JI podcast exclusive: Inside the making of ‘Who Killed Kesher’s Rabbi?’
JI’s Gabby Deutch details the 1984 murder of Rabbi Philip Rabinowitz and the two-year reporting process that led to her five-part series
Rabbi Philip Rabinowitz of D.C.’s Kesher Israel congregation was a tragic figure even before his gruesome murder nearly 40 years ago. A native of Poland, he lost most of his family during the Holocaust, only to lose his wife suddenly decades later in the middle of their daughter’s wedding reception.
Rabinowitz was known as a generous and beloved leader within the congregation — at times even allowing homeless community members to sleep in the synagogue’s social hall — which is why the entire community was left shaken when his body was found, lifeless and with multiple stab wounds, in his home on the morning of Feb. 29, 1984.
The murder has never been solved and the case is still open — though D.C. police are no longer actively investigating — and sits at the center of Jewish Insider Washington correspondent Gabby Deutch’s five-part series, Who Killed Kesher’s Rabbi?
In her retelling of events, Deutch takes an in-depth look into not only the case itself, but Rabinowitz’s life before his murder and the ripple effects of the crime on the tight-knit community, bringing firsthand accounts from individuals who had belonged to Kesher at the time.
In a first for Jewish Insider’s podcast, Deutch shares details of the case and what went into her two-year-long reporting process with co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein on this week’s episode.
Below are condensed excerpts from the conversation.
Jarrod Bernstein: There is a subtext that maybe some of [Rabbi Rabinowitz’s] generosity towards anybody and everybody may have been what got him killed, right?
Gabby Deutch: There were a lot of questions. After the rabbi was killed, it emerged that he had been expecting a visitor the night before he died. And he was someone who didn’t allow strangers into his home, he didn’t open the door if he didn’t know who was going to be there. He was security conscious and D.C. back then was not the safest place, although that wasn’t as much of a problem in his neighborhood. But there was this one man in particular who he was helping, who needed a lot of assistance both financially, emotionally, and after the rabbi was killed, people began to question whether this person, who was perhaps mentally unwell, belligerent, sort of asocial, whether he had had a role in it, and people began to ask this question [of], when did the generosity go too far? Is that what happened in this case?
Bernstein: How do you go about reporting a story like this, while being sensitive to the fact that it’s very personal to a lot of people?
Deutch: It’s something I took really seriously. Recognizing that this rabbi’s family is still alive, his two children, people who were close to him, that even though this was a story I’m writing for a much broader audience, it was going to be read by people who knew this man, who had personal connections. And so, I tried to really take that into account and present what happened in as honest a way as I could, and also portray the rabbi as who he was. And I present him as this kind and charitable and really beloved figure, not because I want to make him look good, but because that’s really what I gather he was from the people I talked to and what I learned about him. In terms of reporting the story, at first it was very overwhelming, but what I found was I would talk to one person who said, “Oh, you’re interested in Rabbi Rabinowitz, you have to talk to this guy,” and then it just kind of spread from there. But even though this story was so long ago, that he died 39 years ago, there are so many people from the Kesher orbit who, even though it was obviously an upsetting and a troubling and a traumatizing time for them, were just happy to have an opportunity to share their memories of this teacher and rabbi who they had loved. And so I would have these conversations with people that I didn’t know, we hadn’t met before, where I thought would be kind of an introductory call, and then we’d be on the phone for an hour and a half just reminiscing about their time at Kesher back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And ‘80s.
Rich Goldberg: You talk a lot about how this happened just a couple of years before DNA evidence took off, but we’ve seen so many cold case units around the country go back into their files, go back into evidence kits, and see what they can do decades later with DNA, forensic analysis, and solve cases potentially, find matches. But there are some challenges here.
Deutch: I think the first challenge is the police have to want to do it. This is of course not the only unsolved case in Washington, and so the police need to have an interest in wanting to solve the case. From what I could gather, it doesn’t seem like they’re particularly interested in doing that. About a decade ago, they put out a press release urging people to come forward if they had information, and I don’t know what prompted that, actually. I think it was someone from the Kesher community reaching out to the police and expressing their own interest, and then this was perhaps sort of a perfunctory thing they were doing to appease that person, because I don’t get the sense that anything came of it, that they learned anything new a decade ago. And when they’re also working at a time when crime is rising in D.C. right now, resources are limited. Beyond that, there was a flood in the D.C. crime lab a few years ago, and I’m not sure if it affected the file from the Rabbi Rabinowitz case, but it definitely affected some of the evidence in the D.C. police’s possession. So certainly you can’t go back and look at evidence that has been ruined in a flood. So it’s something that I’m actually still hoping and then trying to figure out more information about the state of what that case file is and what the investigation has looked like. And the police wouldn’t even share with me if, at some point since DNA came around, if they had reexamined this case. So there are a lot of questions that remain and that I’m trying to figure out about the investigation, and if there’s more that can be done.