Who Killed Kesher’s Rabbi? | Part One - An Open Door

An Open Door

The door was ajar.

That was the first thing Howard Smith noticed when he arrived at the pale brown townhouse on 25th Street NW, a stop he did not intend to make on the cold, clear morning of Feb. 29, 1984. The home sat just across the M Street Bridge and a short walk from Georgetown in Foggy Bottom, but it was located on a quiet, low-key block that felt a world away from the tony homes in the popular Washington neighborhood.

Smith, an up-and-coming astrophysicist working at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, was already running late for work, but that wasn’t unusual for him that year. His mother had died a few months before, and Jewish law dictates that the immediate family members of the deceased should recite the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer every day for 11 months following the death. Each morning, he walked to Kesher Israel Congregation, a small Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown, and joined its daily minyan, or prayer service. His colleagues knew that he often arrived at the office after 9 a.m.


Photo: Howard Smith

On that day, he wouldn’t get to work until well into the afternoon. First, he would make a gruesome discovery that would shock Washington and reverberate in Jewish communities around the world.

Normally, the congregation’s longtime rabbi, Philip Rabinowitz, would arrive before the morning prayers started, but sometimes — when the assembled group was especially prompt — he got there a few minutes late. Rabinowitz never skipped the service entirely.

The morning minyan required a prayer quorum of 10 men, and that morning, only nine men showed up, with the rabbi nowhere to be found. Someone called Rabinowitz to see if he could come to fill out the group. When he didn’t answer, the congregants grew concerned.

Most of them had to head off to work or to drop their kids at school. Smith, along with a Department of Energy attorney and two of the synagogue’s unhurried retirees, drove the five blocks to Rabinowitz’s home and walked up to the door.

Smith paused when he saw that the door was not closed. The rabbi would not purposely have left it unlocked; he always kept it dead-bolted shut, fearful of intruders.

Something was wrong.

One of the other men had a heart condition, so Smith urged the group to wait outside while he ventured indoors. He walked haltingly up the rickety stairs above the basement apartment to the front door and gingerly pressed on the door. Smith cried out when he stepped inside.

Rabinowitz’s home on 25th Street NW was not a particularly desirable location when he was killed there in 1984. Today, it is flanked by a Trader Joe’s grocery store and a high-end sushi restaurant.
Credit: Hilary Phelps
Rabinowitz’s home on 25th Street NW was not a particularly desirable location when he was killed there in 1984. Today, it is flanked by a Trader Joe’s grocery store and a high-end sushi restaurant.

Rabinowitz lay face down on the floor of his study. Someone — likely someone he knew, police would later argue — had stabbed and bludgeoned him several times.

The rabbi and scholar was dead. He was 63.

No murder weapon would ever be found. The only item missing from the house, friends and family members would later notice, was the knife Rabinowitz used to perform ritual circumcisions. This struck them as more than a coincidence.

Rabinowitz was a man who had escaped antisemitic pogroms in Poland and lived a quiet, humble life in the face of unspeakable tragedies: his parents and siblings murdered by Nazis, the sudden death of his wife, Selma, at their daughter’s wedding six years before. Synagogue members came to view him as a tragic figure. Despite it all, Rabinowitz fought to keep traditional Judaism alive in the nation’s capital as most of Washington’s Jews moved en masse further from the heart of the city or to the suburbs. Even as the neighborhood around him changed, and crime rates in Washington rose, the rabbi never faltered in his conviction that helping others was the pinnacle of his Judaism, which saw that each person was created in God’s image. V’ahavta l’reacha kamocha — love your fellow man as yourself.

Did that biblical teaching, central to Rabinowitz’s worldview, lead the rabbi to his death?

It’s been nearly 40 years since Rabbi Rabinowitz’s murder, an event that continues to cast a dark pall over the synagogue. In that time, the neighborhood around Rabinowitz’s home has changed dramatically, morphing from a quiet and at times seedy college neighborhood to a gentrifying block flanked by a Trader Joe’s grocery store and a high-end sushi restaurant featuring a $200 tasting menu. The synagogue itself has utterly transformed, too, from a small, tight-knit community far from the hub of D.C. Jewish life to an influential and well-regarded institution central to Washington Jewry.

