Thursday, July 9, 2009 | return to: views, editorial


Gary Tobin highlighted truths we needed to hear

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Gary Tobin was among the first in our community to help us understand who we are, where we have been and where we are going.

Sadly, we now need a new guide. Tobin, a social researcher, died July 6 at age 59.

His life and work will be remembered for years to come.

Tobin’s San Francisco think tank, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, illuminated truths few wanted to hear: that too many Jewish philanthropists give nearly all of their major gifts to secular causes; that Jewish federations need “radical reformation;” that Jewish communal professionals find career growth and training lacking; that Jews of color often feel isolated from the Jewish community.

In 1988, while a professor at Brandeis University, he co-authored the first major demographic study of Bay Area Jews — looking at Jewish life not only in San Francisco, but also Sonoma, Marin, Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Yet demography represented only a sliver of his expansive research. He also pioneered new approaches toward supporting Jewish diversity.

He believed the Jewish tent was big enough for everyone, and his groundbreaking research helped bolster his theory.

In 2000, he authored a study that found 20 percent of U.S. Jews are racially diverse. Soon after, he and his wife, Diane, started Be’chol Lashon, (“In Every Tongue”). The S.F.-based nonprofit created a community of multiethnic Jews and has gone on to educate people across the country about the growing diversity of world Jewry.

Tobin also argued that the Jewish community was too insular, and needed to be more welcoming to converts and interfaith families. When he proposed such ideas in the 1990s, they were seen as controversial.

But Tobin was simply ahead of his time. Today, synagogues throughout the country have outreach efforts to multiethnic, LGBT and interfaith couples and families.

He also spent time cultivating Jewish philanthropists. He was trusted by heavy-hitters such as Stephen Spielberg, Charles Bronfman and Richard Goldman.

Said Amy Lyons, associate director of S.F.’s Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund: “His work not only informed our understanding of how the Jewish community operates, but also the impact of Jewish philanthropy. He probably had the best understanding of the Jewish philanthropic world [of] anyone.”

We are grateful to Gary Tobin’s knowledge, fervor, talent and chutzpah. Our Bay Area and global Jewish communities owe some of their growth and perhaps even future evolution to his research.

Tobin will be sorely missed. May his memory be for a blessing.


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