Maverick researcher Gary Tobin, 59, reached out to Jews of color

There are probably few students of American Jewry equally comfortable arguing for more aggressive efforts to grow Jewish numbers through conversion as they are assailing the hostility towards Israel of reflexively liberal academics.

But Gary Tobin, who died late Monday at 59 after a long illness, was just that sort of thinker.

Trained as city and regional planner at the University of California, Berkeley, Tobin first turned his attention to Jewish communal issues while a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He moved to Brandeis University, where he became a tenured professor and director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies before departing to start his own think tank, the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, in San Francisco.

“Gary was a visionary about the Jewish community,” said Leonard Saxe, a professor at Brandeis University who succeeded Tobin as director of the Cohen Center. “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.”

Lacking a background in sociology, Tobin often came at problems from a different perspective than many of the researchers who dominate the study of American Jewry.

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.

And while many Jewish institutions were content to ignore Jews of non-European origin, Tobin actively sought them out. Through its initiative B’Chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), his institute reached out to Jews of color and helped educate the mainstream community about Jewish diversity.

“To the black Jewish community he was a friend, a colleague and just one that cared a great deal about seeing the broader community be more inclusive of Jews of color, particular African Americans,” said Capers Funnye, a black Chicago rabbi and the associate director of B’chol Lashon.

Tobin showed up 12 years ago at Funnye’s synagogue in Chicago and the two have been friends ever since. Funnye, a cousin of first lady Michelle Obama, said he had a closer relationship with Tobin than with any mainstream Jewish organizational leader.

“This loss, for me, it is indeed like losing a brother, a member of my family,” Funnye said.

While Tobin staked out liberal positions on issues of Jewish community and identity, he had no qualms about making common cause with conservative groups in defense of communal interests. In 2004 he was named to the Forward Fifty list of the country’s most influential Jews, which noted both his “maverick liberal” attitudes on conversion and racial diversity as well as his partnership with the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a post-9/11 creation intended to fight the spread of radical Islam.

It was there that Tobin produced studies on American attitudes toward Israel and anti-Israel sentiment on campus and conducted public opinion polls relating to national security and the Middle East. In 2005, Tobin co-authored “The Uncivil University,” which charged that universities had violated the public trust by permitting a climate of rampant anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment to take root.

Tobin also was a fierce critic of the National Jewish Population Survey, claiming that its methodology was flawed and that it had vastly undercounted American Jews. He estimated the American Jewish population at 6.7 million, more than 1 million more than the 2000 NJPS found.

“He was first and foremost a planner,” said Larry Sternberg, who was Tobin’s associate director at the Cohen Center. “His orientation was that of a person whose first response is to understand the nature of how the community looks. I think that as a planner he saw these people as people with needs, he saw them as human beings.”

Tobin’s most audacious writings may be those that urged the Jewish community to abandon its longstanding coolness to newcomers. Tobin saw such thinking as a relic of the Jewish experience of suffering and persecution and more befitting shtetl life in 19th century Europe than 21st century America. Jews, Tobin argued, needed to get over their fear and stop seeing their institutions as a bulwark against assimilation.

“No number of day schools or summer camps is going to turn back the clock on religious freedom and competition,” Tobin wrote last year in a JTA Op-Ed. “It is time for Jews to join every other group in America and quit obsessing about who is being lost and start acting on who might come in. Right now it is largely a one-way street because we cling to dangerously obsolete ideas, attitudes and practices about conversion. We do not welcome people with open arms but rather we stiff-arm.”

Tobin is survived by his wife, Diane, the institutes’s associate director, and their six children. Funeral services are scheduled for Thursday.

Why is this award different from all others?

I’m sitting with my husband in the packed and darkened auditorium at Royce Hall in UCLA. It’s the night of the LA Times Book Prizes, but we might as well be at some Hollywood awards show: The stage is decorated like the set of a movie — Sean Penn is sitting two seats to my right; Bruce Dern and Mike Farrell are rumored to be somewhere in the audience; and a tall, slim woman with long, dark hair and very pronounced curves has just appeared from stage left, surrounded by a halo of light, to bring to the presenter a sealed envelope bearing the name — not of “the winner,” but of “the person to whom the award goes.”

