Who Killed Kesher’s Rabbi? | Part Five - What Remains

What Remains

Two days after Rabbi Philip Rabinowitz’s packed funeral at Kesher Israel Congregation, Shabbat arrived at the Georgetown synagogue, just as it did every Friday evening.

The weekly observance of rest and ritual would begin as soon as the sun set on Friday, only this time, the synagogue’s longtime rabbi would not be there to greet it.

It is said in the Shabbat liturgy that we welcome the Sabbath in much the same way as a groom welcomes his bride when she walks down the aisle. In the Lecha Dodi prayer (literally, “Come, my beloved”), worshippers stand and turn toward the entrance of the room, as if they are wedding guests rising up to welcome the bride.

For the first time in more than three decades, the little Georgetown synagogue would be without its beloved spiritual leader, like a forlorn spouse who has lost a life partner. One month later it would be Passover, and then Shavuot, and eventually, in the fall, a new year, as sure a promise as the falling of the leaves. Kesher would need to figure out how to keep the ship from capsizing without its captain.

At first, congregants filled the void. Each week, someone else from the congregation would deliver a sermon on Shabbat in a tradition that became known as the “People’s Pulpit” and continues to this day.

“That’s I think when people really stepped up and started becoming much more involved in the day-to-day,” said Binyamin Kamilar, who spoke several times at Kesher’s “People’s Pulpit.” He now works in tech in Israel.

But would someone be able to take over maintaining the Jewish cemetery? Who would oversee the necessary repairs to the synagogue’s roof and paint over the peeling walls? Could couples still get married at the synagogue according to Jewish law — and if so, who would perform the weddings? Within three months, a search committee was formed to look for a new rabbi.

"The question of who should be allowed in has haunted Kesher since Rabinowitz died. But today, it’s not a unique quandary for modern synagogues. It’s a requisite security consideration for houses of worship."

A Washington Post article from May 13, 1985, suggests that police were still actively investigating the case more than a year after Rabinowitz was killed. The newspaper clipping is part of Kesher Israel Congregation’s archives.

This is not to say that congregants simply moved on from Rabinowitz’s murder. A few weeks after he died, the synagogue sent a group of prominent Kesher members and other local Jewish leaders to visit Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry to convey “the urgency of solving this crime,” according to notes from a synagogue board meeting.

Kesher members also began to think anew about security. Two months before Rabinowitz was killed, one synagogue member presented a proposal for securing the building, but the plan was never discussed.

It would not have saved the rabbi. Still, police now felt that the need to secure the building was urgent.

One option was for men from the synagogue to take shifts standing outside, keeping watch. Some questioned whether this would constitute doing work that was forbidden on the Sabbath. Ultimately, that contingent was overruled. Several police officers now stand outside the entrance on Saturday mornings alongside a synagogue member, who determines whether each person who arrives at the door can enter the sanctuary.

The synagogue member acting as a sentry “stands out there to make sure that people who come in are people who are looking for a synagogue and not for an occasion…” said David Epstein. He trailed off, not filling in what occasion might lead someone to be turned away.

The question of who should be allowed in has haunted Kesher since Rabinowitz died. But today, it’s not a unique quandary for modern synagogues. It’s a requisite security consideration for houses of worship.

Rabinowitz's grave, in Beith Shemesh, is covered with stones, left as a token of remembrance by people who visited his grave.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Rabinowitz's grave, in Beith Shemesh, is covered with stones, left as a token of remembrance by people who visited his grave.

Synagogues in Europe, fearful of antisemitic attacks, have for years required Jewish visitors from overseas to register in advance and send in a photo of their passport for security purposes. A couple of miles uptown from Kesher, Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation, a large Conservative synagogue home to well over 1,000 families, requires every visitor, at any time of day, to walk through a metal detector to enter the building. (This would be impossible at Kesher, where the rules of Shabbat would not allow an electronic magnetometer to be used.)