In the days and weeks after Rabinowitz’s murder, the police acted quickly, confident that the killer would be found. That confidence would crumble as the years wore on, and no arrests have ever been made. Today, police tell JI that the case isn’t officially closed but won’t say whether any detectives are still following leads.

In recent years, it has sometimes seemed as if it’s open season on synagogues in America. In 2009, the FBI foiled a terrorist bomb plot to blow up temples in Riverdale, N.Y. In the fall of 2018, a man toting a military-style assault rifle and yelling antisemitic slurs murdered 11 worshippers during morning prayers at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Months later, a shooter opened fire at a synagogue in Poway, Calif., killing one and injuring three others. A rabbi was killed in December 2019 when a man barged into a Hanukkah party in a private home in Monsey, N.Y., and stabbed five people. And in January 2022, a British Pakistani man armed with a pistol stormed into a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, and took four congregants, including its rabbi, hostage.

Those attacks have hit the American Jewish community hard, but the perpetrators’ antisemitic motivations offer something of an answer for their heinous crimes. But what about what appears to be a senseless act of urban violence like the one that befell Rabinowitz? No answer exists for congregants at Kesher Israel, even though there is speculation that the rabbi may have known his killer. The emotional wounds from the murder continue to cut deep at the congregation, nearly 40 years on. Writer Leon Wieseltier, a longtime congregant who joined the synagogue more than a decade after Rabinowitz’s murder, told JI, “It’s part of the ethos of the place.”

”Everybody liked him. He was a very gentle person,” Smith, now an astrophysicist and lecturer at Harvard and the Smithsonian Institution, told Jewish Insider in an interview late last year.

To attempt to understand Rabinowitz’s death, it’s instructive to first learn the story of his life. As the spiritual leader of a tight-knit Orthodox shul — Yiddish for synagogue — his life was not just his own. So too his death, and the mourning that followed, was shared by the many people who had called him a rabbi and a teacher over the years.

He led prayer services three times a day and made himself available to anyone who had religious queries. During the so-called “lean years” of the 1950s and 1960s, when the synagogue regularly struggled to reach the prayer quorum, Rabinowitz kept in his Rolodex a list of Jewish men who lived nearby; he would call them and tell them to come, quick, to help make a minyan, always apologizing profusely before making the ask. When the synagogue’s coffers were nearly empty, he picked up a second job teaching at the nearby Hebrew Academy school. Much of his time was spent visiting convalescent congregants in area nursing homes and hospitals.

”Everybody liked him. He was a very gentle person,” Smith, now an astrophysicist and lecturer at Harvard and the Smithsonian Institution, told Jewish Insider in an interview late last year.

In an undated photo, Rabinowitz speaks at a synagogue function.

Kesher Israel Congregation

At just over 5-feet-2, the mustachioed Rabinowitz was not an imposing figure. He was not the kind of rabbi whose booming voice filled the far reaches of the sanctuary. He interspersed his long, sometimes rambling sermons with Yiddish.

“You could hardly see him over the bimah [pulpit], and he had such a strong accent. I didn’t understand a word of what he said,” said Howard Rosen, an economist who is now the unofficial leader of “Kesher East,” a group of synagogue alumni who live in Israel and gather annually to mark Rabinowitz’s passing at his gravesite.

“He was so charming,” said Sara Averick, a public relations executive who moved to Israel after living in Washington in her 20s. She recalled one of Rabinowitz’s slightly off-color comments, which managed to make use of erudite Jewish concepts in a way that inadvertently poked fun at one of Kesher’s older congregants. It was the man’s 75th birthday, and Rabinowitz used gematria — the practice of assigning numerical values to Hebrew letters — to point out that 75 corresponded to the Hebrew letters ayin, which is 70, and hay, which is five.

“Today,” Rabinowitz said, is a congregant’s ayin hay birthday. “For some people, ayin hay stands for alav ha’shalom. But today we are celebrating his 75th birthday.”

It was an esoteric commentary on old age, but one that the learned crowd: Alav ha’shalom is a Hebrew phrase, translated as “peace be upon him,” and roughly equivalent in usage to “rest in peace.” The two words start with the same letters, ayin and hay, that represent the number 75.

