Love the Stranger
A cloud of grief hung over Rabbi Philip Rabinowitz in the years before his murder.
The Georgetown rabbi maintained his stature as the spiritual and intellectual beating heart of Kesher Israel Congregation, but after his wife died, something fundamental had changed. He was broken.
The rabbi had to navigate the difficult halacha, or Jewish law, around burial and matrimony in a way that few others had done before. He wanted his daughter to be able to enjoy life as a newlywed as much as possible while also mourning her mother. He opted to forego immediately sitting shiva for his wife so that his daughter could spend the week after her wedding celebrating with the traditional Sheva Brachot, or Seven Blessings, a week of festive gatherings.
After a period of intense emotional whiplash, Rabinowitz was left to reenter normal life on his own.
“At the time of her death, I’m reasonably certain that Rabbi Rabinowitz had no inkling of how to boil water, no idea how to do any cooking at all,” said Dan Klein, a longtime Kesher member. “But he learned, and there were a few members of the congregation who helped him out a little bit, and he eventually got to the point where he could invite a few people over for a Shabbat meal.”
“He was a survivor and refugee and it just made him more kind and generous,” said Rosen. Some would later question, only in hindsight, whether he had been too generous.
The rabbi did not regularly have guests over, though, and congregants began to walk or drive him home after evening prayers. The neighborhood wasn’t particularly unsafe — Georgetown was spared the worst of the violent crime that racked Washington in the 1980s and 1990s — but Rabinowitz’s residence was closer to The George Washington University campus than it was to the multimillion-dollar Georgetown homes, and besides, “it was pitch black,” said Howard Rosen, who often walked with Rabinowitz on his way back to the GWU dorms.
Still, Rabinowitz was not willing to only accept congregants’ pity and shrink from his duties. In 1979, he quit his teaching job at a local Jewish school to focus full-time on the congregation. He continued his responsibilities as a religious leader, but he also doubled down in his commitment to pastoral care. This, congregants say, is where he really shined: remembering the names of all of your kids, or visiting you when you were sick, and making it clear he saw you as a person, and not just as the 10th member of a prayer quorum.
“It’s incredible that people like this, who have gone through a life like that… He went through the worst experience in life — he was a survivor and refugee and it just made him more kind and generous,” said Rosen. Some would later question, only in hindsight, whether he had been too generous.
Rabinowitz always made a point of welcoming anyone who walked through Kesher’s doors. In the last few years of his life, that included several individuals who were homeless. These visitors, though also Jewish, did not always fit in with Kesher’s base of highly educated professionals.
One woman who came to services regularly was believed to suffer from schizophrenia. “She wasn’t socialized like the rest of the people who went to synagogue. Sometimes she was disruptive. She may not have been dressed appropriately, acting out appropriately, you know. That was just part of our community,” Rosen said.
Rosen recalled another man who would sometimes come to evening services “with alcohol on his breath.” One time, Rosen left the synagogue with him and they started walking together. The man said good night before walking into Rock Creek Park, the massive urban park in the center of Washington. It was a warm night, and that’s where he planned to sleep.
Oh, Rosen thought. So he’s going home, and we’re going home.
The rabbi and his wife had never been the type of gregarious couple that was always socializing or having people over for holiday meals. Selma Rabinowitz harbored some resentment for the old-timers on the synagogue’s board whom she felt didn’t treat her husband properly.
Measured financially, this was a statement of fact: The synagogue paid him so little that Rabinowitz had to take the job teaching at the Hebrew Academy on 16th Street in Northwest Washington.
“I don’t think anyone disliked him. They just didn’t hold him in as high regard as I think he deserved. They thought they could toss him around at will. He had no power base to fight back,” Irving Haber said of the older synagogue members. According to Kesher lore, Rabinowitz defeated an attempt to oust him — the mythology varies as to exactly when it was — when a crowd of loyal young members showed up at the secretive bagel brunch where the vote was being held.
The tradition of Modern Orthodoxy maintains that observant Jews can live, work and interact in the secular world while also following the strictures of Jewish law. And at Kesher Israel Congregation, two blocks away from Georgetown’s busiest commercial corridor and just a mile or two from the White House and the U.S. Capitol, congregants keep one foot firmly planted in the secular world.
