Who Killed Kesher’s Rabbi? | Part Four - The Outsider

The Outsider

The last night of Rabbi Philip Rabinowitz’s life started just like every other.

Like always, he ended the day at his Georgetown synagogue, where he led the brief evening prayer service. It was a small group of men, made up of the synagogue’s most devout and those who needed to be with a minyan to say the Mourner’s Kaddish.

One of the men present for the minyan on the evening of Feb. 28, 1984, was the homeless Russian man who had been a regular Kesher attendee for the better part of two years. He was in his 40s or 50s, with a scruffy and somewhat unkempt look, usually wearing a cap that he kept on even inside the synagogue. He was restless that night, fidgety; he kept picking up items in the entryway to the sanctuary until Rabinowitz grew impatient with him.

“Put that down!” Rabinowitz said to the Russian, interrupting the prayer service. “Leave it alone. It’s not yours.”

It took a great deal for the rabbi to lose his patience. No one at Kesher remembers him talking to another congregant this way. Rabinowitz followed a Judaic school of thought that stressed stringent ethical standards: “If they wanted to admonish somebody, they did it very privately. They did it in an indirect sort of way,” said Reuven Schlenker, who frequented Kesher during this period.

Still, no one thought too much about the interaction. Not until later, when the rabbi was dead.

”The phone rang, and the phone rang, and the phone rang, and nobody picked up,” Lewin recalled in a recent conversation. “I was very puzzled about the fact that he had said he was expecting somebody.”

After the service wrapped up, Rabinowitz got a ride home from a group of men who lived across the Key Bridge in Roslyn, Va. They dropped him off sometime after 7 p.m. It was the last time anyone, except his murderer, would see Rabinowitz alive.

Not long after he got home, Rabinowitz got a phone call from Nat Lewin. Lewin, a well-known litigator and civil liberties expert who has argued more than two dozen cases before the Supreme Court, was the picture of a “prominent Washington lawyer” — and not just in the slightly mocking way that Rabinowitz meant when he jokingly applied the moniker to the many attorneys at Kesher Israel. Lewin was calling to tell Rabinowitz that he had to be in court the next day in New York and would miss a Jewish event in Washington that he was supposed to lead, and could Rabbi Rabinowitz fill in for him?

“Can you call me back in a little bit?” Rabinowitz responded. “I’m expecting somebody.”

Nathan Lewin

Nathan Lewin

Lewin was at a payphone at New York’s LaGuardia Airport after canceling his flight and decided to wait by the phone there. Half an hour later, Lewin called again. No answer. He called a second time, and a third.

”The phone rang, and the phone rang, and the phone rang, and nobody picked up,” Lewin recalled in a recent conversation. “I was very puzzled about the fact that he had said he was expecting somebody.”

Lewin eventually went back to his hotel in Manhattan, but he called the rabbi again the next morning. No answer. Later that day, after he got back to Washington and heard Rabinowitz was dead, he went to the police to tell them about his conversation with the rabbi.

”I may have been the last person he talked to,” Lewin recounted, “before he allowed a murderer into his house.”

“Could the murderer be vicious,” one congregant asked at the meeting, “or another Jew?”

Bruce and Nancy James walked out of the National Theater in downtown Washington after 10 p.m., when their show ended. They decided to stop by Rabinowitz’s house before heading home for the night. The young couple needed to drop off that week’s edition of the synagogue newsletter for the rabbi to edit, like he did every week.

By the time they arrived, it was after 11 p.m. They didn’t want to bother the rabbi. They were surprised to see the lights on, but they didn’t think too much of it. Rabinowitz sometimes listened to Israeli news over a shortwave radio, and it would have been time for the morning broadcast in Israel, where his brother lived. The couple dropped the newsletter draft in his mailbox and went home.

Bruce James and the Rabbi
The next morning, after learning that the rabbi had been murdered, the couple frantically called the police, eager to give a statement after having stopped at his home the night before.

”They told us that if we pushed the door open, we would have found the body ourselves,” Bruce said.

No one knew who the rabbi was expecting that night. But within hours of hearing about his death, congregants began to wonder who, out of the many people Rabinowitz would invite to his home, might be vengeful enough to kill him. Suspicions quickly settled on one person.

“Wild rumors, fomented by fear and without any basis in established fact, have been circulating in our community,” the Washington Jewish Week editorial board wrote the week after Rabinowitz was killed, already cognizant of the suspicions being cast within and outside of the community. Israeli journalists had even speculated that the murder was terrorism. “Rabbi Rabinowitz of blessed memory was the gentlest of men. Let us restrain our imaginations and await the apprehension of his assailant before we reach any conclusions.”