“He rolled his eyes afterward, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I said that,’” Averick recalled. “It was so funny.”

He was like “a rabbinic Yogi Berra,” Rosen added. “I mean, he used to say crazy, amazing, things, great lines.”

Rabinowitz was not easily impressed by the political power brokers who came to Kesher when they passed through the nation’s capital. Several people pointed out that Rabinowitz would introduce any attorney who belonged to the synagogue as a “prominent Washington lawyer,” usually with a smirk. When Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan came to Kesher in 1978 for Yom Kippur, days after the signing of the Camp David Accords, Rabinowitz was unfazed by the famous Israeli general. Rabinowitz asked Dayan to open the ark, a key part of the Shabbat service before the Torah is removed, and he initially said no — but Rabinowitz would not take no for an answer, even from the esteemed guest.

Kesher Israel Congregation has stood at the corner of 28th and N Streets NW in Georgetown for nearly 100 years.
Credit: Hilary Phelps
Kesher Israel Congregation has stood at the corner of 28th and N Streets NW in Georgetown for nearly 100 years.

Rabinowitz grew up in a town next to Łomża, Poland, a small city located between Warsaw and Bialystok. Before World War II, it was home to a major yeshiva and housed a grand synagogue designed by a renowned Italian architect. Jews comprised more than one-third of Łomża’s population in the 1930s.

One of Rabinowitz’s brothers had already gone to what was then Palestine; Łomża was an early Zionist hub, and the Łomża Yeshiva even opened a location in Petach Tikvah that still operates today.

By the end of the war, no Jews would remain in Łomża. Many had been shot in mass graves in a forest outside the city, while others were killed in concentration camps. Rabinowitz’s parents were murdered by Nazis. Hashem yikom damam, he would say when he spoke of them. May God avenge their blood.

When Rabinowitz left home in 1938 to study in the United States, he changed his name from the Polish-inflected Fiszel Rabinowicz to Philip Rabinowitz and enrolled at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Ill. His time there influenced him heavily — it’s where Rabinowitz was steeped in the values of the Mussar movement, a religious tradition that emphasized the importance of both Torah learning and ethics.

For someone like Rabinowitz, “the worst crime,” Reuven Schlenker explained, “was to embarrass somebody publicly.”

“I thought he was exemplary,” said Schlenker, a university librarian and sofer, or Torah scribe, who attended Kesher in the early 1980s. “I thought, ‘Boy, I wish I could do that.’ I’m not that quality.”

Days before Rabbi Philip Rabinowitz was stabbed to death, he received the best kind of news: His daughter Miriam had given birth to a baby girl. The rabbi was supposed to attend the baby’s naming ceremony days later.

The birth would be welcome news for any grandparent, but for Rabinowitz, it carried a special significance. It was a miracle, really, for Miriam to bring a child into the world after what happened at her wedding six years before.

Miriam Rabinowitz had a summer wedding on a humid August day in 1978, just weeks after her brother Asher got married in New Jersey. Because Miriam’s wedding took place in Washington, it was a raucous synagogue affair — not just for family and personal friends but for the wide network of Kesher Israel Congregation members and their families, who were invited to attend the tisch and bedeken.

Miriam was holding court at her bedeken, a celebration that comes prior to the official ceremony at a traditional Jewish wedding. The Yiddish word means “to veil,” and the ceremony culminates with the groom coming and putting the veil on his bride. The practice, which is meant to confirm the identity of the bride, comes from the biblical story of Jacob being tricked into marrying Leah, rather than his intended bride, Rachel. The bedeken is the first time the couple are intended to see each other on the day of their wedding.

Typically, a bride sits between her mother and soon-to-be mother-in-law, and women approach the bride to extend their congratulation wishes. Elsewhere in the banquet hall, at the tisch, the groom and the male guests sit around a large table, sharing words of Torah.

Ellen Epstein, who was active at Kesher and one of the few synagogue members to befriend the rabbi’s wife, stood in the receiving line that night. “I was talking to the woman behind me, and then all this commotion and pandemonium broke out,” Epstein recalled. Selma, the bride’s mother, had fallen to the ground soon after she came into the room.

