Community mourns pioneering thinker Gary Tobin

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Gary Tobin’s research was not always welcomed with open arms by mainstream Jewish organizations, many of which came under attack in his reports.

And yet the San Francisco man was never discouraged by such resistance

“He was never deterred by people who disagreed with him. In some ways, he relished it because it highlighted the issues he was passionate about,” said Sandy Edwards, a friend and colleague.

Tobin, founder of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, died July 6 after a long battle with cancer. He was 59 years old.

Colleagues described Tobin as a warm, gutsy, smart, lively and lovable person and friend.

Gary Tobin

“Gary Tobin could disagree but he would never be disagreeable,” said Steven Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College known for his extensive research on Jewish community and identity.

“He was the friendliest and warmest critic one could possibly imagine.”

As a social researcher, he urged the community to be more open to converts and he studied Jews of color, advocating for greater acceptance and awareness of Jewish diversity.

Tobin also worked at length with Jewish philanthropists, encouraging them to give more to Jewish causes and helping them make smart choices about those donations.

“He was a pioneering thinker and doer,” Cohen said. “Social scientists are in the business of creating a discourse about actionable ideas, and Gary … stirred and shook that discourse,” Cohen added. “His work will be felt and cited and remembered and used in the years to come.”

Trained in city and regional planning at U.C. Berkeley, Tobin first turned his attention to Jewish communal issues while a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

He then moved to Brandeis University outside Boston, 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 IJCR.

Tobin met his wife, Diane, at a conference in San Francisco. She was president of the JCCSF; he was a speaker.

“I was just so enamored by his speaking, with his enthusiasm and candor, and I became a fan immediately,” Diane recalled.

He lived in Boston at the time, and she in San Francisco. Within a couple of years he relocated, and in 1991, they married. They had five children between them.

Tobin at first remained connected to Brandeis, but by 1994, he was ready to start his own think tank. Diane, a graphic designer, helped him edit and publish the IJCR’s research reports. “I loved the concept of doing research to effect social change and I really wanted to join in his endeavors,” she said.

Their work as life and business partners grew when they adopted a baby in 1997.

The parents worried that Jonah, who was black, would someday have to choose between his racial and religious identities.

So when Jonah was 3, the Tobins founded Be’chol Lashon (“In Every Tongue”), a nonprofit organization that reaches out to Jews of color and helps 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 Be’chol Lashon. (Diane Tobin is executive director of Be’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 other mainstream Jewish organizational leader.

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

For Tobin, the lines between family and community “were virtually invisible,” said his daughter Amy Tobin, who started The Hub, a local community for emerging Jewish artists.

“He loved being Jewish, and he loved the Jewish community,” she said. “I think maybe he pushed boundaries, maybe he pissed people off, maybe he said things that were controversial, but it was always out of the deepest love.”

Tobin’s research required endless amounts of writing and analysis. He often directed those skills to mentoring his children and their friends. All knew that at any time, they could ask him to read their college essay.

“It was something he was famous for in the family,” Diane Tobin said. “As kind and generous and easygoing as he was, he was also a very candid and harsh critic. He made them write multiple drafts. He pushed people to get to the true meaning of their story.”

His own most audacious writings may be those that urged the Jewish community to abandon its longstanding coolness to newcomers. 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.”

Tobin is survived by his wife, Diane, and their children Adam, Amy, Sarah, Aryeh, Mia and Jonah.

“My father taught me that you can excel and succeed and have all kinds of professional success, but at end of day, family is the most important thing,” Amy Tobin said.

Services were to be held July 9 at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco. Donations may be send to the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, P.O. Box 591107, San Francisco, CA, 94159.