The Jewish Week editorial reflected the widespread certainty among both the Washington Jewish community and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department that a culprit would be swiftly caught and brought to justice. In the immediate aftermath, when evidence was still being gathered, up to 20 officers were working the case. Two MPD homicide detectives worked full-time on the case for more than a year. For months, detectives asserted that they were confident they would find the killer.

Police Lt. John Harlow told Kesher board members at a meeting held at the synagogue less than a week after the murder that he was “positive” the case would be solved. The physical evidence was strong — blood, fingerprints, a hat left at the scene. The police were looking for a “disorganized killer, violent, didn’t like the rabbi,” according to notes from the meeting. “No real evidence of robbery.”

“Could the murderer be vicious,” one congregant asked at the meeting, “or another Jew?” One person who attended the meeting with the detectives even speculated that the murder could have been a case of mistaken identity: The rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation, a large Conservative synagogue in Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood, was named Stanley Rabinowitz.

“Maybe he got the wrong Rabinowitz,” the person questioned. The police did not seem to take this theory seriously.

Detectives quickly learned from conversations with Rabinowitz’s children and Kesher community members that he had been helping an indigent person in the area, although that fact alone was not particularly notable. “He was always inclined to do that, we hear,” Capt. Jimmy Wilson, commander of the homicide unit, said.

Investigators — and synagogue members — began to suspect the Russian.

“The rabbi had told us that weekend that he was going to drop him off the dole, because we were running out of money,” Bruce James noted. Before he died, Rabinowitz had been giving the Russian money daily.

In the days following the murder, the police interviewed the Russian extensively. “This scene has the markings of murder for murder itself, not for terrorism,” Harlow told Kesher members. It was a brutally violent incident, but one that was more likely personal and vindictive rather than antisemitic.

Once, MPD detectives came to the synagogue hoping to talk to the Russian. He ran away when he saw them. “They have these little tiny bathrooms [at Kesher], and three policemen went in and followed him into the bathroom,” Bruce said.

”The detectives kept yelling at him from the vestibule to confess to the murder,” recounted Reuven Eliaz, “but he outlasted them.” The Russian continued to come to Kesher regularly for a couple of weeks, until one day a group of men from the synagogue forced him to leave.

”I felt badly for him,” said Yaakov Hammer, who had been at Kesher the night Rabinowitz died. “Because I thought if the guy is innocent, what a horrible way to treat him.”

Reuven Schlenker, who had some Russian language skills from a period when he lived in Europe, was able to talk to the Russian. Schlenker found him off-putting and even unsavory, but did not believe him to be guilty of the murder.

He was someone who “just didn’t fit into the American Jewish mentality’s idea of how you should behave and what you should be doing,” Schlenker reflected. “Some at our shul were very bourgeois, and they have no tolerance for people that are, you know, in unfortunate circumstances.”

Two years after Rabinowitz was killed, Schlenker ran into the Russian in Washington. He looked worse than Schlenker had ever seen him.

”He had hair down to his shoulders. A couple of his teeth had been knocked out. I only had $10, but I gave it to him,” Schlenker said. “He told me he was going to Florida.”

For decades, people from Kesher would occasionally see the Russian around Washington, often turning away if they saw him at the Farragut North Metro stop or walking around downtown. More than a decade ago, Gerard Leval, a longtime Kesher member, saw the Russian, by then almost an old man, wandering around the lobby of his law firm’s office on Connecticut Avenue.

“I urged the guards to ask him to leave just out of concern that he might still be violent,” Leval recalled.

David Epstein, the synagogue’s liaison to the police, understands why so many believe that the Russian did it. “The relationship that this individual had with the rabbi suggested that he might be the person who would have the kind of anger that would lead to such a disastrous outcome,” Epstein explained.

Epstein, like many others that Jewish Insider interviewed, avoided outright saying the Russian’s name, while still hinting at the prevailing belief held by many in the community that he was the one who killed the rabbi. “I’m not going to speculate as to who the suspect was, because I don’t think it’s appropriate, since no one was ever charged,” Epstein said.

Because the Russian was never arrested, and because Jewish Insider was unable to locate him or determine if he was alive — many Kesherites suspect that this homeless man, who was already well into middle age nearly 40 years ago, is no longer alive — Jewish Insider is also refraining from publishing his name.

“Those of us who are more intimately familiar [with the case] know that there’s someone out there who we suspected, but Jewish law is very specific in how you can deal with — in this whole realm. It’s very, very clear, it’s much more stringent than even common law,” said Toby Grauman, the lawyer and rabbi who oversaw Rabinowitz’s autopsy. “I’m not a criminal lawyer, but I will tell you, although there were plenty of criminal lawyers at the shul, that you bend over backwards to protect the innocent … In Jewish law, you do a triple somersault and back to protect the innocent.”