Over the past decade or so, dozens of worshippers have been killed: at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a Black church in Charleston, S.C., a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc.

Early last year, a rabbi and his congregants were held hostage at gunpoint in a Dallas-area synagogue. Miraculously, everyone emerged alive and physically unscathed after more than 10 hours trapped inside Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. But the crushing realization that their sanctuary had been breached by an intruder intent on doing harm left an indelible psychological impact on everybody who was present.

“It is horrific that my congregants and I were held hostage in our sacred home,” Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was then the rabbi at Beth Israel, said at a March 2022 Senate hearing. He detailed the moment the gunman arrived, early in the morning, while Cytron-Walker was preparing for the service. “In the midst of trying to do a million different things,” he recalled, “I had a stranger come to the door.”

Cytron-Walker paused to talk to the man, who said he had spent the night outdoors in near-freezing temperatures and wanted a place to get warm. The rabbi served the stranger tea. In his testimony, Cytron-Walker quoted the Book of Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

”Security and hospitality can go hand in hand. I was running late, but I spent time to see if there were any red flags and I did not see any. Of course, I was wrong,” said Citron-Walker.

In the year since, Cytron-Walker has reflected at length on that moment. He did his best to make a decision that incorporated his values and the realities of modern-day antisemitism and violent extremism. He chose wrong. “I welcomed a terrorist into my congregation,” he said. “Four of us could have died and I would have been responsible.”

Cytron-Walker was testifying before the Senate at a hearing about how to combat hate crimes in America. Proposed solutions included additional training for law enforcement, millions of dollars in funds to “harden” synagogues with extra security measures and expanded education about the history of antisemitism.

Would metal detectors at Kesher have stopped Rabinowitz from building a relationship with a broken man whom he desperately wanted to help? How could antisemitism education have stopped a threat from within? Or, looked at another way, what if the security measures go too far, and a synagogue — claiming security needs — doesn’t allow a person of a certain economic class, or a certain race, to enter?

Welcoming guests is a value at the heart of the Jewish faith, regardless of the security concerns that now animate Jewish congregations. In the Book of Genesis, Abraham quickly ends a conversation with God when he sees three guests walking toward his tent. He welcomes the men, who turn out to be angels. One promises that Abraham’s wife Sarah, even in her old age, will soon bear a son.

Did I feel unsafe? I didn’t,” Howard Rosen said, recalling the aftermath of Rabinowitz’s murder. “But there were people in the synagogue who did. Not unsafe on antisemitism grounds, but unsafe on unknown people. So I think some people were a little bit more vigilant.”

The fear was different back then: more personal, the result of a deep psychic wound rather than an increasingly intense threat environment. “There wasn’t the kind of anxiety we have today, where we’re worried about potential terrorist attacks and things of that sort,” said Gerard Leval.

Overwhelmingly, Kesherites’ memory of that period was grief and sadness, not fear.

“It wasn’t a larger incident, something directed against Jews or against Kesher. It was thought to be whatever it was. It was personal. Or maybe,” said Al Moses, a longtime Kesher congregant and a former U.S. ambassador to Romania, “it was a random killing.”

Community members generally viewed the murder as “a one-off,” said Gene Fidell, who served as the treasurer of the Kesher board in the 1980s. Rabinowitz performed Fidell’s wedding to New York Times Supreme Court columnist Linda Greenhouse. “Many people might feel differently today, by the way,” Fidell added, “with the upsurge in antisemitic incidents. People might process it in a different way. But at the time it was just focused on him and his tragic death.”

Howard Smith, the young astrophysicist who had discovered the rabbi’s body in his study, kept going to synagogue. He liked Kesher, and besides, he felt a religious obligation to return to continue mourning his mother. “I didn’t go to shul full of fear, like, ‘Oh, there’s a psychopath here,’” he explained. “Nor did I feel that there was a wave of antisemitism sweeping through Georgetown.” Like the other Kesher congregants, Smith had his own life to return to. He was getting married that year.

