns and charitable giving.
Most of all, he wanted to open a welcoming space for seekers and would-be Jews. In 1999 he published a book, “Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community” (Jossey-Bass). In 2005 he followed up with “In Every Tongue: The Racial and Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People” (Institute for Jewish and Community Research). That book sparked a new organization, Bechol Lashon (“In Every Tongue” in Hebrew), to reach out to black and Latino Jews, interracial-interfaith families and African tribes that claim Jewish ancestry. Launched in 2008, the organization has already convened two international conferences and opened branches in four American cities. The Chicago director is Rabbi Capers Funnye, Michelle Obama’s cousin.
Tobin’s scholarship helped to shape our modern understanding of the shape-shifting Jewish identity we all live with today. His activism was beginning to point the way toward a new, open, more generous Jewish community. If he had gone on, he might have seen the community change in ways that we can’t conceive but he knew to be inevitable. But he had more ideas than time.
Reprinted with permission from The Forward.