Gary Tobin’s death encourages us to embrace Jewish diversity

Bay Area Jewish researcher Gary Tobin, who died on Monday, July 6, advocated reaching out to Jews of color as well as to converts. Although many Jewish institutions ignore Jews of non-European origin, Tobin actively sought them out, even creating an initiative called Be’chol Lashon, which literally translates to “In Every Tongue.” This initiative allowed the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, which he founded and which is located in San Francisco, to reach out to Jews of color and to help educate the mainstream community about Jewish diversity.

Capers Funnye, a black Chicago rabbi, the associate director of Be’chol Lashon and a cousin of first lady Michelle Obama, had a closer relationship with Tobin than with any mainstream Jewish organizational leader, according to a JTA article published on July 7. Tobin showed up 12 years ago at Funnye’s synagogue in Chicago and the two became friends, the article reports.

We Jews are a community with much diversity. We should celebrate that diversity. Given the fact that we have been ostracized and persecuted throughout history, we should include our own – no matter their color, and welcome them in. Tobin was an advocate for such action. In his memory, we should reach out to Jews of all colors, races, backgrounds.

I know at least two black Jews and one oriental Jew personally, although I’ve come in contact with many more Jews of color and of different backgrounds. At least two of those I know personally are converts. They are as Jewish, if not more so, than am I.

What stops us from opening our arms to all Jews or to those who want to become Jews? Is it fear? Tobin had something to say about this as well and suggested that we lose what he called the “ghetto mentality” – a remnant from the Holocaust and live in this present moment. This is not to say that there are not still people who would like to persecute the Jews.

In a class I taught just last week at the Aleph Kallah someone related a story about an acquaintance who lived in a community where the Ku Klux Klan is still active. For some of us, persecution is still a reality, but living in fear just keeps us jailed even when we are free. We must not let our fear – even of those who are Jews and are not like us (who are a different color, speak a different language, and are more observant) – keep us from being open and loving and willing to allow them to also be Jews and be part of the Jewish community.

To learn more about Tobin, read this JTA article or this one.

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