In November 2002, Rabbi Fred Neulander of Cherry Hill, NJ was convicted of hiring two hit men to kill his wife, Carol. Neulander, now serving a life sentence, has denied any involvement in her death since it happened, on November 1, 1994. But after the murder, word quickly spread in the community about the rabbi's many extramarital affairs. Neulander resigned from his post as head rabbi of Cherry Hill's M'kor Shalom, the Reform congregation he founded in 1973, and which had grown to more than 900 families, about a year after the murder. He was charged with arranging Carol's murder in 1998. Arthur Magida's new book, "The Rabbi and the Hit Man," explores the lives of Neulander, the hit man Leonard Jenoff, and other family and community members affected by the murder. He spoke with Beliefnet about what drove Neulander to commit this act, how M'kor Shalom has changed, and what one man's crime means for Judaism and the clergy in general.

Why has this story attracted national attention rather than just remaining a local Cherry Hill story?
It has attracted national attention because of the aberrant conjuncture of a rabbi first suspected of, then arrested for, and finally convicted of hiring hit men to kill his wife. There are standards and expectations that we have for men and women of clergy of all faiths, and unfortunately and tragically, Fred Neulander transgressed just about every single one of them. The localness disappeared immediately when a rabbi was implicated. Once the rumors began about him somehow being involved in the murder, this became a case of national concern.

This scandal over one rabbi obviously doesn't compare with the Catholic Church scandal about priest sex abuse. But does this case have implications for Judaism at large?
The only thing that really joined the Roman Catholic scandals and the Fred Neulander scandal was that in all those cases, clergymen violated their own precepts. Clergymen violated the deep faith entrusted to them. As much as the Neulander case is an absolute aberration, there are transgressions in so many of the helping professions, be it clergy, psychology, psychiatry, or teachers. All of them deal with human beings who are extremely vulnerable and extremely weak. With Neulander, at least two of his mistresses were women in the weaker moments of their lives--one had just lost her husband, another was having marital problems. They confided in him, they trusted him. But that same pattern could hold in any one of the helping professions.

What does this say about Judaism, and the clergy of any faith? For all faiths, all of us in a particular faith comprise a community. There should be a mutuality of respect, of compassion and concern, and it should go both ways. Yes, clergy people have immense responsibilities whether you're a rabbi in a congregation with 1400 families or an imam at a street corner mosque with 75 people, you minister to people's souls and to people's hurts and hopefully to people's joys as well. On the other side of that equation, people should try to exhibit as much compassion toward their rabbi or clergy member as they would want from that clergy person. So often a lot of clergy people are simply overworked and overburdened, especially if you're in a congregation the size of Fred Neulander's. He had over 900 families. There's little time for self-reflection, there's little time for knowing who you are.

Psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, a rabbi can be strained. Neulander was indeed strained. But adding to Neulander's problems, I think, was that he never really had a great, deep yearning to be a rabbi. By the 1980s, he was very conflicted about being a rabbi. In the early 1990s, he even wanted to run for the state senate of New Jersey. So again and again in Neulander's career, there are disturbing signs that he wasn't fully committed to being a rabbi.

But he was such an ambitious rabbi. Not every rabbi founds their own congregation and draws so many people into his community.
It's true. He was an ambitious man, he was a charismatic man, he was a powerful man. But a lot of those qualities swallowed him.

So what made him finally cross the line?
He found himself, by his standards in a completely untenable situation. He was in a marriage that was unsatisfying, he had a career that was unsatisfying, despite his great success at it. He had a mistress who was wealthy (she'd inherited about $1.4 million). She was pretty, she was a local personality on the radio. This was his opportunity to enter a world which he'd envied for many years, and to have a wife who would satisfy him at other levels than Carol did.

You obviously think Neulander is guilty of hiring a hit man to murder his wife. Why do you think he still denies it?
Legally, he shouldn't admit it. He's appealing the case. Since 1994, he has denied any culpability. He will go to his grave denying he has any culpability. There are some people in South Jersey who still believe he's innocent.

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