Be’chol Lashon History
The beginning of Be’chol Lashon was both intentional and serendipitous, personal and universal. Here is a brief overview of our complex history.
Diane Tobin served on the board of Directors of the San Francisco Jewish Community Center from 1980-1986 and as President from 1986-1989. In her role as president, she attended the 1988 JWB Biennial in St, Louis where she met presenter, Dr. Gary Tobin z’l, director of the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. According to Gary, “We have not yet formulated a set of beliefs, behaviors, and institutional structures that define what it means to be a Jew in a pluralistic society that we ourselves have helped to build.” Diane began publishing the research for CMJS, and this message would become the foundation of their work together over next two decades.
Gary Tobin’s book Jewish Perceptions of Anti-Semitism was published in 1988. Although anti-Semitism was reportedly on the decline, he was surprised to discover that 20% of Jews under 35 consistently reported experiencing anti-Semitism in the many community demographic studies he was conducting at the time. The times had changed but the tools to measure anti-Semitism had not. This set the stage for future inquiry into “contemporary” anti-Semitism that continues today by ADL and others.
Gary opened the Institute for Community & Religion, which operated as a West coast satellite to the Center for Modern Jewish Studies. Diane continued to publish the research reports for CMJS, as well as manage the West coast projects for Institute for Community & Religion.
Diane and Gary’s union brought her three and his two children together, and they decided to adopt and raise a child together. Having engaged Jewish Family and Children’s Service’s, Adoption Connection, they were charged with filling out a form to guide the adoption process. But they declined as they felt the process was beshert, or destiny. Given that the lack of direction was likely to result in a child of color, they were referred to Pact: An Adoption Alliance, which specializes in adoption of children of color. The Tobin family was chosen by an African American couple seeking a home for their soon to be born child. In June of 1997, the stars aligned and Diane was lucky to be present at Jonah’s birth. He was the inspiration for Be’chol Lashon.
In 1998, Gary choose to leave his tenured position at Brandeis to devote his energies to his new, independent think tank, now called the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, and Diane became the Associate Director. Whereas initially the Institute was focused on contract research in a variety of areas in Jewish life, its energies became focused on religious identity and behavior in three main areas of importance in Jewish life: 1) the study of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, 2) the study of Jewish philanthropy, and 3) outreach and the growth of the Jewish people.
1999 began strong with the release of Gary’s controversial book, Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community, which challenged the Jewish community to get beyond its focus on preventing intermarriage and to embrace a pro-conversion stance. He acknowledged that “Diane Kaufmann Tobin’s emotional intelligence and probing intellect helped guide my thinking on this book. Her love of Judaism, her choice to reclaim the identity her family abandoned, her journey to become a Jew—these things inspire me. Her story affirms that Jewish life is filled with joyous, purposeful, passionate possibilities.”
Later that year, Rabbis Talk About Intermarriage was published. It took a broad, thorough, contemporary look at the diverse rabbinic response to intermarriage and the conflicts it has produced. Passions about intermarriage, debates about how to prevent it or reap benefits from its consequences have at their core a genuine concern about group survival, and Rabbis are by definition at the center of these issues. Rabbis face daily decisions about whether or not to perform wedding ceremonies with intermarried couples, how to counsel interfaith couples, what they will teach their congregants about intermarriage, and how interfaith families fit into the synagogue.
In anticipating raising Jonah, Diane and Gary wanted to better understand the intersection of Judaism and race. In order to find the answers they were seeking, they turned to their strength and launched the “Study of Ethnic and Racial Diversity of the Jewish Population of the United States,” which included a questionnaire and a series of focus groups. The San Francisco Examiner quoted Gary saying, “For me, one of the key issues in thinking about a transracial adoption was the potential bifurcation between my child’s black identity and his Jewish identity. A full embrace of ethnic Jews has yet to be seen. The recognition that the Jewish community is diverse may lead us to thinking about the way our institutions and organizations operate. Are they inclusive? Exclusive? Are there segments of the Jewish population that could be more connected than they are?”
One of the primary findings from the study was that multicultural Jews often experience a sense of isolation in an American Jewish community largely characterized by historic immigration from Eastern. Focus groups participants requested a opportunity to meet again, some never having met other Jews like themselves. Diane organized a Hanukkah celebration at the Women’s Building in December, 2000, a seminal event at which Be’chol Lashon was born. From this gathering, the Be’chol Lashon Advisory Committee was launched to guide and participate in this innovative endeavor including planning programs, serving as volunteers and role models. The members represented the various target populations—Black, Asian, Latino and mixed-race Jews. The research also revealed that most diverse Jews seek a variety of events reflecting various parts of their identity, and that they to see themselves reflected in Jewish life, and diverse role models are particularly important. Bay Area Be’chol Lashon programming was a case study in outreach to marginalized Jews, fostering an atmosphere of inclusiveness while celebrating holidays or special events.
Photo: Dr. Denise Davis, the current Be’chol Lashon Advisory Board president, in 2000, with her daughter Aviva, who now attends Brandeis University.
Be’chol Lashon International Think Tank The Be’chol Lashon International Think Tank was an invitation-only conference for leaders of Jewish communities around the world: Africa, Asia, Latin America, Australia, Europe, Israel & the United States. It was lively forum for conversation, creative thinking, and developing new approaches to communal growth that was convened from 2002-2013. Many Jewish communities exist in isolation, separated from one another by history, geography, knowledge, culture and experience. The Think Tank allowed for the exchange of information, projects (planned or envisioned), and the opportunity to develop networks and groups that work together throughout the year.