(RNS) Gary Tobin, a sometimes controversial researcher who studied Jewish demographics and the growth of contemporary Judaism, died of cancer in a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on July 6. He was 59.
The self-described “radical thinker” made it his life work countering conventional Judaism in his research studying anti-Semitism, Jewish philanthropy, and the growth of the Jewish community.
“He was working towards a vision for the future of the Jewish people,” his widow, Diane Tobin, said, and thought “Judaism should be part of the marketplace of world religions and be open to converts and intermarried (couples).”
After 11 years of teaching at Washington University in his native St. Louis, Tobin directed Brandeis University’s Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies in Boston for 14 years. He left his tenured position at the Center in 1998 to establish a think tank expanding modern Judaism.
Tobin many times contradicted traditional Jewish thinking as the founder and president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research (IJCR) in San Francisco. He promoted Jewish diversity, criticized conservative Jewish organizations and turned conventional wisdom about American Judaism on its head.
Tobin, a Reform Jew who also belonged to Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, was the “kindest person,” said Aryeh Weinberg, Tobin’s stepson. Weinberg remembers Tobin’s “warm smile” even in his last few days.
He said his stepfather was a “tireless worker” and “a kind of visionary.”
Tobin wrote books that examined anti-Semitism in social studies curriculum, “The Trouble with Textbooks,” and racial stereotypes, “Anti-Semitic Beliefs in the United States.”
“I never saw Gary as a maverick or an iconoclast,” Larry Sternberg, executive director of Hillel at Brandeis University, wrote on Brandeis University’s Web site. “He was a straight-shooting planner, whose insights about the community may have been expressed by others (sometimes his respondents!), but not with the combination of authority and creativity that Gary possessed.”
Weinberg will take over his stepfather’s work at IJCR. “He liked to rock the boat, but I think everyone was better off for it,” he said.
By Lindsay Perna
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