Earlier, master of ceremonies Jim Lehrer asked the audience to think of him as an author first, and everything else second, because he has written and published for far longer than he has had a television career.

Now, M.G. Lord opens the envelope. The Science and Technology award, she says, goes to Eric R. Kandel, author of “In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind.” Music blares, the spotlight abandons the curvaceous presenter in favor of the section in the audience where finalists from each category are seated, and Kandel makes his way up the steps and to the podium.

He looks somewhere in his late seventies. He’s wearing a very sharp gray suit and a red bow tie, and he appears every bit as distinguished and scholarly as you might expect from a Columbia University professor. He says he’s genuinely pleased to be receiving this award — which is nice of him, I think, given that this isn’t the first time he has found himself on a stage delivering an acceptance speech: Before making his way to Los Angeles and Royce Hall, Kandel has garnered the National Medal of Honor, the Wolf Prize, the Gairdner International Award, and, in the year 2000, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

When he says that this award means as much to him as the Nobel, a chuckle rises from the audience and quickly spills into applause. But Kandel isn’t joking. “I’ve been asking myself,” he says, “what the difference is between being here and being in Stockholm.” Again, there’s laughter from the audience.

For one thing, he says, he knew ahead of time to prepare an acceptance speech for Stockholm; for another, here he is among authors who write not just about science, but about everything else in the world as well. In other words, this, to him, is a more intimidating crowd than a room full of fellow Nobel winners.

Not that any of the writers in the audience believes him, but I think we’re grateful for the complement nevertheless.

I go home that night and look up Kandel’s history online. I learn that he was born in Vienna in 1929, escaped the Nazis in 1939. I read about his many degrees and countless achievements, about his research and writings in scientific fields the names of which I can barely pronounce. Forget Sean Penn and Bruce Dern, I tell my kids. Eric Kandel was by far the biggest hit of the evening.

The next day, in the green room, I’m sitting with two friends when Kandel walks up and asks if he can join us at our table. It’s lunch hour, the place is packed, and he needs to share a table with someone, but I still think this is an act of God — like when Michael Jordan appeared out of thin air on a basketball court in an inner-city neighborhood in the middle of a sweltering summer afternoon, and passed the ball to the wide-eyed children in those television ads for some sporting good or other. I tell Kandel as much, and he laughs, puts his plate down and starts asking about me and the others at the table — what we write and where we come from, if we like our agents and publishers.

I ask him what book he’s working on, and I gather from his response that it has something to do with Freud and European Expressionism, but he’s more interested in finding out how many children I have than in explaining the subject matter of his book. I ask how long he’s staying in Los Angeles — only till Sunday, and then he’s off to New York, Paris, then Vienna, where he is to receive another award.

He offers that he has a son in New York, and a daughter — Minoosh — in San Francisco. He says he likes his children’s spouses, thank God; they’re good people and responsible parents. He has four grandchildren, and he doesn’t see them as often as he would like, what with his teaching schedule and all the traveling he has to do, but they all make a point of getting together for the holidays.

People come up to him every few minutes and ask him to sign their books, and he interrupts what he’s saying, engages in cordial conversation with the fans, then picks up with me where he left off. Two agents, an editor, a pair of newspaper reporters stop by to pay their respects, and end up staying. Before I know it, we’re all exchanging high holiday stories and talking about our children, how quickly they seem to have grown up, how we wish they wouldn’t take off for the other side of the country every time the wind blows, how we hope that they will observe Jewish traditions whether or not we’re there to enforce it.

“When he was alive,” Kandel says, “my father had us all at his home for every Jewish holiday. After he died, it fell upon me to do the same.”

What is the difference between being here and in Stockholm? I wonder. At the end of the day, between one Jew and another, perhaps not very much.

Gina B. Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her new novel, “Caspian Rain,” will be published this fall. Gina Nahai’s column appears monthly in The Journal.

The Clot to Kill Jesus

In what is likely the ultimate “Cold Case File,” a researcher in Haifa may have figured out the cause of Jesus’ death.

