Sunday, March 31, 2013

Aseh L'Cha Rav

From my blog 5-25-11:  My hero Rabbi Jim Diamond took a steadfast position that all students at Wash U and Princeton had a stake in Jewish life around the campuses and he will provide the resources to fulfill it.  

Rabbi Diamond passed away unexpectedly and tragically this past week, killed while trying to get into the passenger side of a car,  returning home from a Talmud class. He more typically rode his bicycle from his home to the WashU Hillel building. One Sunday morning about ten years ago when as Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Life at Princeton University, he afforded me the great honor of speaking to my congregation at my invitation, he took the train from Princeton to Wilmington.  The half hour in my car gave me a little more private time with him than I deserved.  To his final day I never knew him as the driver.   I knew he was married and had kids.  I also knew that he was raised in Canada, though I always thought Montreal rather than the more accurate Winnipeg which had a very vibrant Jewish Community at the time.  I knew very little about him personally over the four years of direct contact and many more of indirect contact.

Yet I had the great privilege of getting to know him professionally, keeping in touch long after I departed St. Louis.  When I first arrived in St. Louis as a medical student in 1973 I needed Kosher meat.  I called Hillel and Rabbi Diamond provided me the address of where he shopped, a place called Diaments, which only closed very recently, the penultimate Kosher butcher remaining in St. Louis at the time.  He must have not realized that I lacked wheels, since the schlep there and back on a Sunday morning using the Bi-State Bus from South St. Louis took three hours.  Yet he got me there and back, noting some pleasure that the reach of Hillel might extend beyond the Washington University main campus to the Jesuit university four miles away.  Over the years there were classes, a weekly Kosher deli run from their kitchen that attracted the community and many conversations about Jewish life and where the future might be heading.  The Rabbi had started like most Conservative Rabbis as an assistant at a growing suburban United Synagogue affiliate in White Plains, NY.  He observed that the GI's who were growing their families at the time, probably mid 1960's, and acquiring a stable measure of prosperity as well, were not investing in their children's Jewish future.  The congregants were generous with maintaining buildings and paying clergy, they sent their kids to Hebrew school, but generally did not have let alone transmit a sense of what Jewish excellence is really about.  When it came time to decide if he really wanted to be a pulpit rabbi, he opted instead to pursue a college ministry instead, a place where he could direct impressionable young Jews of all types, choosing their own Jewish journeys for the first time.  He went to Indiana University first where he obtained his PhD in literature while running their Hillel.  Then he moved on to St. Louis, arriving about a year before I did, staying until 1995.  I received a notice that year, that they were naming the library in the Hillel building after him, the place where I divided my Sunday afternoons my final two years of medical school between my medical texts and whatever captured my Jewish interests on the shelves.  With the Rabbi's guidance, I had become Jewishly inquisitive, an imprint that follows me to this day.  I will teach a class of any size, from one person on elective to a Grand Rounds, another part of the Rabbi's legacy.  And while there is still considerable laytzanos in my mode of thinking, the Rabbi got me to temper it, or at least direct the cynicism for a beneficial purpose, which I hope is what I do here, though with varied success.  I sent off a donation, as was requested along with a note suggesting a retirement might be premature.  He responded promptly on Hillel stationery that we would soon be figurative neighbors, as he was taking a position with Princeton University.  I framed the letter where it hung in my office until my practice closed.

I got to visit the Center for Jewish Life one time, taking my son on a Saturday morning to visit Princeton University as a place that might be suitable for him to consider attending.  The campus seemed largely abandoned that morning.  We parked nearby the exquisite building, financed by dedicated and prosperous alumni, nearly all of recent vintage as Princeton was not a Jewish friendly university until the 1960's.  I wandered through the many rooms, finding a fully attended orthodox service in progress and a few doors away, a couple dozen people, most too old to be undergrads, including Rabbi Diamond, sitting living room style either holding a discussion or conducting an egalitarian service.  Except for my son's impatience, I'd have gone in to join them and offer a personal long overdue greeting to my teacher turned friend.  That would have to wait another year for his Wilmington visit.

Rabbi Diamond retired about ten years go, passing the baton to a young female Rabbi.  He kept active and engaged with young students of high school age as well as Jewish adult education.  Just like the airline tells you to put on your own mask before assisting others, the Rabbi kept his own mind engaged in Jewish learning right to his final day.

From a Hillel presentation, there could be no more fitting tribute than to the person I sought out as my Rabbi:

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