A Killing In The Community On The Main Line, The Rabinowitz Case Stirs Fascination And Horror.

Posted: May 11, 1997

At Hymie's Merion Deli, the air smells of corned beef, kasha and matzo ball soup. The booths are full of white-haired couples, their children and their grandchildren. And the talk, these days, is of murder.

If the Main Line enclave of Merion has a hub, it is Hymie's. Ever since the news broke eight days ago that 29-year-old Center City lawyer Stefanie Newman Rabinowitz had been strangled in her Merion Park home, the Montgomery Avenue hangout - like the community as a whole - has been abuzz with a mix of concern, curiosity and just plain gossip.

``Ninety percent of the people who come in here talk about it at some point,'' the owner, Lou Barson, said Friday.

``It's all they talk about,'' put in longtime waitress Anne Makos as she whisked by with change for a $20 bill.

In the neighborhood, in the legal community, at Stefanie Rabinowitz's alma mater, Bryn Mawr College, and across the region, interest in her death - and her husband's life - has snowballed.

Many knew the victim. Many more identify with her. Many are shocked that such a crime could happen on the Main Line, in an outwardly happy home, or, as some put it, in ``a nice Jewish family.'' And, experts say, many react as one might to an automobile accident: It could have happened to you, but it didn't.

Yesterday, there was even more to talk about.

A police affidavit, filed in court Friday, contained new allegations about Craig Rabinowitz, who stands accused of killing his wife:

* Within a few days after Stefanie's April 30 death, Craig Rabinowitz went to see a topless dancer known as ``Summer'' at Delilah's Den, the Philadelphia club where they had often met before, and told her his wife had died from a fall in the bathtub. And about 90 minutes before Stefanie Rabinowitz was found strangled, ``Summer'' left a message on Craig Rabinowitz's cellular phone. It wasn't clear whether anyone had listened to the message that night.

* The affidavit also says ``Summer'' told investigators that Rabinowitz had previously bought her jewelry and $3,000 worth of furniture from Seaman's, and told her after his wife died that he planned to spend $5,000 for an autopsy.

* The affidavit, filed in support of a warrant to obtain Rabinowitz's credit-card records, said that in a closet crawl space in the master bedroom of the home on Winding Way, investigators found a shopping bag containing documents detailing Rabinowitz's precarious financial condition - along with pornographic magazines and receipts for furniture he bought for ``Summer.''

* Sources close to the investigation also said yesterday that detectives, during a Wednesday search of the home, found pawn tickets in Craig Rabinowitz's wallet showing he had received $2,200 for women's jewelry - including what looked like an engagement ring.

The sources said he had hocked the ring a day after his wife's death.

It's details such as these that people are mulling over at Hymie's; in the elevators at the Center City office tower Liberty Place; on the sidewalk outside Suburban Station, where Merion commuters catch their trains; at the Bala Avenue children's stores where the Rabinowitzes often shopped.

On Friday, two young mothers discussed the case as they flipped through children's books with their toddlers at Barnes & Noble in Bryn Mawr. Other Lower Merion natives sheepishly admitted to driving past the house on Winding Way to get a peek at the crime scene.

``It's the same reason people slow up when they drive past a car accident,'' said Linda Welsh, a Bala Cynwyd psychologist. ``It's fascination with something extraordinary being so close to home. There's this fascination with the horror in life, but from a distance . . . .

``There's a lot of anxiety in the fact that it can be next door,'' she said. ``The more you talk about it, the more you relieve the anxiety. The more we discuss this we'll calm ourselves down and pretty soon we'll be able to explain and understand . . . . This is why it happened. This is why it can't happen to me.''

Hymie's owner Barson, 30, lives five houses from the Rabinowitz home and about a mile from the deli. Growing up, he played street hockey in Belmont Hills with Craig Rabinowitz, who graduated from Lower Merion High School in 1981; more recently, Barson saw him on the block with the Rabinowitzes' 1-year-old daughter, Haley.

Barson, who has a newborn daughter, was shocked April 30 when he saw whose memorial service Hymie's was scheduled to cater the next day: It was for Stefanie Rabinowitz.

``She's so young,'' he said. Even before it became a murder case, he said, people talked: ``Did she have a heart attack? Did she fall? Did she have an aneurysm?''

But on May 3, when authorities labeled it a homicide, the reaction went beyond sorrow.

``It might sound wrong, it's stereotypical, but on the Main Line, you're used to thinking that trouble comes from outside,'' Barson said. ``For example, someone comes from Philadelphia and robs the Acme, and runs back to Philly. It's not someone in your neighborhood, who went to Lower Merion High School, who allegedly kills his wife.''

Two elderly women paying their bill after lunch debated about a defense lawyer's claim that Stefanie's parents still support Craig: Was it a strange act for the parents of a murdered daughter, or an honorable attempt to keep the family together for the baby's sake?

Lingering over kasha and grilled cheese were Joanne Wolf, Jean Sachs, and Sachs' 20-month-old son, Max. The two women, both 34 - and well-versed in the details of the case - graduated from Lower Merion a year ahead of Craig Rabinowitz. Wolf, a TV ad producer, grew up across from the house on Winding Way and said her grandmother was friends with his mother.

``People are so blown away by this,'' she said.

``People can't believe it - they think, `It's a nice Jewish family,' '' said Sachs, of Mount Airy, who raises money for breast cancer awareness.

Rabbi Claire Green, who helped found the Coalition Against Jewish Domestic Violence, thinks Craig Rabinowitz's arrest is a wake-up call.

``There is not just silence in the Jewish community about domestic violence, there is absolute denial,'' she said. ``We're all taught Jewish men are the best, Jewish men are supportive and nurturing. Jewish men don't drink, don't gamble their money away, don't beat their wives.''

Domestic abuse hotline staffers in the area said they'd seen no recent upsurge in calls because of the case.

When psychologist Welsh met Friday with a group of therapists, they speculated that women would increasingly bring up concerns about their husbands' ``secret lives'' in couples therapy.

``They're going to be checking out their husbands,'' she said.

A neighborhood away from Hymie's, at the Narberth watering hole Arcadia Chios' Tavern - better known as The Greek's - the talk was less personal.

``I had no interest in it until I heard he spent $1,000 on a go-go girl,'' said John F. Bennett, a laborer who said he'd worked on the Rabinowitzes' house before they owned it.

To him, there was a second mystery in the case: What had moved Craig Rabinowitz's in-laws to put up their house in February as collateral for a $96,500 loan for his business? ``Show me that trick!'' Bennett said.

At Bryn Mawr College - where the alumnae office is compiling remembrances of Stefanie Rabinowitz to be published in its quarterly bulletin - students who are usually too buried in books to watch TV or follow local news are tuning in nightly for the latest revelations.

At first, said Carol Carneal, a junior from Kentucky, it was the death of a Bryn Mawr grad that hit home. ``Now we're hooked.''

But some Bryn Mawr students hanging out at the student center Friday said they were disturbed by the focus on a single suburban death while much more frequent city murders are seen as routine.

``Murder happens everywhere, and I've seen it all over,'' said Joslyn Carpenter, a freshman from West Philadelphia. ``It's not that I'm not sorry, but to me, this is just another murder.''

Back at Hymie's, Joanne Wolf said that with all the speculation about the crime, it could be easy to forget the victim.

``To me,'' she said, ``the worst thing is that a woman died.''

PHILADELPHIA ONLINE * The full Affidavit of Probable Cause and related video are available from Philadelphia Online, The Inquirer's site on the Internet: http://www.phillynews.com

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