”She walked into the bedeken and took about three steps and then just collapsed,” said Irving Haber, a physicist who was the synagogue vice president at the time.

Ambulances arrived quickly, and Selma was carted to the hospital, but it was too late. She died there, just as her daughter was preparing to walk down the aisle at the wedding venue.

“It never, never, never entered my mind that she had died,” Epstein said. But that was the truth, leaving the rabbi — now widowed on the evening of his daughter’s wedding — to make a horrible choice. He decided not to tell his own daughter, whose wedding it was, and proceed with the ceremony.

”The rabbi called the other rabbis in the area and they said they should go on with the wedding. So he went through the wedding not telling anyone of his family, even though he knew the prognosis was quite grim,” Haber recalled..

The few who knew about the direness of the situation spoke almost in code. Ellen and her husband, David, learned of Selma’s passing only obliquely through a conversation at the wedding with a fellow congregant about vacation plans. David told one of the synagogue leaders that he and Ellen planned to take their young children to the beach the next morning.

“I wouldn’t go if I were you,” the other congregant said. It was a nod at the truth; no one wanted to say out loud what had happened to Selma while still at her daughter’s wedding. So the Epsteins went home after the wedding and stayed in town, in case they would have to attend a funeral the next day.

The celebratory wedding dances continued as usual, but Rabinowitz sat on the sidelines, feigning tiredness rather than grief. A Jew who is mourning the death of an immediate family member is expected to avoid dancing at festivities like weddings and bar mitzvahs during their year-long mourning period.

“He didn’t tell his daughter. He didn’t tell anybody. He just stood there, and people would be dancing, and they wouldn’t be looking at him. So he wouldn’t let on,” said Toby Grauman, a lawyer and rabbi who was close to the rabbi.

When Miriam asked her father about her mother, his answer was like a riddle.

“She’s in God’s hand,” Rabinowitz told Miriam.

“It was both accurate in his worldview and also not alarming,” David Epstein told Jewish Insider in the attic office of Epstein’s Chevy Chase, Md., home, surrounded by Judaica and souvenirs from his travels around the world. (David, a Texan by birth and by nature, was not wearing his usual cowboy hat on the day of the interview.) After Rabinowitz was killed, David served as the synagogue’s liaison to the police, and he still has in his office a thick manila envelope stuffed with newspaper clippings, correspondence and notes from the year following the rabbi’s death.

“That’s an extraordinary strength,” Grauman said of the rabbi’s actions at Miriam’s wedding. “Can you imagine the tragedy of someone, for that to happen at that moment, and then later, his own life ends in such tragedy? I mean, you can’t write that story. You can’t make it up. It’s an incredible story of tragedy for someone who escaped the tragedies of Europe.”

Miriam declined Jewish Insider’s request for an interview.

“I thought he was exemplary,” said Schlenker, a university librarian and sofer, or Torah scribe, who attended Kesher in the early 1980s. “I thought, ‘Boy, I wish I could do that.’ I’m not that quality.”

Inside the sanctuary at Kesher Israel, a plaque next to the bimah honors Rabinowitz. It’s been there for decades in this building that is nearly 100 years old and far too small — the main sanctuary, with the original wooden, leather-backed seats and green stained glass windows, seats less than 250 people.

“He exemplified devotion to Torah with acts of loving-kindness for all whose lives he touched,” the plaque’s inscription reads.

In Hebrew, there’s a phrase that Jews often use to memorialize the dead: “May their memory be a blessing.” On the plaque, Kesher’s boosters took the saying one step further. “May the memory of the righteous be a blessing,” it reads, regarding the esteemed rabbi.

But there is one other phrase, too, that is sometimes used, with a much darker connotation: “May God avenge their blood.” Rabinowitz used this language when he spoke about his family members who had been slaughtered in the Holocaust.

Many of the people who knew Rabinowitz well and were present at Kesher in the days and months after his murder still use that expression today when they speak of him. Hashem yikom damo. May God avenge his blood.

Those same people — the most loyal members of the Kesher community — claim to know who killed Rabinowitz.

The police never made an arrest. But they also never closed the case.

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