Gary Tobin, An Appreciation

I was very sad to learn that Gary Tobin died on Monday. He was a brilliant and provocative thinker, and a passionate advocate for opening Jewish communities to include interfaith families and Jews of color.

When I stopped being a lawyer and started working in the Jewish non-profit world in 1999, the first gathering I ever attended was an event around the publication of Tobin’s Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community. I still have that book on my shelf, with many post-it notes interspersed among its pages.

We asked Gary to write for and he contributed Proactive Conversion as Outreach. We were in our infancy at that point and it was a real boost to have such a distinguished thought leader write for us. Later we reprinted an essay Gary contributed to Sh’ma, Do We Want to Be Who We Really Are?

I didn’t always agree with Gary. In Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community — A Review, I agreed with a lot of his argument. He didn’t advocate for proselytizing, but defined “proactive conversion” simply as welcoming non-Jews to become Jews. He wanted the Jewish community to have a positive attitude about conversion and converts. But I thought then, and still do, that we would be better off promoting “proactive inclusion” than “proactive conversion” — we should include non-Jewish partners and encourage them to make Jewish choices, with conversion one possible wonderful outcome among others.

I visited Gary twice at the offices of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco. He was gracious with his time, interest and advice. I knew he had been ill in the past. But as recently as March, he was participating in an extended discussion I blogged about on the JOI JOPLIN listserv about whether programs specifically for interfaith families were still necessary.

In recent years, Gary’s inclusivity work focused on Jews of  color and helping Be’chol Lashon: In Every Tongue, a non-profit founded by his wife Diane. I talked with Diane only a month ago about ways our organizations could work together.

There aren’t many high-profile intellectual leaders who argue in favor of making Jewish communities more inclusive. That makes it all the more tragic that Gary Tobin died at the very young age of 59 — sadly, the same age at which we lost Egon Mayer, of blessed memory. Our sympathies go out to Diane and the Tobin children.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.