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.

The house is his refuge. The 58-year-old rabbi does not have a welcome mat out. Not here, where reporters have staked out his house. Not here, where he and his wife raised their three children.

Neulander has told his lawyers he won't move because his wife would have wanted him to stay. And because moving would imply guilt. And because he has no place to go.

But one wonders what Neulander thinks every time he walks into his living room, where on November 1, 1994, he returned from his synagogue around 9:15 p.m. and found his wife's blood soaked into the carpet and her brains splattered over the walls and furniture.

Three days after the murder, 2,000 people attended a memorial service for Carol Neulander. Her husband of 29 years slumped into the arms of one of his sons. Gary Mazo, M'kor Shalom's assistant rabbi, eulogized, "We come here because we have no place else to go. We don't know what else to do."

Police first suspected that Carol had been killed in a botched robbery: She often brought home large sums of cash from her bakery business. Her purse was missing. It has never been found, although Leon Jenoff's confession now explains why: He dumped it in a trash bin near a bridge linking Camden and Philadelphia.

But soon, investigators were theorizing that Neulander engineered the murder as a way to salvage an affair. That month, word leaked out that Neulander had had affairs with two congregants. He resigned as M'kor Shalom's rabbi.

Last year, Neulander was indicted for conspiring to kill his wife. Prosecutors believe Neulander worried that a divorce would stain his rabbinic reputation.

In addition to testimony from Jenoff, especially potent may be testimony from Elaine Soncini, the radio personality who had an affair with Neulander while being counseled by him after her husband died. In early 1994, she has claimed, the rabbi told her they would have a future together because "something will happen by the end of the year." (Carol Neulander was killed about 11 months after Neulander allegedly said this.)

Also damaging to Neulander will be testimony from Myron "Peppy" Levin, Neulander's occasional racquetball partner who claims the rabbi complained about his marriage--and asked Levin, a small-time hood, if he could arrange Carol's death. After Levin's rebuff, if Jenoff's confession is true, he asked the private investigator to kill his wife.

Riven by grief and shock after Carol's death, M'kor Shalom's 750 families at first tried to maintain the temple as a spiritual haven. Counseling was provided for congregants. Some sessions, especially in the week after the murder, lasted close to midnight.

Initially, congregants supported Neulander. But once the affairs became public--and especially after he became a murder suspect--some charged Neulander with betraying them; others fumed that by accepting Neulander's resignation, the temple had betrayed the spiritual leader who had comforted them during their own hours of need.

Another split appeared regarding perceptions of Neulander--and especially his marriage. Chicago's Rabbi Ira Youdavin, who attended seminary with Neulander, recalls him as "quiet, hard-working, with no apparent temper and a quiet sense of humor. Fred and Carol were perfectly matched in personality. Even in diminutive stature." But even one of Neulander's lawyers speculates that the Neulanders had an "open marriage: Both went elsewhere for sexual satisfaction." And a rabbi who worked closely with Neulander in Cherry Hill, and now has a congregation elsewhere on the East Coast, saw the Neulanders as "not especially close" and Fred as "angry and temperamental, prone to exploding. I don't think he killed Carol, even though they weren't terribly close. He may have had thoughts about killing her, but thinking is not a crime in Judaism."

M'kor Shalom, to which Neulander devoted about two-thirds of his professional life, was built 12 years ago. Its off-white brick is offset by a three-story archway framed by columns on both sides of the main entrance. Just inside the front door, a plaque identifies Neulander as "founding rabbi"; barely 20 feet away is a memorial plaque for Carol Neulander.

If Neulander is acquitted, his future as a rabbi is uncertain. Many rabbis have weathered divorce. Other rabbis have weathered adultery, although not by remaining in the congregation where it occurred.

Even after an acquittal, the stigma of being charged with murder will surely haunt Neulander. "As a moral and spiritual leader, the rabbi would not be effective," conceded M'kor Shalom's president, Steven Burkett, "although I forgive him as a human being."

A conviction--and mandatory execution or life imprisonment, depending on whether prosecutors change the charge against him--would denote that Neulander has transgressed not just civil laws but also a bedrock Talmudic injunction: "He who saves a single life saves the whole world. And he who takes a single life takes the life of the whole world."

Neulander will have to beg mercy from more that just the state, his former congregation, and his children--he will have to beg mercy from God.

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