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How Murder of Esther Lebowitz Changed Jewish Baltimore Forever

A lot has changed for Baltimore’s Northwest Orthodox community since 1969. For one, it’s grown from a tight colony of a few hundred families to tens of thousands of residents. It’s also drifted northward as small synagogues have sprouted up and down the community’s streets.

But people still remember.

The store near the corner of Park Heights and Rogers avenues houses a hair salon and a pizza and sub shop today. And the section of Park Heights in which it sits is now heavily African American. But a living community is a repository of memory, and people still recall the brutal murder that took place there nearly 45 years ago.

And so it was that when court convened at the Baltimore City Courthouse, on March 20, it was standing room only; rows of Orthodox Jews filled the seats and aisles, waiting to hear what would happen to the man who murdered 11-year-old Esther Lebowitz in the basement of what was a popular local aquarium store.

The Jews had come to the Calvert Street courthouse to protest the possible retrial of her murderer, Wayne Stephen Young, who was convicted back then and thought safely put away for life. Young, who confessed to his crime, has been denied parole 12 times since his conviction. Now 68, a gray and balding Young is appealing for a retrial based on a 2012 case in which a Maryland judge ruled that jurors in criminal cases before 1980 were given unconstitutional instructions.

In Unger v. State, the Maryland Court of Appeals reviewed the routine failure of state judges to instruct juries before 1980 that a defendant enjoyed a presumption of innocence, and that the burden was on the state to show the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This meant, the court ruled, that all trials before then were structurally flawed. As a result some 200 people convicted before 1980 who are still in prison are now entitled to request a new trial.

On April 24, Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward Hargadon handed down a ruling against Young’s request, stating that Young failed to bring forth compelling evidence that the case should be reopened. “There was virtually no dispute or doubt as to the facts surrounding the actual homicide,” Hargadon’s written statement noted.

But Young, who claimed in his first trial that he was temporarily insane, plans to appeal the decision, which means the case could soon be back in court.

“Permitting an individual to be convicted and sentenced on a standard that is less than ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ endangers the liberty of every single one of us,” Young’s attorney Erica Suter wrote in an email to the Forward. “I…look forward to the opportunity to seek redress in the Court of Special Appeals.”

Even as it celebrated Hargadon’s decision, the looming appeal had Baltimore’s Orthodox community on its guard and raking over the still warm embers of its 45-year-old trauma.

“Don’t tell me after 45 years that he’s earned the right or deserves the right to walk free,” said Abba Poliakoff, who was 17 at the time his cousin was murdered. “Esther Lebowitz is never going to have that right.”

Rabbi Shaye Taub of Arugas Habosem, whose daughter was in Esther’s class, said just hearing that Young’s case could go to retrial had awakened disturbing memories for him and his congregation.

“At the time, we thought of the city as being a safe and pleasant place to raise children,” Taub said. “We lost that when we lost Esther.”

It was a crime whose viciousness rattled all of Baltimore, even beyond the close-knit Orthodox community. Still, with the Baltimore community’s remarkable growth, many who were not living in the city in 1969 had not heard about the murder until recently, when those close to the family launched an awareness campaign in the lead-up to the court date.

The publication Baltimore Jewish Life posted an “emergency call for action” on its website, and prominent rabbis began rallying the community. Groups like the Northwest Citizens Patrol, which works in conjunction with the police department to improve safety in the area, helped organize buses to transport people to the courthouse.

The crowd was a mix of both old and new Baltimore, which signaled to some of the its older members that exponential growth had not detracted from their community’s cohesion.

“People are very concerned with the crime situation,” said Eli Schlossberg, who writes on Baltimore’s Jewish history. “When they heard that 44 years ago this murder occurred, they wanted to be there and protest an injustice [that could be] occurring again, in reopening this case.”

Schlossberg, who attended the courthouse hearing, said he remembers the case vividly. He was in his first year of yeshiva in Baltimore and was familiar with both the victim’s family and the murderer, whose tropical fish store he used to frequent. When Lebowitz went missing, he joined a search crew to help find her.

Schlossberg said that Baltimore’s Park Heights community had been, until then, a friendly, tight community where all felt safe and everyone knew each other.

“It was a horrible time for Baltimore,” he said. “We were appalled by what occurred, and when we found out it was a killer from the community who had done the crime, it was even more upsetting.”

