Rabbi James Diamond, the retired director of the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton University, was remembered as a pioneer of the Hillel college movement and a man of deep intellect whose knowledge spanned both the religious and secular.
Diamond, 74, was killed when a speeding driver lost control of his vehicle on a residential street in Princeton and slammed into a parked car Diamond was about to enter. Diamond was thrown away from the vehicle and pronounced dead at the scene.
The March 28 accident also injured the driver of the parked vehicle, Rabbi Robert Freedman of Princeton, a former cantor at the Jewish Center in Princeton. They had just left a Jewish study group when a BMW driven by Eric Maltz, 20, of Princeton, who has been charged with assault by auto and death by auto, hit their Toyota Prius. Both Maltz and Freedman are at Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton.
Diamond, a Conservative rabbi with a doctorate in comparative literature, continued to teach courses on literature and Talmud at the Jewish Center, the university, local senior centers, and Princeton Adult School after his retirement in 2004 from the Center for Jewish Life, where he served from 1995. He previously was director of the Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis, beginning in 1972.
“I knew Jim well,” said CJL’s current director, Rabbi Julie Roth. “He was a gadol [great leader] of the Hillel movement. 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, Diamond 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 had been “flooded” with calls from former students and colleagues and had set up a Facebook page where mourners could 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 set to be 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.”
Freedman, who served as cantor at the center from 1982 to 1996, is currently cantor at Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia but remains a member at the Princeton synagogue. Tucker described him as a gifted musician who brings his skill together “with a love for Jewish tradition.”
Michele Alperin, a bar and bat mitzva tutor at the Jewish Center, took literature and Talmud courses with Diamond, whom she described as “humble in a way that wasn’t falsely humble.”
“He really looked at people when they talked to him,” she said. “He usually had a deep, well-formed response. He’d say the unexpected.”
Alperin said Diamond’s intellectual prowess combined with his caring attitude allowed him to interact with both Jewish and non-Jewish students, ranging from college students to senior citizens.
“He was such a giving person,” she said. “This has left a huge tear in the community.”
Daimond is survived by his wife, Judy Litman Diamond; son Etan; two daughters, Shifra Diamond and Gila Shusterman; siblings Gary Diamond and Beth Goodman; and six grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are being made by Orland's Ewing Memorial Chapel.
In a 2003 interview with NJJN after his retirement was announced, 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.