New S.F. think tank may scope out Jewish future

A new think tank focusing on American Jewish life has set up shop in the experimental Bay Area, a breeding ground for Jewish trends and ideas.

The project will focus on such topics as Jewish philanthropy, synagogue life and leadership development.

"The notion is to stay cutting edge," says Gary Tobin, a demographer and former Brandeis University professor heading up the new Institute for Jewish and Community Research. It will be national in scope with a strong local emphasis.

Previously, Tobin directed the Institute for Community and Religion, which was affiliated with Brandeis and based in the same San Francisco Richmond District office that serves as home to the new think tank.

Tobin's previous group focused on some of the same issues that will be researched by the new think tank.

Like its predecessor, the new institute will conduct studies and publish reports and books, such as "Rabbis Talk About Intermarriage," a collection of interviews with Bay Area rabbis that will come out in December.

But the new independent think tank — which is separate from Brandeis and funded by philanthropists and foundations around the country — will take a more active role in the community by organizing conferences and workshops.

In January, for example, the institute will sponsor a lecture series on ethnic diversity in the Jewish community. This will include a conference of black rabbis from around North America.

"We always talk about black-Jewish relationships, but what about people who are both?" Tobin asks.

Ethnic and racial diversity in the Jewish community, in fact, will be one of the institute's early areas of focus. In addition to the conference, it has already initiated a national study on black, Asian and Latino Jews, which is being partially funded by Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation.

"It will be the first national study of Jews of color, which we're already finding is a larger population than anybody would anticipate," Tobin says.

The "we" is Tobin and his staff of research associates, who include Zev Hymowitz, Elana Raider, Scott Rubin and Meryle Weinstein.

Think tanks are often perceived as ivory towers where academics reach conclusions that have little impact on the average person's life.

But Tobin insists his institute's findings will inform the community and help implement change. The study on ethnic diversity, now in its initial phases, has already yielded important insights, he says.

"We're finding that many people who are black and Jewish or Asian and Jewish or Hispanic and Jewish feel marginalized in the Jewish community."

"That needs to be on the radar screen. We expect to find that as much as 10 percent of the Jewish population in this country is part of an interracial family mix. The Jewish community is barely aware of this change."

Once awareness has been raised, the community can begin developing networks and services for interracial families, says Tobin, who as the father of an adopted black child has a particular interest in the subject.

Stephen Leavitt, director of the San Francisco-based Simcha Foundation, a funder of the project, also believes the think tank will help the community keep up with the changing times.

"One of the problems we have in the organized Jewish community is understanding these changes and what kind of institutions can best support and respond to the hopes of Jews and non-Jews who are interested in Jewish life," he says.

In addition to the Simcha Foundation, other supporters of the institute include the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.

Meanwhile, Tobin will also be taking on the directorship of the Leonard and Madlyn Abramson Program in Jewish Policy Research with the Center for Policy Options at Los Angeles' University of Judaism.

In that position, he will initiate public opinion research on a variety of issues. Like the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, the University of Judaism will tap into cutting-edge West Coast trends, he says.

"I don't think it's an accident that these are both California-based entities."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.