“We all feel that sort of pain,” Grauman continued. “We think we know who he is, but there is someone there who they were never able to … And maybe we were wrong. Who knows. Maybe we were wrong. Maybe it wasn’t him. But because of the nature of the death, and of all ironies, he was killed with what we believe was a brit milah knife.”

Police would later say nothing indicated a robbery had taken place when they determined that only one item, which was not of any monetary value, was missing from the rabbi’s home. In the days after the murder, police could not find the knife the rabbi kept at home for performing ritual circumcisions.

As a point of fact, the knife used by the killer was, actually, not a regular kitchen knife. Police called the murder weapon “unique.” David Epstein’s wife Ellen pointed out that the police one day came to the synagogue and “asked to see a circumcision knife” when they were trying to identify a possible murder weapon. They also wanted to see a challah knife, which was longer and more serrated than a common kitchen knife. (The actual weapon was never found.)

But this, too, might just be a theory, a story Kesherites to tell themselves to ease the pain. A brit milah knife is likely not large or sharp enough to commit the type of violence that took place in Rabinowitz’s home. Still, it was not impossible. Nothing is impossible for a community that is still in mourning after close to 40 years.

It could’ve been the Russian. He could have killed the rabbi, dropped the knife into any of the hundreds of trash cans on Washington’s streets, thrown out any bloodstained clothes — it’s easy to see.

But the evidence was not there for an arrest.

“You basically solve cases three ways: You have evidence, you have witnesses and you have confessions,” said Jim Trainum, a retired MPD officer who spent 19 years in the department’s homicide division. The Rabinowitz case had none of the three.

A police press release issued two weeks after Rabinowitz’s murder says there are no suspects yet and offers a reward to anyone with information about the case.

The collection and use of DNA evidence in forensics did not begin until a couple years after Rabinowitz’s death, and it didn’t become widespread until the late 1990s. Blood-type analysis was a common practice at the time, and there was ample blood collected at the scene — including, perhaps, the culprit’s blood. But all that could do was determine the blood type, not positively ID a potential suspect.

Later, when DNA analysis became commonplace, MPD’s cold case unit — and similar units at thousands of police departments around the world — began to reexamine physical evidence collected in crimes that occurred before the advent of DNA technology. In 2021, a Montana police department used DNA to solve a 1956 double murder. But investigators have not had the same luck in Rabinowitz’s case.

”DNA that was collected from crime scenes was stored in our warehouse in very unfavorable conditions, because the warehouse was not heated, nor was it air-conditioned,” Trainum explained. In 2018, an employee accidentally flooded the D.C. Crime Lab, causing $27,000 in damage. It is unclear if the case file from Rabinowitz’s murder was damaged in the flood, or if MPD detectives ever even looked at the case file again in the modern DNA era.

An MPD spokesperson declined to say whether MPD detectives have re-examined the case at all. The MPD spokesperson confirmed that MPD remains in possession of the case file but would not say if it was damaged in the flood.

There is also the chance that the prevailing theory about the rabbi’s connection to the killer was wrong. What if, Trainum wondered, the rabbi had acquaintances that synagogue members didn’t know about? Or what if the assailant was not somebody he knew at all?

“You would have to consider that maybe this is a person who came up upon him as he was letting himself into the house and forced his way in, and then stuff went bad, and they attacked him and then took off,” said Trainum, who joined the force in 1983 but did not work on the Rabinowitz case.

Kim Rossmo, an expert in geographic profiling and criminal investigations who is a professor of criminal justice at Texas State University, added his own caveat to the explanations coming from Kesher members. “It would be a hard case, period, but after this time period, it’s a really, really hard case,” Rossmo told JI.

“These stories,” Rossmo continued, “all have to be taken with a grain of salt.”

Weeks passed, and then months, and finally a year — two — five…

Detectives promised Rabinowitz’s children and his former congregants that they were working on his case. “We have some real good clues,” Det. Sgt. J.T. McCann told The Washington Post in May 1985. By then, the case file was more than 190 pages long. There was a reward of $10,000 for anyone who had useful leads.

No one confessed. No one was arrested.

Every few years, Kesher congregants would reach out to the police to ask them to reopen the case. They were usually met with silence. In 2013, MPD put out a bulletin urging anyone with information on the case to come forward.

“We are still open to any tips and if anyone has any information about this case, we encourage them to submit a tip,” MPD public affairs specialist Alaina Gertz told JI in a December email. She would not say whether anyone employed by the department today is working on the case.

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