Rabbi James S. Diamond, 74; directed Hillel here for 23 years

Rabbi James S. Diamond

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Members of the local Jewish community, along with faculty and former students at Washington University, were shocked and saddened at the news that Rabbi James S. Diamond was killed in a car crash that seriously injured two others, on Thursday, March 28, in Princeton, N.J. The rabbi had served as executive director of the St. Louis Hillel Center at Washington University and was the retired director of the Center for Jewish Life at Princeton University.

According to police reports in stories by The Times of Trenton and Planet Princeton, the student newspaper at Princeton, Rabbi Diamond was killed when a BMW traveling at a high rate of speed careened down Riverside Drive at 9:28 a.m. last Thursday, striking two parked cars. The rabbi was getting into the passenger side of one of the parked cars.

Jon Offredo of the New Jersey Times reported that the BMW driven by Eric Maltz, 20, of Princeton, crossed lanes and struck the first car, an unoccupied Toyota Camry, which in turn struck a Toyota Prius, police said. Rabbi Robert Freedman, 63, of Princeton was sitting in the Prius’ driver’s side as Rabbi Diamond was getting into the car. Rabbi Diamond was struck and thrown and was found unresponsive on the ground by emergency personnel, whose lifesaving efforts were unsuccessful, police said. No charges have been filed and the accident is under investigation by the Princeton Polices Serious Collisions Unit and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s office.

Maltz and Freeman were taken to a nearby hospital trauma center, where they remain, reportedly in serious condition.


At Washington University’s Hillel Center, Rabbi Diamond was the second executive director in the agency’s then 48-year history. He succeeded Rabbi Robert P. Jacobs, who served as the founding director of Hillel, which began at Washington University in 1946 as the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation. Rabbi Jacobs, who died in 2001, served for 29 years until his retirement in 1972, when Rabbi Diamond was named as his successor. His 23-year tenure at Washington University was second only to Rabbi Jacobs’s 29 years in the position.

As executive director of Hillel at Washington University, Rabbi Diamond was responsible for overseeing and developing the total Hillel program, for supervising the professional and support staff at Hillel, and serving as Hillel’s main liaison to the academic, general and Jewish communities.

In 1995, when Rabbi Diamond decided to accept the directorship of the Center for Jewish Life at Princeton University, the Hillel Center at Washington U, located at 6300 Forstyh Avenue, served Jewish students not only there but also eight other colleges and universities in the St. Louis area. In addition to his Hillel duties, Rabbi Diamond served as an adjunct professor in the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at Washington University, and taught numerous courses over the years, including Advanced Modern Hebrew prose and poetry, Masterpieces of Modern Jewish Writing and Structures of Judaism.

When Rabbi Diamond resigned in 1995 as executive director of Hillel at Washington U, Rabbi Diamond told the Jewish Light, “The past 23 years in St. Louis have been rich and meaningful ones for me. To have had a role in helping shape a strong Jewish presence at Washington University and other area campuses, and in helping to build and nurture a diverse and vibrant Jewish community on the campuses has been a privilege I shall treasure all of my days. This work has, to be sure, not yet been completed—as if it ever could. But I think it is time for someone else to do it.”

At both Washington and Princeton universities, Rabbi Diamond’s students and colleagues praised his combination of rigorous scholarship with a kind and approachable demeanor that endeared him to decades of students and faculty. On both campuses, he was also praised for his outreach to Jewish students from all backgrounds, ranging from secular to Orthodox.

Rabbi Edwin Harris of Central Reform Congregation said the loss of Rabbi Diamond came as a shock — Harris met Diamond when he was asked to join Hillel’s board of directors in the late 1970s. “He was a wonderful teacher with a gentle soul and a big heart.  We worked together over many years and I felt close to him,” he said. So close, Harris noted, that he asked Diamond to officiate at his wedding 31 years ago. As a psychologist in private practice and as a rabbi, Harris said “whether in my office or under the chuppah” he has passed along some of Rabbi Diamond’s wisdom. “I will miss him, and he will continue to be a part of me,” he said.

Washington University professor Henry Berger said Diamond was “a beloved friend and colleague.” He noted that the rabbi was integral to the creation of the Jewish Studies program at Washington University and was “a key adviser” to Berger when he chaired the program and oversaw its expansion into the Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies program.

Rabbi Diamond was, “a deeply learned scholar of Judaism and a compelling teacher,” Berger said. “He was my personal rabbi from whom I learned much, not least that a Jew is obligated to act on behalf of intellectual freedom, social justice and human liberation. He honored the axiomatic tradition that identity is less a matter of who you are but what you do with it.”

Rabbi Diamond was a native of Winnipeg, Canada, the eldest of three children of a salesman and nurse. Prior to becoming executive director of Hillel at Washington University, Rabbi Diamond served as director of the Hillel at Indiana University in Bloomington. Previously, he had been assistant rabbi at Temple Israel in White Plains, N.Y., and a teacher at Ahavah Children’s Village in Haifa, Israel.

He received his bachelor of arts degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he majored in English literature. He received his rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) in 1963. He also held the degree of master of Hebrew letters and an honorary doctor of divinity degree and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Indiana University.

Among the survivors are his wife of 52 years, Judith Litman  Diamond; two daughters, Shifra Diamond of New York and Gila Shusterman of Chevy Chase, Md.; a son, Etan  Diamond of Efrat, Israel; a sister, Beth Goodman of  Montreal and the Bahamas; a brother, Gary Diamond of  Toronto and six grandchildren.

A funeral service was held Sunday at the Center for Jewish Life in Princeton. Burial was at the Washington Cemetery in South Brunswick, N.J.