Crash victim’s colleagues recall a ‘gadol’

Crash victim’s colleagues recall a ‘gadol’

Rabbi James Diamond left a legacy of caring at Princeton CJL/Hillel

A week after a horrific three-car accident took the life of Rabbi James Diamond as he left his Thursday morning Talmud study group, members gathered as usual.

“He was very much missed this morning,” said Rabbi Robert Freedman in an April 4 phone interview with NJJN. “What the four men left in the study group and I finally came up with is that we don’t really understand how the universe works. We are only human and will never figure this out, and to try and do so would be frustrating and discouraging, and we don’t want to be discouraged.

“We believe the proper response to tragedies like this is to comfort each other and allow ourselves to draw from the well of God’s compassion.”

Diamond, 74, the retired director of the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton University, was killed March 28 when a speeding driver lost control of his vehicle on a residential street in Princeton and slammed into a car Diamond was getting into.

Freedman, the driver of the parked vehicle, was also injured. Eric Maltz, 20, of Princeton, has been charged with assault by auto and death by auto, with bail set at $100,000.

On March 21, a week before the accident, police had been called to Maltz’s home because he was throwing things. He was taken by the Princeton First Aid Squad to University Medical Center of Princeton in Plainsboro for mental health treatment, according to the Times of Trenton.

Freedman, who served as cantor at the Jewish Center in Princeton from 1982 to 1996, later served as rabbi at String of Pearls congregation in Princeton before accepting a rabbinical position in Vermont. Returning to Princeton in 2007, he is now cantor at Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia.

After his return, Freedman and Diamond became friends through the weekly study group. Freedman and his wife, Sally, would often spend Shabbat with Diamond and his wife, Judy.

“He was a great teacher who drew a lot of people to Torah and Judaism,” said Freedman. “He was just a nice, gentle person. He had that quality of being very haimish in his personal relationships, but known to a great many people.”

The accident left Freedman pondering “how random the universe is.” He himself received “relatively minor” injuries — he had a broken rib and a fractured cheekbone and had to have an eyelid sewn back on.

“I didn’t yet have my seatbelt on and the airbag didn’t deploy because the car wasn’t on, yet here I am sitting here,” said Freedman. “It doesn’t make sense at all. Nothing about it was rational. It was a random event and terrifying.”

‘A powerful sound’

Diamond, a Conservative rabbi with a doctorate in comparative literature, was a Hillel rabbi for 36 years. He was director of the Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis, beginning in 1972, and before that served five years at Indiana University. He came to Princeton in 1995.

“He was a gadol [great leader] of the Hillel movement,” said CJL’s current director, Rabbi Julie Roth. “For me personally, when I started this job I was fresh out of rabbinical school, and Jim was the kind of person who could simultaneously step back and give me free reign and guidance.”

After retirement in 2004, Diamond continued to teach courses in literature and Talmud at the Jewish Center, the university, local senior centers, and Princeton Adult School. At the time of his death, Diamond was translating the works of the late Israeli author S.Y. Agnon.

He continued to be a familiar figure at CJL, leading Shabbat morning prayers.

“I can still see him blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur,” recalled Roth. “He had this little shofar, but made this powerful sound. That was Jim in every sense. Smart, gracious, understanding, and warm.”

She said CJL has been “flooded” with calls from former students and colleagues and has set up a Facebook page where mourners may leave messages, which will be presented as a tribute book to the family. The center will also hold a memorial service at the university after the family has finished its mourning period.

Diamond was also a member of the Jewish Center, where a funeral was held on March 31. Rabbi Annie Tucker remembered him as “an incredible teacher and scholar beloved by many people at the Jewish Center.”

“He was very involved in the adult education community and was well-known for being an exciting and accessible teacher,” she said. “There’s been a sadness and huge sense of loss for our community and, of course, his family.”

In addition to his wife of 52 years, Diamond is survived by son Etan and his wife, Judy Snowbell, of Efrat, Israel; two daughters, Shifra Diamond of New York City and Gila Shusterman and her husband, Alan, of Chevy Chase, Md.; siblings Gary Diamond of Toronto and Beth Goodman of Montreal and Costa Rica; and six grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements were by Orland’s Ewing Memorial Chapel; burial was in Washington Cemetery, South Brunswick.

Memorial donations may be sent to Melabev-Community Clubs for Eldercare, Center for Jewish Life, or the Jewish Center.

In a 2003 interview with NJJN after he announced his retirement, Diamond looked back on his years at CJL. “If I’ve touched lives and given some people an idea that Judaism is broad and deep and a source of great meaning and that being a Jew is a great gift, then I’ve succeeded,” he said.

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