Rabinowitz presided over a community that would become known for its eclectic mix of acclaimed writers, famed intellectuals and members of the political elite. In 2000, when Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut senator and Kesher Israel member, ran for vice president, images of the synagogue appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world. The rich Jewish life that exists today in Georgetown, one of Washington’s most exclusive neighborhoods, flourished because Rabinowitz managed to leave his native Europe before the Holocaust.
The synagogue was started by a ragtag group of Jewish merchants in 1911. Within two decades, the founders of what was originally called the Georgetown Hebrew Benevolent Association had pooled enough money to purchase a plot of land at 28th and N streets, two blocks from M Street, Georgetown’s main drag. This was prime real estate for a group of men who usually went straight from Saturday morning prayers — which were held earlier than was traditional, at their request — to open their shops.
“Rabbi Rabinowitz kept the flame going at a time when the flames of urban Judaism were flickering, and he impacted lives. There are not too many rabbis who can do that,” said Gerard Leval.
Back then in the 1910s, Georgetown wasn’t yet the posh enclave that came to be associated with the Kennedys and Washington’s highest social castes. The Jews who arrived in Georgetown and opened stores at the turn of the 20th century “weren’t moving to a wealthy Georgetown that you picture today,” said Linda Brody Blumenreich, whose grandfather owned a clothing store on M Street for decades. These were working-class Eastern European immigrants, while the wealthier and more educated German Jews (“the lawyers and doctors,” Blumenreich explained) settled on 16th Street.
Kesher was never a typical synagogue. Located in a neighborhood where the median home price is now more than $1.5 million, Kesher’s membership has always been transient, with people cycling in and out depending in part on what they can afford.
Driving and the use of electronics are prohibited on Shabbat, so observant Jews have unique geographic constraints when choosing a synagogue and a home. The result is a mix of young people in their 20s and 30s who are renting, eventually moving out to the suburbs when they have kids; and older people, often retirees or empty-nesters who come back to the city to downsize.
Rabinowitz arrived at Kesher in 1950. Washington’s suburbs were just starting to explode: Several times over the years Rabinowitz would have to fight with synagogue leaders who wanted to uproot Kesher and move it to Maryland, or turn it into a Conservative synagogue, meaning it would adhere less strictly to Jewish law.
“It’s not nice to say,” one longtime Kesher member confessed, “but most of the presidents drove to shul.” (David Epstein, the retired lawyer who served as the synagogue’s liaison to the police after the murder, described it this way: “I get there magically.” He lives in Maryland and has been going to Kesher for 60 years.)
“Rabbi Rabinowitz kept the flame going at a time when the flames of urban Judaism were flickering, and he impacted lives. There are not too many rabbis who can do that,” said Gerard Leval, a partner at the Washington law firm ArentFox Schiff.
Beginning in the 1970s, the synagogue experienced a revival. It was slow at first before picking up in the 1980s and 1990s, as Washington gentrified and young Orthodox Jews who came to Washington for graduate school or jobs on Capitol Hill opted to live in the city instead of the suburbs.
Before Kesher’s renaissance, the synagogue was more flexible in its religious character. There were some people who had grown up Orthodox and attended yeshiva schools who would sit and learn with Rabinowitz. Many spoke Yiddish. Others, like those who drove in from Maryland, were less observant. And then there were people in their 20s who did not grow up Orthodox but simply wandered into Kesher one day and never left, so deeply impacted were they by Rabinowitz’s outstretched hand.
Leval, who grew up in Paris, went to Kesher one Shabbat at the invitation of a woman he was dating, hoping to impress her but not especially interested in the service himself.
“That’s when Rabbi Rabinowitz came up to me. I had no particular plans to go back,” Leval recalled. “It was quite a dramatic day.” He and his date broke up not long after, but Leval kept going to Kesher. He later met his wife through a friend from shul.
“There was something comforting here in the midst of all the roughness of Washington, and there was something authentic, and I was immediately taken in by other young people who invited me to join them,” said Leval. “It became a kind of family, extremely hospitable. And I would say that one has to attribute much of that to Rabbi Rabinowitz.”
In the years before Rabinowitz was killed, new life was pouring into Kesher. GW and Georgetown undergrads and graduate students, Capitol Hill and White House staffers, budding lobbyists and lawyers.