Professor Benjamin Brenner, a Technion Medical School and Rambam Medical Center hematology expert, said the problem was not blood loss, but a blood clot that likely traveled to Jesus’ lungs.

“That Jesus was put on the cross on Friday before noontime and died only three to six hours later leads me to believe he did not die from crucifixion and blood loss alone,” Brenner said. The blood clot, or pulmonary embolism, “would be a common result from the physical and psychological adversity Jesus underwent during his final day.”

Brenner relied on descriptions of the events of Jesus’ death from the Christian Bible as well as Jewish and Roman sources. His findings were published last week in the online edition of the Journal of Thrombosis and Haemostasis.

Brenner believes that Jesus’ Jewish heritage may have provided additional, inherited risk factors that made him more susceptible to blood clots. Two clot-related genetic mutations, “Factor V Leiden” and “Prothrombin 20120,” are common in Israel, especially in the Galilee, the boyhood home of Jesus, according to Christian tradition.

Matters concerning Jesus’ death have been a source of interest and speculation for centuries, and modern times ushered in modern theories. In 1986, The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) considered whether Jesus died of a blood clot, but concluded his death was due to blood loss. However, Brenner said that medical science’s understanding of blood clots has since advanced dramatically.

Pulmonary embolisms occur when an artery in the lung becomes blocked, typically by one or more blood clots that have traveled to the lungs from another part of the body. The clots often originate in the legs, but can also form in veins in the arms, for example, or on the right side of the heart.

Some of Jesus’ symptoms may have a familiar modern ring: dehydration, severe physical and emotional stress and prolonged immobilization. It’s what can and does occasionally happen today to unlucky passengers on long plane flights, especially in this no-frills era. Also at risk are others who remain inactive for long periods of time, like those confined to bed and people who have had surgery, a stroke or heart attack. Each year about 30,000 Americans die from pulmonary embolisms.

Brenner hopes his research will raise public awareness about this largely preventable disease. Treatments include medication to break up clots or prevent new clots from forming. On long plane flights, it also helps to move around the cabin.

New Hope for HIBM Cure

Soroya Nazarian learned about hereditary inclusion body myopathy (HIBM), an uncommon muscular disorder that affects the Persian Jewish community, while in Israel on a Hadassah mission about five years ago. There, she met professor Zohar Argov, from the department of neurology at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem, the researcher who first discovered the rare disease in 1984. Although Nazarian did not know anyone personally affected with HIBM, the self-described “professional volunteer” knew her involvement with Hadassah Southern California put her in a unique position to increase awareness and raise funds for the condition that seemed to unfairly target her community.

Michael Banyan had a more personal reason for adopting HIBM as his cause. About a decade ago, the CEO and founder of an industrial alloy manufacturing company learned that he had the disease.

HIBM, typically strikes in early adulthood, slowly weakening the muscles of the limbs and eventually leading to total disability within one to two decades. Persian Jews are disproportionately stricken by the disease. They have a 5 to 10 percent chance of carrying the gene mutation responsible for HIBM. If both parents are carriers, their children have a 25 percent chance of being affected.

Nazarian and Banyan have become a dynamic duo of the HIBM cause, working jointly and independently to raise funds for research on the disease. The two helped mobilize Hadassah’s six Persian groups to collectively raise close to $350,000 for Hadassah Hospital research on HIBM.

As chair of Hadassah Southern California from 1997 to 1999, Nazarian was also instrumental in bringing the issue to the attention of the national organization. Banyan helped form a chapter of the Iranian American Jewish Federation dedicated to raising funds for HIBM research with the support of Solomon Rastegar, the organization’s president at that time.

These efforts are beginning to pay off. In September, researchers in Israel announced that they had identified the gene that causes HIBM. Dr. Stella Mitrani-Rosenbaum, a scientist at Hadassah-University Hospital on Mt. Scopus and a colleague of Argov’s, was one of the principal researchers to make the discovery. Mitrani-Rosenbaum says the findings give hope for the development of a therapy for the disease.