Very quickly, day-to-day matters of Jewish life and the minutiae of running a nonprofit religious institution began to take up the synagogue leadership’s attention.

“There was a fierce discussion of, should we maybe not even have a rabbi?” Rosen said. “This was a community that had a bar mitzvah every decade. They didn’t have, like, lifecycle events.”

The rabbi they hired just a few months later was meant to match the changing demographics at Kesher. Rod Glogower was a young intellectual with two master’s degrees, and he was hired away from the Orthodox minyan in Ann Arbor, which drew heavily from the University of Michigan student body.

“There was a changing of the guard,” Glogower told Jewish Insider last year, noting that many new young people had arrived at Kesher in the years before he was hired. “Toward the end of Rabbi Rabinowitz’s career there, there was perhaps a sense of — I mean, he was an older generation Orthodox rabbi in America as a part of a different milieu, and a different background, and that must have been very, very difficult for him. The idea that they hired a young rabbi who had been on campus and was a very different type of model was, I guess, indicative of that transition.”

Glogower was not scared away by what happened to Rabinowitz. “The story was not that the rabbi was gunned down or attacked in the streets, like you’re moving into a neighborhood where your life is in danger as you walk to shul,” Glogower said. One time in his first year, the Russian man — by then, it was a widely held belief at Kesher that the Russian had killed Rabinowitz — came to services. Glogower, of course, did not recognize him.

“A group of people got together and picked him up and threw him out,” he recalled.

Glogower only stayed at Kesher three years. He said it was not ”the right fit for myself and my family.” They missed campus life. He went back to Ann Arbor, where he has remained for 35 years.

By the time Glogower left, many of the people who had known Rabinowitz well had also departed Kesher. Some moved north to Kemp Mill, a neighborhood in Silver Spring that is sometimes jokingly referred to as Kesher North. Others left for Kesher East — Israel. Rabinowitz’s daughter and son were also long gone from Washington, in Chicago and Teaneck, N.J.

Soon after, it looked like Kesher had finally found peace, or at least stability. The congregation again hired a new rabbi, and he stayed at the pulpit for more than two decades. An authority on Jewish law and a widely recognized scholar, Rabbi Barry Freundel was eager to put Kesher on the map as an intellectual and spiritual hub of Modern Orthodoxy. (He later did put the synagogue on the map, but for the wrong reasons.)

By the time Freundel arrived in 1989, the older shop owners who lived out in Maryland had mostly died or stopped coming to shul. Kesher’s base became the highly educated, observant young people who were now settling in Northwest Washington.

The city was slowly beginning to change, too, by developing broader swaths of downtown and cleaning up the open-air drug markets that had populated major thoroughfares like 14th Street, which had been decimated by the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.

Jewish institutions that had left the city half a century earlier, like the JCC located a mile north of the White House on 16th Street, were moving back into the gentrifying city. In 2002, a group of Jewish real-estate developers purchased an aging synagogue located at Sixth and I streets from the Black church that had bought it 50 years earlier, when the Jewish congregation there — Adas Israel — moved uptown. Now, Sixth and I is a cross-town corollary to Kesher, a hub of religious and cultural events catering to less observant Jews.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman arrived soon after the new rabbi, along with many other political bigwigs who would make Kesher their go-to synagogue during stints in Washington. When Lieberman was Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 presidential election, national news coverage zoomed in on his Jewish faith. Freundel turned out to be adept at working the media. On Tisha B’Av in 2000, a fast day commemorating the destruction of the Second Temple, Freundel famously showed up to the prayer services in makeup. He had just come from a TV hit.

“It’s part of the ethos of the place, one of the legends of N and 28th Street,” Wieseltier continued, “that Rabbi Rabinowitz was an exceptionally charitable man whose door was open to the needy — that he died for his kindness. I have no reason to think that this was not so.”

