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Jewish Journal

Maverick researcher Gary Tobin, 59, reached out to Jews of color

by Ben Harris, JTA

July 7, 2009 | 5:13 pm

There are probably few students of American Jewry equally comfortable arguing for more aggressive efforts to grow Jewish numbers through conversion as they are assailing the hostility towards Israel of reflexively liberal academics.

But Gary Tobin, who died late Monday at 59 after a long illness, was just that sort of thinker.

Trained as city and regional planner at the University of California, Berkeley, Tobin first turned his attention to Jewish communal issues while a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He moved to Brandeis University, where he became a tenured professor and director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies before departing to start his own think tank, the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, in San Francisco.

“Gary was a visionary about the Jewish community,” said Leonard Saxe, a professor at Brandeis University who succeeded Tobin as director of the Cohen Center. “He identified problems and issues in the community and often developed these really creative analyses, whether it was about the role of synagogues or the makeup of communities and more recently about philanthropy.”

Lacking a background in sociology, Tobin often came at problems from a different perspective than many of the researchers who dominate the study of American Jewry.

While most communal professionals were bemoaning the loss of Jews to intermarriage and assimilation, Tobin assailed the community for its insularity and hostility toward converts and the gentile spouses of Jews. While Jewish organizations were complaining that wealthy Jews were directing their philanthropy to non-Jewish causes, Tobin told them to quit kvetching and give them a good reason not to.

And while many Jewish institutions were content to ignore Jews of non-European origin, Tobin actively sought them out. Through its initiative B’Chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), his institute reached out to Jews of color and helped educate the mainstream community about Jewish diversity.

“To the black Jewish community he was a friend, a colleague and just one that cared a great deal about seeing the broader community be more inclusive of Jews of color, particular African Americans,” said Capers Funnye, a black Chicago rabbi and the associate director of B’chol Lashon.

Tobin showed up 12 years ago at Funnye’s synagogue in Chicago and the two have been friends ever since. Funnye, a cousin of first lady Michelle Obama, said he had a closer relationship with Tobin than with any mainstream Jewish organizational leader.

“This loss, for me, it is indeed like losing a brother, a member of my family,” Funnye said.

While Tobin staked out liberal positions on issues of Jewish community and identity, he had no qualms about making common cause with conservative groups in defense of communal interests. In 2004 he was named to the Forward Fifty list of the country’s most influential Jews, which noted both his “maverick liberal” attitudes on conversion and racial diversity as well as his partnership with the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a post-9/11 creation intended to fight the spread of radical Islam.

It was there that Tobin produced studies on American attitudes toward Israel and anti-Israel sentiment on campus and conducted public opinion polls relating to national security and the Middle East. In 2005, Tobin co-authored “The Uncivil University,” which charged that universities had violated the public trust by permitting a climate of rampant anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment to take root.

Tobin also was a fierce critic of the National Jewish Population Survey, claiming that its methodology was flawed and that it had vastly undercounted American Jews. He estimated the American Jewish population at 6.7 million, more than 1 million more than the 2000 NJPS found.

“He was first and foremost a planner,” said Larry Sternberg, who was Tobin’s associate director at the Cohen Center. “His orientation was that of a person whose first response is to understand the nature of how the community looks. I think that as a planner he saw these people as people with needs, he saw them as human beings.”

Tobin’s most audacious writings may be those that urged the Jewish community to abandon its longstanding coolness to newcomers. Tobin saw such thinking as a relic of the Jewish experience of suffering and persecution and more befitting shtetl life in 19th century Europe than 21st century America. Jews, Tobin argued, needed to get over their fear and stop seeing their institutions as a bulwark against assimilation.

“No number of day schools or summer camps is going to turn back the clock on religious freedom and competition,” Tobin wrote last year in a JTA Op-Ed. “It is time for Jews to join every other group in America and quit obsessing about who is being lost and start acting on who might come in. Right now it is largely a one-way street because we cling to dangerously obsolete ideas, attitudes and practices about conversion. We do not welcome people with open arms but rather we stiff-arm.”

Tobin is survived by his wife, Diane, the institutes’s associate director, and their six children. Funeral services are scheduled for Thursday.

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