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.
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.
Aside from the legal reasons, he continues to deny it because that's the fiction that he's created for himself. He has committed a horrible, sociopathic act, so he distances himself from it.
Why do you think he still continues to couch the way he talks about the case, even his plea for his life at his sentencing, in religious terms? It's very off-putting to read his religious speeches after this.
Because he's a rabbi and that's the language he knows. That's the language that was so successful for him for all the years that he was a practicing rabbi. He couldn't discard that, when he finally took the stand in his own defense. That's what he rested his life and his career on.
Some members left in the immediate aftermath of Fred's resignation. Gary Mazo, who was the associate rabbi at the time of Carol's death, remained for about four or five years. About three years ago, they got another rabbi and they're very happy with him. Whoever was going to step into that congregation would know that they were stepping into a shadow, into a house of worship that had suffered such incalculable trauma, and that it would always be burnished with the memory of what happened to Carol Neulander.
Did this incident make any synagogue members feel differently about Judaism?
In the book, I talk about a letter that Gary Mazo got from a college student, who was ready to leave Judaism. Fred Neulander had meant Judaism to her. Gary answered her in a personal letter and, anonymously, in a Rosh Hashanah sermon. He said Judaism is more than the rabbinate. Judaism is Torah and history and ethics. Judaism is that Bat Mitzvah you had. I think what the members of M'kor Shalom have learned is that Judaism is not an individual; it is a community, a history, and a body of knowledge. To mistake one for the other does not necessarily lead to that horrible tragedy of November 1994, but it can lead to a distortion of the truths of Judaism.
Has anyone accused you of airing the Jewish community's dirty laundry by writing this book?
Truth is always hard to bear, truth of this sort in particular. We've all heard stories of rabbis or cantors who have misbehaved; we've heard stories of priests who have put their hands where they shouldn't. This happens in every faith. But the only way these faiths are going to be honest to their principles and to their essential teachings is by discussing who practices those faiths honestly and who adheres to the bedrock foundation and who falls and who sins. And unfortunately in the Neulander case, Fred fell, and he took many people with him. But the only way you stop further scandals is by knowing about what preceded them.
Above the ark that holds the Torah, it says, "Da lifnei mi atah omed: Know before whom you stand." Carol Neulander knew before whom she stood. The absolute tragedy of Fred Neulander is that he did not know before whom he stood. In the end, he believed he stood only before himself.
Do you think he believes in God?
Yes. I think he believes in God. I haven't met Fred face to face, though he and I have exchanged some correspondence. He thinks he believes in God. It may not be the God that most of us believe in. He thinks that through his life he has served God. Which is not to say that at moments, he did not serve God well and he did not serve his congregation well. But his ultimate act was what Judaism considers a kolel HaShem, a sin against God.