Kesher Israel is a place with a surplus of history. There were first the striving merchants who started the shul and an early rabbi who ran an operation importing kosher wine during Prohibition. Then came the murdered European refugee rabbi and his long-term successor, Freundel, who would go on to spend years in prison for secretly recording women in the synagogue’s ritual bath.

A memorial plaque honoring Rabinowitz is prominently located next to the bimah at the center of the sanctuary.

A memorial plaque honoring Rabinowitz is prominently located next to the bimah at the center of the sanctuary.
Photo Credit: Hilary Phelps

Almost no one speaks of Freundel anymore. But Rabinowitz’s story is told to new Kesherites with reverence and affection.

Today, many of the synagogue’s congregants cycle in and out every two or three years. And yet all of them — or anyone who’s attended more than a couple Shabbats — know about the leader who shepherded the congregation through the “lean years” and kept Orthodox Judaism alive in Washington. They also know that his murder remains unsolved and is likely to stay that way, when the main suspect hasn’t been seen in a dozen years.

”Kesher always has been and still is an institution with an exaggerated amount of self-love,” said Leon Wieseltier, the former New Republic literary editor who was a regular at Kesher for two decades. “When I came to Kesher in 1996, everybody told me the Rabbi Rabinowitz story, and everybody seemed to think that they knew the identity of the murderer: a disturbed Russian immigrant whom he was helping with personal charity.”

“It’s part of the ethos of the place, one of the legends of N and 28th Street,” Wieseltier continued, “that Rabbi Rabinowitz was an exceptionally charitable man whose door was open to the needy — that he died for his kindness. I have no reason to think that this was not so.”

Over time, Wieseltier became part of the legend of Kesher, too, where once it was just Herman Wouk who carried the torch of literary genius at the small congregation. He was soon joined by future ambassadors and the senator who would enter the new millennium as the first Jewish vice presidential candidate.

“The death of Rabbi Rabinowitz sort of hovered as a kind of dark cloud over the congregation,” Lieberman told JI. “It was a mystery. Who would kill the rabbi? Obviously there were people who, periodically … There was somebody he was counseling who they thought might have done it, who was unstable. But who knows?”

Each year, on the anniversary of Rabbi Rabinowitz’s death, a group of Kesher alumni living in Israel gather at his grave at a cemetery in Beit Shemesh, a city west of Jerusalem. Last year, for the first time, the commemoration had a virtual component.

In 2021, Rabinowitz’s family members, friends and former congregants gathered on Zoom to commemorate the anniversary of his death. A small group met at his grave in Beit Shemesh.

Five people showed up in person at the cemetery, and another 30 — including Rabinowitz’s children, Asher and Miriam — were on Zoom. Already, Rabinowitz’s grave was covered with more than a dozen stones. (As a mourning ritual, Jews place stones on a grave, rather than leaving flowers, when visiting.)

”Anytime you come by, there’s evidence that people have been here. Your parents were respected beyond the people that we knew who respected them, which is pretty incredible,” said Reuven Eliaz, who was holding his phone as a camera. ”When we come here, there are always multiple stones. It’s not like just one person has come and put on a stone.”

Some of Rabinowitz’s grandchildren were on the call, and one of them, Sarah, unexpectedly unmuted herself.

“I’m the granddaughter that was born right before my grandfather was niftar,” she said, using the Hebrew word for “passed away.” “I’m named after my grandmother. And it just means so much to me.”

Sarah lives in Lakewood, N.J., and works as a nurse. ”I get it from my grandparents,” she said, smiling. “I’m a teacher in my heart and I’m a nurse, and I hope to carry on the legacy, to carry on that legacy of caring for people and being there for people.”

Then another grandson, Yisroel, got on the line. “I never got to hear so much about my grandfather,” he said. “Thank you.”

Asher and Miriam sat together on Zoom, but neither said much.“With regards to remarks, I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you,” Asher said. “I’m just too emotional.” Now in his 70s, he looks strikingly like his father. Asher began to pray.

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