Former Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Life Rabbi James S. Diamond, who died on Thursday, was admired by friends, colleagues and relatives for his ability to bring together Jewish individuals of all backgrounds.
Diamond died in a triple-car accident about one mile from campus. He was 74.
Diamond served as director of the CJL from 1995 until his retirement in 2003. Previously, Diamond was executive director of Hillel at Indiana University Bloomington from 1968 to 1972 and subsequently at Washington University in St. Louis from 1972 to 1995. In total, he served as a Hillel rabbi for 36 years.
“He really was the director of the Hillel Center for Jewish Life at a crucial time when we were building up the new Center for Jewish Life,” Wilson School professor and former President of the CJL Board of Directors Stanley Katz said.
Katz praised Diamond for a “superb” job of institutionalizing a new and larger Hillel operation on campus by making the experience for Jewish students on campus more meaningful and productive.
Shifra Diamond, one of Diamond’s two daughters, said it was very important to him to bring together Jewish students from different backgrounds. She explained that he was very attentive to making sure that everyone had a place at the CJL and could find meaning in the community.
Katz described Diamond as “a scholar, a Ph.D. in comparative literature and an international expert in modern Hebrew poetry.” He added that Diamond was both an intellectual and religious figure on campus, contributing to the University academically through the classes he taught, and religiously in his capacity as a rabbi.
At the time of his death, Diamond was working on translating the works of S.Y. Agnon. Stanford University Press will publish one such novella by Agnon as translated by Diamond, Shifra explained.
Executive Director of the CJL Rabbi Julie Roth said Diamond devoted his entire career to Hillel and is considered one of the greatest Hillel directors. Roth explained that in mentoring her, Diamond had an amazing ability to advise her in a way that gave her enough space and allowed her to “take the reins.”
“Different parts of the Jewish community very much felt at home at the CJL,” Roth explained. “It wasn’t true when Jim started; it was something that he made true.” She explained that Diamond allowed for all members of the community, no matter how religious they were, to always feel included and welcome at the Center.
Renee Altman, a close friend of the Diamond family and a self-described conservative Jewish member of the CJL at the University, described Diamond as someone who was “non-judgmental.”
“He accepted you however you are, and he didn’t try to change you,” she said.
Altman said Diamond was a humble individual who never flaunted his background or knowledge and always encouraged his followers to research, learn and read the Torah.
“He was just a good soul that wanted to do good in the world,” said Ruth Getter, a student in Diamond’s Talmud class and a close friend. Getter described Diamond as a strong listener and a rabbi who was always accepting of people.
“He was so supportive of every expression of Judaism and every other group at the CJL,” Chair of the CJL Board of Directors Rabbi Darcie Crystal ’97 said. “He embodied the spirit of pluralism that is so central to the culture of the CJL.”
Crystal currently serves as a reform rabbi in New York City at the Tamid Synagogue in Tribeca. Crystal explained that while she was at Princeton she expressed her desire to become a rabbi to Diamond and was received with enthusiasm and encouragement.
“He was a great force on campus,” Katz said.
Former Director of Student Services of the Union for Reform Judaism Terry Cohen Hendin said Diamond never promoted his own personal interests or agenda. She described him as a very modest, open and accepting person whose guidance enabled many young people to pursue their desires and interests.
“There are very few people like him in the world,” Altman said.
Diamond is survived by his wife, Judith; two daughters, Shifra Diamond and Gila Shusterman; and his son, Etan Diamond.
Funeral services were held Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Jewish Center on Nassau Street in his honor.
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