July 9, 2009
Gary Tobin spent his life researching the trends and habits of American Jews, combining hard science and provocative opinions about who we were, what ailed us, and what might make us stronger and better. He lashed out at propagandists who injected anti-Israel distortions in textbooks, demanded more from our philanthropies and philanthropists, and showed us the ways we were becoming more culturally and racially diverse, thanks to conversion, adoption, and inspiration.
Tobin, who died this week at age 59, was the founder of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco. From America’s left coast he seemed to have the distance one needed to see American Jews as they are, and imagine what they could be. One of the great passions of his career was Jewish openness, in which a community with a history of insularity and persecution could dare imagine inviting in new adherents and new influences.
In saying goodbye to a maverick thinker, it is fitting to quote Tobin himself on the topic, from an essay he wrote in 2008:
“…[T]his is 21st-century America, not 18th-century Poland or 20th-century Germany. [The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life] tells us that Americans are switching religions like never before. Do we want to enter the competition armed with our wonderful 3,000-year-old history, or kvetch about assimilation, intermarriage, and our dwindling numbers?
“Those who choose to join the Jewish people will enrich us with their ideas, energy, and passion. And born Jews who choose to embrace their Judaism in an open marketplace also will enrich Jewish life. It is time to embrace the America in which we live. We must abandon the paradigm that out children and grandchildren are potential gentiles and promote the new belief that America is filled with potential Jews.”