Young men and women were finding their way to this little synagogue. Neil Kritz, now the senior scholar in residence at the U.S. Institute of Peace, recalled one brit milah, or ritual circumcision, that took place in the early 1980s, one of the first times in years that a new baby was born in the community.
Rabinowitz stood in the corner of the social hall, which for years had been half-empty at festive events and now was bursting with people. The rabbi looked at the crowd, smiling to himself. “He kept the synagogue going through all those years, and now we had succeeded. We had a new generation coming in and being born in the community,” said Kritz.
But one man arrived in this period who would make a different kind of impression on the community. We will call this man, simply, the Russian, because that’s how so many Kesherites refer to him to this day. Of all the many men and women Rabinowitz helped over the years, the Russian is the one people remember most.
The Russian was a Soviet Jewish émigré, a new arrival to this capitalist nation who was deeply suspicious of everyone — Jewish and otherwise — that he met. Today, descriptions of the Russian vary: He was an engineer, some say; a mathematician, according to others. He may or may not have been imprisoned in a Soviet gulag before coming to the United States. The rabbi took an interest in him, wanting to help. This was the rabbi’s nature.
He sometimes let the Russian, who lived in a homeless shelter a couple miles from the synagogue, sleep overnight on the floor of the synagogue social hall. Rabinowitz often gave the Russian money from the community tzedakah box, used to collect donations for charity.
Like countless other immigrants before and after him, the Russian’s skillset did not get him very far in a new country where he did not speak the language. Still, he came to Kesher, which may have offered some comfort as a place where Jews could gather safely, unlike in his native Russia. Before Rabinowitz died, the synagogue did not have any security.
Some people in the Kesher community grew uncomfortable with this occasionally belligerent man whom they viewed as an unpredictable nuisance in the community. They would prefer if he stopped coming to the synagogue, and they certainly did not want him staying there overnight any longer. These congregants approached the rabbi with their concern and asked him to talk to the Russian and urge him to find shelter someplace else.
“You may run into people with psychological problems, and how do you know when you’re in danger or not?” asked David Epstein, the congregant who served as a liaison to the police after Rabinowitz died. That question only came later, when it was too late.
“On the one hand,” Epstein continued, “you’re supposed to show kindness and so forth to the poor and the helpless. And on the other hand, are they going to turn on you at some point, because you’re the only person they know? Are they going to get angry and take it out on you?”
These questions would haunt the Kesher community for decades to come. In the days after Rabinowitz was murdered, suspicion began to center on one person: the Russian.
Six weeks after the rabbi died, Passover arrived. Rabinowitz had written one final D’var Torah, a sermon, before he died, and it was published in the Passover bulletin that synagogue members received in the mail before the holiday. The newsletter arrived with an almost eerie quality, as though Rabinowitz was writing from the next world.
The message he chose to deliver that year — the last words of Torah he would ever write — centered on the mitzvah, or commandment, of Ma’ot Chitim, the collection of charity to donate to Jews in need locally and around the world. (Translated as “wheat monies,” the term originally referred to wheat that was collected and distributed to people who needed food.)
“This important mitzvah is based on the idea that as an observant Jew, one cannot honestly sit down at the festive Seder and partake of everything, unless the less privileged are also able to celebrate the festival of freedom in an atmosphere of happiness,” Rabinowitz wrote. ”Thank G-d that the generousity of our Jewish people has sustained and strengthened many an underprivileged family, not only for the Seder of Pesach, but the rest of the days of the year as well.”
“Our tradition,” he wrote, “demands that we care” when a Jew is in need.
A story began to take hold among Kesher congregants soon after Rabinowitz died: The Russian killed the rabbi. This impoverished and perhaps mentally unwell immigrant needed support, but he turned on the person who offered it, a pious man who took seriously his tradition’s demand that he care when his fellow Jew was in need.
Even today, ask a 30-year-old member of Kesher who killed Rabinowitz. They weren’t alive when he died, but to the extent that they know anything about Rabinowitz’s death, they have heard: It was the Russian. This assertion is made with confidence by many. Yet the police never arrested the Russian — or anyone. Still: Could it be true? If it was him, how did he evade arrest for decades?
Despite Rabinowitz’s generosity, everyone agrees that the rabbi would never open his door to a person he didn’t know. He kept the deadbolt latched and he pulled back the curtain to see who was outside before allowing anyone in.
The night Rabinowitz died, he was expecting a visitor.