Rabbi James S. Diamond: Former St. Louis Hillel director, scholar | St. Louis Public Radio

Rabbi James S. Diamond: Former St. Louis Hillel director, scholar

Apr 2, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Rabbi Jim Diamond would concede nothing to evil. The sermon he delivered on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, offered a gentle assurance.

“We must remind ourselves that in spite of all its ugliness and evil, this is a good and beautiful world,” he preached.

Rabbi Diamond, the former executive director of Hillel at Washington University for more than two decades, died Thursday (March 28, 2013), at the scene of a car accident in Princeton, N.J., where he had lived since leaving St. Louis in 1995. He was 74.

The accident occurred when a speeding driver caused a chain reaction that resulted in Rabbi Diamond being struck as he was about to get into the passenger side of a car being driven by Rabbi Robert Freedman. The two rabbis had just left a Talmud study group. Rabbi Freedman and the speeding driver sustained non-life-threatening injuries.

Services for Rabbi Diamond were held in Princeton on Sunday, March 31.

“It’s a great loss,” said Rabbi Susan Talve, of Central Reform Congregation. “We were sad when he left.”

Leading Hillel

Hillels provide Jewish college students with resources for spiritual and intellectual growth. Rabbi Diamond was a Hillel rabbi for 36 years. After serving in that capacity for four years at Indiana University, he came to St. Louis Hillel at Washington University in 1972.

For the next 23 years, Rabbi Diamond guided students at Washington University, as well as colleges and universities throughout the region. He was also an adjunct professor in Asian and Near Eastern languages and literature at the university.

A unique challenge, said Talve, is to create an environment in which students at all levels of observance can feel comfortable, whether they are non-observant, observant, liberal or traditional. Rabbi Diamond, a conservative rabbi, met the challenge.

“I have vivid memories of him dealing with Jewish and non-Jewish students, helping them understand themselves and each other,” said former Chancellor William H. Danforth, whose tenure paralleled Rabbi Diamond’s at the university. “He made Washington University a better place.”

Rabbi Diamond earned a reputation as a leader in the community at large, laying the groundwork for interfaith dialog, and was recognized nationally for his scholarship on the role of the United States in the Middle East.

His sermons and writings were seeded with passages of the poetry he loved, such as Shakespearean sonnets, the laments of the Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai, or Hirsh Glik’s The Partisans’ Song, that inspired resistance to Hitler.

Raising the bar

Writing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1991, in historical and analytical detail about the Arab-Israeli conflict, Rabbi Diamond asked, “What happens when, as the old conundrum of physics has it, an irresistible force meets an immovable object?” After exploring alternative outcomes, he concluded: “In the fullness of time, something's got to give.”

“He was a very unusual rabbi in that he was a wonderful scholar as well as a kind and visionary person,” Rabbi Talve said. “He raised the bar on being a rabbi.”

One vision materialized nearly 30 years ago, when a group of families were looking for a place to educate their children. Rabbi Diamond offered them a place at St. Louis Hillel, where they remained for two or three years. The group grew into Central Reform Congregation.

Talve is the founding rabbi of CRC, but said, “In a real sense, he was the congregation’s first rabbi.”

During his time in St. Louis, Rabbi Diamond wrote numerous articles and essays and edited A Handbook for Hillel and Jewish Campus Professionals, published in 1983. In 1986, he wrote Homeland or Holy Land? The “Canaanite” Critique of Israel, the study of Hebrew poet Yonatan Ratosh and the Zionist movement. The Post-Dispatch called the book “a great interest to serious readers.”

He later wrote Stringing the Pearls: How to Read the Weekly Torah Portion, a how-to guide for reading and interpreting the five books of the Hebrew Bible.

Much of his knowledge was garnered through repeated journeys to Israel, some of which he led. He had returned from a two-month visit last month.

Rabbi Diamond left St. Louis in 1995, to become director of Princeton University's Center for Jewish Life. He retired in 2003. He continued to teach at Princeton, mentor at national Hillel and host a morning classical music program on WPRB-FM, Princeton’s radio station.

At the time of his death, he was translating the works of Israeli novelist Shmuel Yosef Agnon, who wrote as S.Y. Agnon.

Wit was legend

James S. Diamond, the son of Myer Diamond and Eva Posner Diamond Pellatt, was born and raised in Winnipeg, Canada. He received a bachelor's degree in English literature from Roosevelt University in Chicago, and earned a doctorate in comparative literature from Indiana University. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1963. The seminary awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1988.

He played hockey and enjoyed baseball and classical music; his wit was legend. It was exemplified by a statement in 2006 to the Associated Press and carried by the Post-Dispatch. He said Judaism’s high holidays could be called the "hi" holidays because "Jews who haven't seen each other all year gather in synagogues and temples to say 'Hi!'"

St. Louisans who had not seen Rabbi Diamond in many years, mourn his passing.

“Certain people come into a community and even when they leave, you feel their presence,” Talve said. “We will always feel his presence.”

Rabbi Diamond was preceded in death by his parents.

His survivors include his wife of 52 years, Judith Litman Diamond; three children, Shifra Diamond of New York City, Gila (Alan) Shusterman of Chevy Chase, Md., and Etan (Judy Snowbell) Diamond of Efrat, Israel; brother, Gary (Ella) Diamond of Toronto, and sister, Beth (Bernie) Goodman of Montreal and Costa Rica, and six grandchildren.

The family would appreciate memorials to Melabev-Community Clubs for Eldercare, the Center for Jewish Life or the Jewish Center (Princeton).

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.