It was just a year after Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, and the year that man first stepped foot on the moon. Baltimore’s Orthodox community had found a new home in the city’s Northwest as secular middle-class Jews began moving out to the suburbs. It was the start of a new era.

The streets teemed with Jews dressed in black suits and hats. On Sabbath afternoons, families would walk around the neighborhoods and visit friends and relatives. Many of them, like Schlossberg, attended the nearby Ner Israel Rabbinical College and began creating families of their own in the area, laying the groundwork for today’s sprawling Northwest Baltimore Orthodox community.

A rabbi dropped off Lebowitz, a student at the Bais Yaakov girls school, at the fateful corner on September 29, 1969. The intersection of Park Heights and Rogers Avenue was the very heart of Northwest Baltimore’s Jewish community and was home to a number of Jewish-owned shops. Lebowitz lived only a few minutes away and would sometimes visit stores on her way home from school.

The family began to worry when Lebowitz didn’t return home as normal, and her mother started dialing relatives and friends to see if they had heard from her daughter. After time had passed, the family called the police.

When word hit the press, Jewish and non-Jewish citizen patrols across the city set up search parties. This was true even in neighboring African-American neighborhoods, where relationships with Jews were still tense in the wake of race riots following King’s assassination. Park Heights synagogues dispatched young Jewish men in groups of 15 and 20 to scan the Northwest area to look for traces.

“Somehow this event, as heinous as it was, for one brief moment really pulled the city together,” Poliakoff said. “Everybody was caught up in the tragedy, not just the Jewish community.”

Through it all, the family held out hope that Esther would be found.

Then, two days after she had gone missing, Esther’s lifeless body, badly bruised, was found dumped in the woods near a deserted area that police described at the time as “a kind of lovers lane” for the city’s youth. The state attorney at the time contended that the murder happened during a rape or attempted rape, though those charges were dropped.

All evidence pointed toward Young, a 23-year-old secular Jewish man who owned the popular aquatic pet store with his mother. Gravel found on Lebowitz’s corpse matched aquarium gravel at the store, just next door to the pharmacy where she had been let out of the rabbi’s car. When police searched the shop’s basement, they discovered strands of her hair and a hammer with her blood on it.

Nearly 1,500 people turned out for Esther’s funeral, according to an article in The Baltimore Sun. A standing-room-only crowd flowed out the door. Bais Yaakov closed for the day in her honor. The city was shaken.

At Young’s trial, psychological experts were split over his insanity plea. Some said Young experienced a schizoid break from reality and took out pent-up aggression on an innocent, defenseless passerby; others said that Esther’s death was sheer, cold-blooded murder. Young’s defense described his mother, with whom he reportedly had had a heated fight that morning, as overbearing and controlling. One psychiatrist contended that Young committed the murder “because he was trying to destroy his mother.”

Either way, it took the jury less than 30 minutes to deliberate and find Young guilty, and to sentence him to life in prison. The judge told Young at his sentencing that only conflicting testimony over his sanity saved him from a death sentence.

Young has lived out the past four decades behind bars. He is currently being held at the Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland. His attorney declined to comment on his current state.

Beyond the prison bars, the city is much changed, and nowhere more than on the street where the crime took place. The 5500 block of Park Heights, once a hub of Jewish life, is now an economically depressed area.

There’s little remaining of the block’s Jewish past, aside from a large Jewish community center several blocks north, near where the Orthodox area of Park Heights now starts. There are no markers or plaques memorializing Esther’s murder, though a few of the older African-American residents vaguely recall her case.

But for the Lebowitz family, the pain never goes away, Poliakoff said.

He was 17 when his cousin was murdered. He said that the beautiful young girl he remembers was always pleasant and playful.

After the murder, Esther’s mother, Shulamis, was overwhelmed by the loss. “It wasn’t living. She needed to close the door on this chapter and move on,” Poliakoff said. So she and her husband moved the family to Israel, where they raised several more children.

But it still felt like something was missing in her life, and so she decided to have her daughter’s body exhumed and reburied near her in Israel.

“That sealed the chapter on that part of her life,” Poliakoff said. “Unfortunately, they were awakened when this Unger case came up,” he said, referring to the possibility that Young could be retried. “It was like a splash of cold water when Abe [her father] turned on his computer, opened his news program and found Esther’s picture staring at him.”

“Healing is an interesting process,” said Poliakoff. “Unfortunately, sometimes wounds get opened.”

Contact Michael Kaplan at [email protected] or on Twitter, @michaeld_kaplan

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