Noted expert in Jewish demographic studies dies at 59


Gary A. Tobin, founder and president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research (IJCR), who grew up in St. Louis and was widely praised for his ground-breaking work and for his personal qualities of friendship and professionalism, died Monday, July 6, 2009, after a long illness. He was 59.

“Gary Tobin was an innovative teacher, writer, researcher and community builder who worked courageously and passionately to help the Jewish people grow and thrive,” said his wife of nearly 20 years and business partner Diane Tobin. “In all his work, Dr. Tobin challenged the status quo of institutions for which he cared deeply yet always believed could be better.”

Among the many projects Mr. Tobin completed were the 1983 and 1995 St. Louis Jewish Demographic Studies for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Both studies were praised for the thoroughness of their research and for the valuable updated demographic information needed for community planning.

Mr. Tobin was born July 26, 1949, in St. Louis. He received his bachelor of arts degree in history from Washington University in 1971, and a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from the University of California-Berkeley in 1975. In 1978, he joined the faculty of Washington University as an assistant professor in the Urban Studies Program. He was also an affiliate assistant professor of architecture at the university. He went on to become a tenured professor and director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University before leaving that position to start IJCR.

Mr. Tobin published several books, including The Uncivil University, which decried anti-Israel professors and attitudes on American campuses, as well as hundreds of papers, monographs and studies on all aspects of American Jewish life. He did not shy away from controversy or object when colleagues called him a “maverick.” In 2004, he was named by The Forward, the English language version of the venerated Yiddish newspaper, to its list of the 50 Most Influential Jews in the United States.

Lifelong friend Art Silverblatt, professor of communications at Webster University, first met Mr. Tobin when the two attended Ladue Junior High School in the early 1960s. “Gary was really like a force of nature,” said Silverblatt. “He was a real phenomenon. Anyone who knew Gary was the better for it. “

Silverblatt said a group of about a dozen family members, friends and former colleagues met over the weekend at Riddle’s Penultimate Caf é in the Delmar Loop to toast Mr. Tobin and “to tell Gary stories, of which there are many.”

In a statement, Leonard Saxe, a professor who succeeded Mr. Tobin at the Cohen Center at Brandeis, said, “Gary was a visionary about the Jewish community. 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.”

In a JTA obituary, Ben Harris noted, “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.”

Tobin was also praised for his advocacy and outreach to Jews of non-European origin, seeking them out through his initiative B’Chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), which reached out to Jews of color and educated the mainstream Jewish community about diversity within its ranks.

Mr. Tobin had long been closely involved with the African-American community, having served as a consultant to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York City and the Human Development Corporation, which administers anti-poverty programs in St. Louis.

Mr. Tobin’s extensive work experience in St. Louis included serving as a research or consultant to the Jewish Federation, the St. Louis Crusade Against Crime; the Parkway School District; the Pantheon Corporation of St. Louis; the St. Louis Ecumenical Housing Association; Fleishman-Hillard, Inc. the Human Development Corporation. He was named a Danforth Graduate Fellow and a National Institute of Mental Health Fellow, among many awards and honors.

In addition to the respect he enjoyed among professional colleagues, Mr. Tobin was remembered fondly as a true friend to many. Ellen Futterman, editor of the St. Louis Jewish Light recalled, “Gary Tobin was my undergraduate college advisor at Washington University who became a dear friend. He was a mentor, confidante and one of the smartest people I ever knew. He also had this uncanny ability to make me laugh.”

His brother, Mark Tobin of Creve Coeur added: “Gary was motivated by his passion for family, friendships, the entire spectrum of the Jewish people, and in fact, all people. He lived his life to make a difference. He succeeded.”

Among his many other close friends is Emily Fink Bauman, former executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, who described him as being among “the really good people in Jewish work.”

In addition to his wife and brother, Mr. Tobin is survived by his children Adam, Amy, Sarah, Aryeh, Mia and Jonah; his grandson Josiah and his sisters, Shelly Tobin Milder (Barry) of Town and County and Laurie Tobin of Olivette. Mr. Tobin’s parents are the late Estelle and Arnold Tobin.

Memorial services were held Thursday, July 9, 2009 at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco. For more information about donations and/or to write a comment, go to