As more of Aaron Rajman’s accused murderers face trial, the slain young man’s rabbi remembers him a contradiction, a sweet but fierce cage fighter, a proud Jew with a puzzling dark side that led to his death.
With two of the perpetrators in prison after taking plea deals, Palm Beach County prosecutors expect the remaining four people charged in grand jury indictments to be convicted for their roles in the murder.
Rajman was a bearded, Orthodox Jew who made his name as an up-and-coming (MMA) fighter, dubbed “the Matzoh Brawler.” He also helped support himself by dealing weed in his West Boca Raton neighborhood – until he was murdered nearly four years ago.
“Life is complicated,” said Rabbi Zalman Bukiet of the Chabad of West Boca Raton, where Rajman worshipped, in an interview with the Forward. “He was such a sweetheart, but he fought like a lion. He was a very proud Jew. He was such a good neshama, a loving, giving person. He would never say ‘no’ to anybody to help another person.”
And he seemed to have worked his way out of difficult circumstances.
“He had a lot of struggles in his family. He had a rough life,” Bukiet said. “His death was a great loss to his family. He was also a very good-hearted person that did a lot of good things in the community with talent. He gave everybody time, from youth to adults.”
But in the weeks preceding his murder, the rabbi said, Rajman had stopped coming to synagogue. “It’s like he had another side of him that I didn’t see. I only saw the good side. He got involved in other issues that he shouldn’t have. It was shocking to me…He could have had such a future and now he’s not here anymore.”
On July 3, 2017, six teenagers and young adults planned a home invasion robbery at Rajman’s home in the Sandalfoot Cove neighborhood in search of money and dope. The heist, just before 10.30 p.m., went disastrously wrong.
Rajman resisted the three men who entered the house wearing hooded sweatshirts. He was shot several times, including a fatal chest wound, just a week after his 25th birthday. On the way out of the house the robbers dropped some of the loot, including a bag of marijuana, Rajman’s wallet and a sword.
Investigators were able to use cell phone records, surveillance video, witness statements and social media records to identify the suspects, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. One of the gang, a woman, had smoked marijuana with Rajman at his house, and called him from a car outside the house just before the robbery to make sure he was at home.
Two of the ad hoc gang, some of whom did not know each other until the night of the robbery, were arrested three months later. They have pled guilty and begun serving their 10-year sentences. Four others are expected to be tried soon on first-degree murder charges, including one who was arrested in February.
“Whatever happens, Aaron needs justice,” Benjamin Szlamkowicz, a neighborhood friend who went to synagogue services with Rajman, told the Palm Beach Post. “He was still a good dude regardless of what happened in this case. He always wanted to help people and scratch everyone’s back.”
So, who was Aaron Rajman, and what was the meaning of his life and death? In a December 16, 2014, reflective essay for the web site mmafutures.com, he wrote that he was born into a poor family in the Bronx, one of seven “well supported” children.
Rajman recalled that he was a prime example of how religion, coupled with a larger sense of purpose, can be a vehicle for personal transformation. “As a teen I got myself into a lot of trouble with drugs and the law before catching on,” he wrote.
Then he discovered MMA, an amalgam of various martial arts, including jiu-jitsu and boxing, fought inside an octagonal cage. The discipline of training and fighting turned his life around. As a 145-pound featherweight amateur, he won six title belts with an 8-1 record. He had recently turned pro, with a 2-2 record.
At around the same time, Rajman’s involvement in Judaism was rekindled. “Outside of MMA,” he wrote in the essay, “I spend a lot of time with family and my community. I was raised with a Jewish education and in the past 5 years have really focused a lot more on my relationship with G-d.”
Rajman wrote that he also became interested in nutrition and cooking.
“Now it’s grown to where I cook meals for the family and friends every week for the Sabbath. The way I was raised guests are welcome, doors are open if you reach out me. I take that day and get my head off of MMA for a bit.”
Rajman, who worshipped at Chabad of West Boca, told interviewers he began each day with Torah study, and he liked to enter the ring wearing a yarmulke and tzitis. According to one rabbi, Rajman would pray with fellow combatants before each bout, and shout “Shema Yisrael!” before he fought.
However, the observant young fighter’s life was by no means completely transformed. According to police records obtained by the Sun Sentinel in 2018, Rajman was dealing marijuana out of his bedroom. Police on the scene the night of the shooting reported the heavy smell of smoked marijuana in the house, and noted a dry-erase board next to his bed listing various weed-related products on offer.
The police said that Rajman’s girlfriend, a witness to the shooting, told an investigator that he was a “large distributor of marijuana,” from his home. His younger brother told detectives, “We’re drug dealers, we have a lot of shit.”
And the fatal encounter was not the first robbery attempt. Although not reported as the time, several weeks before he was killed, Rajman was robbed of three pounds of marijuana and $3,000, according to the police report. He called off an earlier drug deal when he thought he was about to be robbed.
More than 300 people gathered for Rajman’s funeral in July of 2017 at the Eternal Light Cemetery, the crowd racially and religiously diverse, including numerous of Rajman’s MMA friends. They jostled for shade from the sweltering heat under a green tent. A GoFundMe campaign raised more than $25,000 to cover the funeral and plot, next to his father, who died in 2011, when Aaron was 19.
Bukiet delivered the graveside eulogy, telling a reporter later, “This was a special young man who had a heart of gold. It is a tragedy and extremely painful for the family; painful for everyone who knew him.”
In the months before his murder, Rajman taught Krag Magav, the Israeli martial art, to officers of the Palm Beach Police Department, as well as to children and staff at Chabad day schools.
One of his sparring partners was Rabbi Avraham Granat, a school teacher at Chabad of Coral Springs.
“His calm and subtle demeanor belied expertise in what could be a violent lifestyle,” Granat wrote in a blog post after the funeral. “This was a man who, single handedly, brought together many people of different backgrounds, in a way that celebrated his relationship with G-D. He wasn’t a rabbi or a yeshiva student, just a great Jew who played forward the love of Hashem he had with everyone who he met.”
Justice and closure in “The Matzoh Brawler” murder