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Gary Rubin, ‘Passionate Advocate for Underprivileged,’ Dead at 53

An overflow crowd of nearly 500 mourners packed the Parkside Memorial Chapel in Queens, N.Y., on April 29 for the funeral of Gary E. Rubin, a leading social policy theorist and a top official of New York UJA-Federation, who died suddenly last week at age 53.

Rubin was managing director of UJA-Federation’s Commission on the Jewish People, which oversees the federation’s worldwide social service delivery network. He had previously served 12 years as a social policy expert at the American Jewish Committee, where he was a nationally recognized advocate for immigration rights and black-Jewish cooperation.

“He was a remarkable ambassador for the Jewish community, a remarkable American thinker and a remarkable advocate for social justice,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “As someone who is not Jewish, I came to understand Judaism as a dynamic religion that is as traditional as it is modern through Gary.”

Rubin also held senior positions at the New York Association for New Americans, a leading Jewish immigrant-aid agency, and Americans for Peace Now, where he was executive director from 1993 to 1996, during the pivotal first years of the Oslo peace process.

“Gary taught us all the nature of what it meant to be an indefatigable worker and a passionate advocate for the underprivileged,” said Steven Bayme, director of Jewish communal affairs at AJCommittee and a childhood friend of Rubin’s. “There were those who disagreed with him on specific policies, but there was nobody who doubted his sincerity. He really aspired to a true synthesis of social concerns and the best values of Jewish tradition.”

Born in suburban Boston and educated in Orthodox day schools there, Rubin received a bachelor’s degree in 1971 from Yeshiva University and master’s degrees in American history from Columbia University in 1972 and 1974. He taught Jewish history at Y.U. before joining AJCommittee in 1979.

Working in AJCommittee’s national affairs department, first as deputy director and from 1988 as director, Rubin emerged as a leading Jewish voice for liberalism and social activism during a period of growing national conservatism. He became one of the Jewish organizational world’s most visible champions of alliances with minorities and liberal groups.

“He was a great leader and thinker in the immigration movement, and was deeply dedicated to social justice and equal opportunity,” said Diana Aviv, vice president for social policy at United Jewish Communities. “Leaders in the immigration movement, in the Latino and Asian communities and in the African American community will feel this loss as deeply as anyone in the Jewish community.”

In October 1993 Rubin joined Americans for Peace Now as executive director, guiding it through a period of explosive growth after the signing of the Oslo accords that fall. In 1996 he joined the New York Association for New Americans, the nation’s largest Jewish immigrant aid agency, as assistant executive vice president for policy. In 1999 he was asked to head the newly created Commission on the Jewish People of UJA-Federation.

Colleagues described Rubin as a man who combined deep convictions with intellectual openness and was able to promote dialogue among disparate groups. During the mid-1990s he launched a campaign to promote a rethinking of immigrants’ rights within the black community, which historically has not been identified with the immigration cause. The effort resulted in new dialogues that still continue.

“It made an enormous amount of difference both to people working in immigrants’ rights and people working in civil rights,” said Sharry of the National Immigration Forum. “That was how he operated — he liked to get into the middle of situations that most people were looking to stay out of. He was enormously courageous and enormously humble.”

Outside his policy work Rubin was an avid amateur athlete, an active member of two synagogues — one Orthodox and the other Conservative — and a founder of the Solomon Schechter High School of Long Island, where two of his four children were educated.

In addition to his children he is survived by his wife, the former Sheila Silver, a childhood sweetheart to whom he was married for 32 years.

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