On Sharon Diamondstein’s desk sits a framed letter from a former student at Congregation Kehilat Shalom in Belle Mead. It reads, “Your class gave meaning to Judaism for me. You are basically the foundation for my Jewish identity, and I don’t know how to thank you for that.”
She hopes to receive similarly appreciative notes as the director of congregational learning for The Jewish Center (TJC), a new position that covers all educational programs from youth through adult. Her responsibilities include managing the religious school, the high school program for eighth-12th graders, informal youth programming, and adult education.
“I am thrilled that Sharon has joined our TJC family and will work to oversee all of our educational endeavors,” wrote Rabbi Adam Feldman, religious leader of the Princeton congregation. “I am glad that Sharon brings years of synagogue educational experience and a hard-working attitude to TJC and I am sure she will be a great success.”
Diamondstein said that she’s excited to be at TJC. “I love the idea of building community, of bringing people together. I want to get to know these kids, to get to know their families, to know the people in adult education.”
Her teaching style, she says, can be unconventional. Diamondstein has overheard students saying, “We never do anything in Morah Sharon’s class; we just talk,” but it doesn’t bother her. In fact, it is through those classroom conversations where she might “throw out a text … pose a question … or give them some sort of an ethical dilemma,” that deep, personal learning occurs.
For example, one fall when she was teaching at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, students who lived in an observant community expressed how they were uncomfortable knocking on the doors of Jewish neighbors who didn’t celebrate Halloween. Upon hearing this, Diamondstein prodded them to think about whether they felt less Jewish because they chose to trick or treat.
“We had an intense conversation where the takeaway was to accept everybody for who they are,” she told NJJN. “My level of Judaism is not going to be the same as everyone else’s, but it doesn’t make us good, bad, or indifferent — it makes us who we are.”
The committee that hired Diamondstein was able to witness her knowledge and teaching skills: All six of the final candidates had to submit a writing sample, deliver a dvar Torah, and teach a class. “We got to see them in action. It wasn’t just an interview,” said Linda Meisel, president of TJC.
Meisel and the other members of the committee were obviously impressed by what they saw in Diamondstein. “She’s had a lot of teaching experience, she ran a school, she has written curriculum — all the things we felt were important.”
Diamondstein was born in Israel to a secular family; her American mother, Michele Franck, met her father, Israeli singer Shabi Katzir, while she was visiting Israeli relatives.
When she was 3 her family left Israel for West New York in Hudson County, where she said her parents “were forced not to be so secular.” They continued their traditional holiday observances, ate kosher style, and taught Diamondstein the importance of the synagogue. From pre-K through second grade she attended the Yeshiva of Hudson County (now the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey). There were some challenges.
“It was a very right-wing school, and I got chastised because my dresses and skirts only covered my knees,” she said.
After second grade the family moved to Millburn, joined the Conservative Congregation B’nai Israel, and Diamondstein attended public school, graduating from Millburn High School in 1994.
Diamondstein said her level of observance evolved, and she was inspired by trips to Queens to visit her great-uncle and-aunt and their children, who were her age. “Every time I went to their house for a holiday or Shabbat there was like this warmth in the house that I didn’t have at home,” she said. “I told my cousin that I wanted my home to mimic yours.”
In middle school she began to observe kashrut and Shabbat. In that way, she told NJJN, she was “the rebel” in her family.
She attended Kean University, where she met her husband, Marc Diamondstein, and studied political science, with a concentration on international relations, in particular, the Arab-Israeli conflict. “I was going to solve that,” she said of her thinking at the time. “I was going to go to grad school in Israel and learn Arabic and work for the UN.”
While her resume doesn’t list “peacemaking,” it does include a teaching certificate and extensive educational experience across multiple denominations and types of schools. She taught early literacy in the Edison Township Public Schools and worked as a first grade general studies teacher at the now-shuttered Yeshiva at the Jersey Shore. She also worked in numerous congregations, including Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield and Neve Shalom in Metuchen.
Working at the Yeshiva at the Jersey Shore, she said, was “another piece of my Jewish journey,” as she would meld her Judaic and general studies lessons. One example she spoke about— with pride — was creating a seamless connection between Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Black History Month, and Passover.
For Martin Luther King Jr. Day the first graders listened to clips of his “I had a dream” speech, and for Black History Month in February they read a book about a friendship between a slave and her owner, and learned about the underground railroad. Soon after they learned about the Jewish story of freedom from slavery in Egypt.
“Everything just tied together in a beautiful box,” she said. “The kids loved it, we loved it, and you could just see the magic happen.”
One of her takeaways from an early teaching job is the need for creativity. Another, she said, is “Every student is a special needs student. Every student has their way of learning, and you need to appeal to that and do what you need to do to hook them.”
Marc, her husband, is a probation officer for the State of New Jersey, and their sons, Eric, 9, and Jason, 5, attend the Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick.
“I want to bring everyone together,” she said of The Jewish Center, “working as a community, and building a community here.”