Obituary: Rabbi James S. Diamond, 74

Rabbi James S. Diamond, former executive director of Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis, died Thursday, March 28, 2013, in a traffic accident in Princeton, N.J., where he lived. He was 74.

Diamond was director of Hillel at WUSTL from 1972 until 1995, when he left to become director of Princeton University’s Hillel.

Diamond’s tragic death was a blow to many on campus who recall his tenure as director of St. Louis Hillel at WUSTL.

According to police reports in several New Jersey newspapers, Diamond was killed when a speeding driver lost control and struck a parked car that then slammed into the car Diamond was entering. The impact threw him from the area of the crash, and he was pronounced dead at the scene. The speeding driver was charged with assault by auto.


During his time at WUSTL, Diamond also was an adjunct professor in Asian and Near Eastern language and literature, and Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern studies. In 1995, he moved to New Jersey to be director of the Center for Jewish Life-Hillel at Princeton. He retired in 2003, but continued to teach at Princeton.

Nancy Berg, PhD, professor of modern Hebrew language and literature and of comparative literature, both in Arts & Sciences, remembers Diamond’s influence at WUSTL.

“Jim Diamond was a huge presence on campus,” Berg said. “As director of Hillel, he contributed greatly to student life, and not just the Jewish students. Administrators also relied on his moral compass and good judgment.

“Under his direction, Hillel began many of the interfaith programs that are continued today. He developed strong connections with faculty, offering the entire community a significant added intellectual dimension. This was no doubt due to his own intellectual strength. His adjunct status belies the important position he held. His scholarship, including his two seminal monographs, is very highly regarded.”

Jacqueline Levey, president and CEO of St. Louis Hillel, was a WUSTL undergraduate when Diamond was executive director.

“Rabbi Diamond was always so warm and engaging, and I remember his smile,” she said. “‘Rebbe D,’ as he was often referred to, was a pillar of our Hillel and the St. Louis Jewish community. He was a beloved rabbi, teacher and friend to many, and he inspired generations of students to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life and learning.

“As a learned scholar and teacher, Rabbi Diamond not only enriched the lives of his students, but he also enriched our faculty and staff community. I often hear stories of Talmud study and Jewish learning sessions he convened for faculty.

“He embodied the Jewish values and ideals that he taught, and we will ensure that his legacy and his commitment to Jewish learning live on through our work at Hillel.”

Henry Berger, PhD, professor emeritus of history, recalled working with Diamond in the Jewish Studies program.

“I was a close friend and academic colleague,” Berger said. “He was an important founder of and participant in the Jewish Studies program. He was a key adviser to me when I chaired the program and when we expanded it to become Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies, a model of its kind in the United States.

“Jim was my rabbi in every sense of the word,” Berger said. “I learned much from him, not least that it is possible, and indeed necessary, as a Jew, to act on behalf of social justice, intellectual freedom and political liberation. For him, it was not a matter of who you are, but what you choose to do with it. We shall miss him terribly.”

Chancellor William H. Danforth, whose tenure as chancellor overlapped with Diamond’s time at St. Louis Hillel, also noted how well Diamond worked with students.

“Rabbi Jim Diamond was a wonderful person,” Danforth said. “I have vivid memories of him dealing with Jewish and non-Jewish students, helping them understand themselves and each other. He made Washington University a better place.”

St. Louis Hillel has created a memorial page on facebook:

St. Louis Hillel also hopes to coordinate a memorial or other tribute to honor Diamond’s legacy. “We welcome the involvement of anyone who would like to participate in the planning,” Levey said.

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Canada, and ordained in 1963 by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Diamond began his career as a Hillel rabbi in 1968 at Indiana University. Rabbi Diamond held a doctorate in comparative literature from Indiana University, and was the author of many books. At the time of his death, he was working on a translation of the works of S.Y. Agnon.

Among the survivors are his wife of 52 years, Judith Litman Diamond; two daughters, Shifra Diamond of New York and Gila Shusterman of Chevy Chase, Md.; a son, Etan Diamond of Efrat, Israel; a sister, Beth Goodman of Montreal and the Bahamas; a brother, Gary Diamond of Toronto and six grandchildren.

A funeral service was held March 30 at The Jewish Center in Princeton. Burial was at the Washington Cemetery in South Brunswick, N.J.