He Took Our Measure, and Dreamed Bigger

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published July 08, 2009, issue of July 17, 2009.
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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.

Tobin often infuriated colleagues by questioning their methods as well as their results. He argued that standard survey methods failed to account for particular Jewish behavior patterns — such as reluctance to discuss Judaism with strangers on the phone — and therefore overlooked whole segments of the community. That produced undercounts and generated unneeded alarm. Over time, his findings convinced him that the gloomy insularity of mainstream Jewish institutions was turning away potential adherents.

In his last decade, Tobin began coupling his scholarship with outspoken advocacy. He wrote books and launched new organizations through his institute to promote outreach to Jewish minorities — black Jews, conversos and others — and to press for activist recruitment to Judaism through conversion. 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 antisemitism 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, 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. Colleagues in the planning department of the local Jewish federation needed data to help anticipate future demand for senior services, early childhood programs, neighborhood migration and the like. Federations in Los Angeles, Nashville and elsewhere were commissioning similar surveys at the time. Tobin’s attracted particular notice.

“He wasn’t trained as a demographer,” said a longtime friend and colleague, Larry Sternberg, director of Brandeis University Hillel. “He learned by interviewing demographers. And he was a quick study.” Moreover, Sternberg said, because he was trained as an urban planner, “he spoke the language of the people who were going to use the information. That was one of his primary assets.”

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. “Between 1985 and 1990 he probably was responsible for more Jewish community surveys than any other person in the field,” said Sternberg, who was the center’s assistant director.

Besides producing scholarship, Tobin got it noticed. He was articulate and got along with reporters. He was in demand as a speaker at national Jewish conventions. His center was producing innovative approaches to the field, including a new way of measuring national community trends, drawing a composite portrait from data collected in local city surveys that were combined to produce a cross-section.

In 1995 Tobin left Massachusetts and moved to San Francisco. Brandeis, reluctant to lose him, let him open a West Coast Cohen Center. He was developing other projects at the same time, including consulting work for several leading philanthropists who wanted to identify and target community needs. 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. The institute created a new avenue to act on the things he had learned about Jewish life. 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.

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