In the meantime, her laboratory has developed a genetic test to identify those who carry or are affected by the gene, and is working on a test to screen for it during pregnancy. (Those wishing to be tested must do so through a physician or genetic counselor.)

“Without the moral support and the most generous financial help of the Persian community … through Hadassah, it would have taken us significantly more time to achieve our aim,” says Mitrani-Rosenbaum.

HIBM does not solely affect the Persian community. Cases have been detected in Jews from Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq. Nevertheless, its toll on Persian Jews initially caused Nazarian and others to fear that young Persians might marry outside the community out of fear of passing on the disease. She says this concern has declined now that people understand that the disease is not fatal, and that both parents need to be carriers in order to pass the condition along.

Nazarian commends those who have been willing to make their condition public. Like Banyan, Drs. Daniel and Boback Darvish, brothers who both have HIBM, have also spoken at Hadassah events and were part of the Iranian American Jewish Federation chapter dedicated to HIBM. “They’ve dedicated their lives to educating the community about this disease,” she says.

Banyan, meanwhile, maintains a hectic pace not slowed by HIBM. He commutes from Beverly Hills to his office in Anaheim. Only a slight limp gives any hint of his disease. Although no treatment or cure currently exists, he remains optimistic.

“When we started raising funds for HIBM, research [on the disease] was minimal and genetic research was not nearly as advanced,” he says. “With the speed of technology nowadays, and new discoveries being made every day, development of a therapy for HIBM is not very far off.”

A Drink from the Same Cup

If the pursuit of peace in the Middle East will not unite the parties concerned, then one life-sustaining element may. Israeli, Arab and American researchers and engineers have come together to find ways to produce more potable water for agricultural use, as demands for supplies of Middle Eastern and Californian freshwater continue to increase.

“Urban demands [for water] are increasing with the increase in population and standard of living,” said Uri Shamir, head of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s Water Research Institute, a multidisciplinary research center that focuses on the science, technology, engineering and management of water. Fresh water that has been used for agriculture, said Shamir, must be shifted to the cities.

“If we want to maintain agriculture the way we have at the moment, we need water and more water,” said Raphael Semiat, head of the Rabin Desalination Laboratory at the Technion, a laboratory funded by Los Angeles businessman Rob Davidow, who’s a world leader in waste-water and sea-water desalination R & D.

With water resources limited throughout the Middle East, the Palestinian-Jordanian-Israeli Water Project has been launched to research new, safe, cost-efficient methods to irrigate crops. One of the more popular methods researched and employed by the project’s committee, which is composed of scientists from the Technion, Ben-Gurion University, Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society and the Palestinian A-Najjah University, is waste-water recycling, a method that purifies waste-water with minimal harm to the environment.

Soon, even this process will not suffice, and the more expensive sea-water desalination process will supplant it — especially in California and Israel, where sea water is abundant.

“It’s a solution that is not free of difficulties, but it is basically on your own territory, using an infinite source — the ocean,” said Shamir, who is currently conducting research in management of disputed international waters at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Sea-water desalination works in one of two ways: a thermal process, which evaporates and then condenses clean water vapor, and water membranes, which filter water through tiny pores about 0.1 micrometers small.

Researchers from the Rabin Desalination Laboratory have worked with I.D.E. Technologies (formerly Israel Desalination Engineering) of Ra’ananna, Israel and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California who have joined with Parsons Corporation of Pasadena and Reynolds Metals Co., to design a state-of-the-art, generic desalination facility that could purify up to 80 million gallons a day using the thermal process. After two years of R & D, the design of the 540-foot tower is now complete, and the partners are looking for investors to implement the design and construct a plant. The most viable locations for the plant are along California’s coast, since Israel’s coast is more populated.

The Jordanians and Palestinians are less likely to employ sea-water desalination because they have little or no access to the sea. Nevertheless, efforts are still underway to conduct joint research on desalination with Palestinian and Jordanian scientists. The Joint Palestinian-Jordanian Water Project, however, needs more funds as well as a more peaceful political environment to resume this research with full force.

“We are trying to continue unhampered,” said Shamir, who believes that cooperation for knowledge for society’s benefit will eventually override any disharmony caused by nationalistic strife.