Gary Tobin’s death sparks thoughts on positive nature of conversion

A Bay Area mensch and a prominent Jewish researcher died on Monday, July 6. Gary Tobin, a man who challenged conventional Jewish wisdom, died at the age of 59 following a long illness. Tobin was the president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.

Known for his provocative research, according to a JTA article, Tobin urged the Jewish community “to be more open to converts, arguing that it was a viable way to grow Jewish numbers.” He also criticized the National Jewish Population Survey, “claiming that its methodology was flawed and that it had undercounted American Jews by more than 1 million,” the article reported. (That’s a huge difference!) He also addressed Jewish philanthropy and community diversity through his work.

I didn’t know Tobin, but I’m struck by his focus on being more open to converts. My husband is a “Jew by Choice.” Raised a Southern Baptist, he no longer practiced his religion when we met. We went on a “spiritual journey” together looking for what I call “something more” in our religious observance. Eventually, we both ended up in a synagogue, and he decided to convert when he found both meaning and spirituality within the Jewish tradition.

However, I would not be a practicing Jew, albeit not always so practicing, if it were not for my husband – a convert. He pushed me to “do something Jewish” when we first decided to raise our children Jewishly. As a former Southern Baptist, he was used to going to church several times a week. I, a Reform Jew with no religious education, was used to simply observing the major Jewish holidays and being culturally Jewish. That wouldn’t suffice for him; we couldn’t just be Jewish, we had to do something to be Jewish. So, we began observing Shabbat every Friday, something my family had never done. Before long I was cleaning house, baking challah and cooking each week as well as going to services. And as an adult I studied and received that Jewish education as I’d never gotten as a child. If it hadn’t been for my husband, my children might not have been raised as Jews or given a Jewish education (they both became b’nei mitzvah) or attended Jewish camp.

I owe all this to the convert I call my husband. For this reason, I wanted to acknowledge the life and work of Bay Area resident and Jewish researcher Gary Tobin. I believe he was right: By being open to converts, we allow the number of Jews to grow. Indeed, in biblical times Ruth, who proclaimed “your people are my people and your God is my God,” is the model convert as well as the grandmother of King David.

By accepting converts we also allow Jews to deepen their commitment to Judaism. In fact, most converts are more committed to their religion, more knowledgeable about it and more practicing in general than those Jews born into the religion. Those of us privileged to know these Jews by Choice benefit from these characteristics. I know I have.

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