CHERRY HILL, N.J.--Just as Congregation M'kor Shalom thought it had moved beyond the worst episode imaginable for any house of worship, recent headlines in the Philadelphia area have thrown the trauma right back in its face:

"Rabbi Neulander to Stand Trial in Wife's Slaying"

"Judge Upholds Rabbi's Charge"

"June Trial Set for Rabbi in Murder Case"

A rabbi charged with hiring a hit man to kill his wife? Unbelievable. Especially since the rabbi was Fred Neulander, whom many congregants and rabbinic colleagues perceived as charismatic, scholarly, empathetic--and, at times, even a bit of a stuffed shirt.

Neulander: who founded M'kor Shalom, Hebrew for "source of peace," although the temple has known little peace since November 1994, when Carol Neulander was killed.

Neulander: "Not the guy we would have voted Most Likely to Kill His Wife," observed a seminary classmate.

Neulander: reserved, reflective, a turn-of-mind that seems genetic, and the latest in a chain of seven generations of rabbis broken only by his father, who owned a Laundromat and dry-cleaning business.

Neulander told a local magazine that he hasn't lost his faith in God--just his faith in people.

But others have lost faith in him. Many former congregants are furious that his human flaws trespassed upon his religious calling. He admitted to breaking the Seventh Commandment--"You shall not commit adultery"--by having two affairs with congregants, and, if prosecutors are correct, he may have broken the Sixth: "You shall not murder."

If the charge is proved, this would conceivably place Neulander in a singular category of clerical indiscretion.

Before the murder charge, the rabbi could say he had become an emblem--some said he was a victim--of the sometimes easy idolizing that occurs when congregants of all faiths regard their clergy: They forget that whoever stands in their pulpit is just as human as they are.

"We should not be under any illusions on this subject," said Barry S. Kogan, who teaches Jewish ethics and philosophy at Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College. "We may pride ourselves on being 'modern' rabbis, but human nature and inclinations remain the same. And rabbis are certainly human beings.

"If old barriers between the sexes have been lowered or removed, even greater personal discipline is needed than before. But in some cases, it's egregiously lacking. At a time when people often want greater intimacy with their rabbi, this can generate serious problems, which can be worsened by immaturity and self-destructiveness."

In May, new headlines rocked Neulander's defense when Leon Jenoff, 54, a private investigator who says Neulander hired him shortly after the murder to prove his innocence, claimed he had arranged the killing at the rabbi's request.

Jenoff initially told police that Neulander promised him $30,000 if he killed a woman who was an anti-Israeli terrorist and that he hired Paul Daniels, 26, for $7,500 to actually kill the woman. Jenoff has now changed his story and claims he knew from the outset that the woman was the rabbi's wife.

Jenoff says Neulander paid him several thousand dollars when he first agreed to commit the murder and an equivalent sum when he visited the rabbi at home during shiva, the seven days of mourning in Judaism. Jenoff also says Neulander let him keep about $10,000 that the murderer took from his wife's purse the night of the slaying. Neulander apparently never paid the full $30,000 he promised Jenoff.

"It's been a nightmare for five years," Jenoff told the Philadelphia Inquirer, explaining why he came forward. "There's been times when I thought of killing myself, times when I prayed for cancer, prayed for a heart attack, so I wouldn't have to go on keeping this inside of me."

Jenoff's lawyers say that in an April conversation with their client, monitored by police, Daniels admitted killing Carol Neulander; Neulander's lawyers say they'll ask for the trial to be delayed because of these revelations; prosecutors may re-file the case as a capital crime.

Meanwhile, Neulander steadfastly denies any involvement with the murder.

But Jenoff's confession--if true--would move the case beyond the shifting relations between clergy and congregants. It'll plunge it into provable homicide--and five years of conspiracy, mendacity, and charade.

Neulander still lives in the house in Cherry Hill, N.J., where he found his 52-year-old wife bludgeoned to death. Cherry Hill is east of Philadelphia, solidly middle-class and heavily Jewish, but its sprawl dignifies the notion of suburbia about as much as the tract-house development that Neulander lives in advances the idea of individualism.

His two-floor home is almost identical to all the other houses around him--except that his first floor is completely hidden from the street by overgrown rhododendrons, some 15 feet tall, and on the second floor all the blinds and curtains are closed.