Remembering Gary Tobin

Ben Harris filed an obit about Gary Tobin yesterday afternoon:

NEW YORK (JTA) — There are probably few students of American Jewry as comfortable arguing for more aggressive efforts to grow Jewish numbers through conversion as they are assailing the hostility towards Israel of reflexively liberal academics.

But Gary Tobin, who died late Monday at 59 after a long illness, was just that sort of thinker.

Trained as a city and regional planner at the University of California, Berkeley, Tobin first turned his attention to Jewish communal issues while a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He moved to Brandeis University, 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 Institute for Jewish & Community Research, in San Francisco.

“Gary was a visionary about the Jewish community,” said Leonard Saxe, a professor at Brandeis University who succeeded Tobin as director of the Cohen Center. “He identified problems and issues in the community and often developed these really creative analyses, whether it was about the role of synagogues or the makeup of communities and more recently about philanthropy.”

Lacking a background in sociology, Tobin often came at problems from a different perspective than many of the researchers who dominate the study of American Jewry.

While most communal professionals were bemoaning the loss of Jews to intermarriage and assimilation, Tobin assailed the community for its insularity and hostility toward converts and the gentile spouses of Jews. While Jewish organizations were complaining that wealthy Jews were directing their philanthropy to non-Jewish causes, Tobin told them to quit kvetching and give them a good reason not to.

Read the rest here.

Lynn Schusterman and the head of her foundation, Sandy Cardin, had this to add:

Lynn Schusterman, Chair, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation: Gary will be sorely missed. I will always remember and appreciate him for his friendship and for the good advice he gave Charlie and me when we initially decided to become involved in Jewish philanthropy in a serious way. Gary always treated us with dignity and respect, and the many contributions he made to the Jewish community he loved so dearly will be his legacy.

Sandy Cardin, President, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation: From my earliest days as a foundation professional right up until his death, Gary was someone I respected and admired for his intellect, insight and vision. He was one of the true pioneers in the fields of Jewish demographic and sociological research, and his large and rich body of work speaks for itself. Gary was a valued colleague who forced all of us to think more deeply about the challenges — and opportunities — that exist in contemporary Jewish life and especially on college campuses.

As for me, Gary was the guy who was most helpful to me when I started on this philanthropy beat. I can’t say that I knew him well in his personal life, but in my first couple of years at JTA I spent hours and hours on the phone with him picking his brain.

I can’t say that I agreed with him all of the time and sometimes felt that he was too harsh a critic of the Jewish establishment, but he always made me think and made me question what I was seeing on the surface of this Jewish philanthropic and organizational landscape. And in the end I usually ended up seeing his side of things. He never let anyone off the hook, and I wish that there were more Jewish sociologists like him.

But for me, this piece that TObin wrote for JTA in the days before the UJC’s General Assembly in 2007 was Gary Tobin – and it really pissed off the UJC:

North American federations could and should be doing much better than they are. They matter. They are important. They embody the ideas of community, common cause and the ability to respond to collective concerns. They are vital institutions and we want them to succeed.

Federations have been the hub of a vast system that involves community centers, family services, bureaus of Jewish education and so many more organizations. But this system is becoming unglued and changes need to be made.

This call for action comes from someone who has worked for three decades with more than 70 federations, including New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Baltimore. I have worked as a consultant with the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal, and scores of constituent and beneficiary agencies. I believe that federations are essential.  I don’t have all the right answers. But I think I have some of the right questions.
Telling the truth about endowments.

Endowments are a big federation success story, but trouble is bubbling both on and below the surface. Many federations proudly promote the size of their endowments, noting how much money is under federation management. Is it real? Touting an amazing growth of funds under the federation roof paints a not-quite-honest picture.

During the week of shiva for Gary Tobin, the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University will be feature Tobin’s work on its homepage.

Just one request, Gary… If you run into the Annenbergs up there, could you ask them to steer their foundation trustees toward more Jewish causes? 

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