The rabbi did not recall the date several years ago when a newcomer walked through the door of his Chabad Lubavitch Center, then a storefront temple in a Voorhees shopping plaza. "He actually walked into a service in the middle of a service, and I didn't recognize him," Rabbi Mendel Mangel said. "Someone mentioned to me, 'Fred Neulander is here.'"

So began a spiritual relationship that would endure from that first visit, sometime after Neulander resigned in 1995 as head rabbi of Congregation M'kor Shalom in Cherry Hill amid acknowledgments of adultery, until 2001, shortly before his first trial in the 1994 contract killing of his wife, Carol Neulander.

Almost weekly during those years, Neulander, who was convicted of murder in a retrial in November and was formally sentenced yesterday to life in prison, attended services and religious classes. Rabbi Mangel, 34, was his rabbi, offering him spiritual counsel even through a glass partition while Neulander was awaiting trial in the Camden County Correctional Facility.

Harold Cohen, a former member of M'kor Shalom, urged the jury to spare Neulander's life during the retrial's penalty phase. Although speaking as an individual when he testified, Cohen is president of the Chabad congregation.

Before testifying, Cohen asked Rabbi Mangel if he thought it was appropriate, and the rabbi said he had told him that he thought it was. "You're allowed the opportunity, and your voice should be heard," Rabbi Mangel said.

In an interview, the rabbi was highly respectful of any confidence that Neulander may have shared with him. He would not say if the rabbi ever discussed his slain wife or the case against him. Rabbi Mangel said he had not followed media reports about the two trials so he would not form a conviction about Neulander's guilt or innocence. He also said, "It was too painful."

But then, Neulander's acceptance at the Chabad Lubavitch Center had nothing to do with his guilt or innocence, Rabbi Mangel said. It was about helping another Jew reach out to God, regardless of what his sin might be. "I feel we must never abandon another Jew, even at his greatest failure," Rabbi Mangel said. "Maybe at those times they need the help the most."

Indeed, he said, this possible good was the only reason he was agreeing to speak: "If, God forbid, there's somebody out there who's going through a crisis, let him recognize the walls of a synagogue as a place that would be safe for him, not as a sanctuary to run away from his problems, but as a place he can deal with them, that he can come to God, and God will hopefully help him."

To some, the Chabad Lubavitch Center might seem an unlikely choice for Neulander. M'kor Shalom, which Neulander helped found, is a large Reform congregation with about 900 families. About 150 people attend services regularly at the Chabad synagogue, Rabbi Mangel said. It is one of about 3,000 Chabad Lubavitch centers worldwide.

While these outreach centers are the efforts of a Hasidic, or highly Orthodox, group based in Brooklyn, N.Y., Rabbi Mangel said they avoided labels and included Jews from every walk of life. Rabbi Mangel came from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn to start a center in Voorhees nine years ago, and it has continued to grow. The congregation moved to Cherry Hill and a new synagogue about six months ago.

Rabbi Mangel said he had never asked Neulander why he had come to Chabad, but he said he did not find it surprising. "What is known about Chabad is it is very warm and welcoming and nonjudgmental," he said.

While he had no doubt other congregation members knew who Neulander was, he said he had never heard them complain. "People in the synagogue aren't welcoming of people's actions. They're welcoming of a person coming in to deal with their issues and God."

Neulander, for his part, "made no special airs about himself" at services or classes, Rabbi Mangel said. "In the room, he was a Jew. Outside the room, he was Fred Neulander." The two rabbis had conversations. "He was a bright man. There's no question," Rabbi Mangel said. "He was a hurting man. That was obvious."

The sadness in the Neulander case seems almost infinite, like a very dark ocean. Rabbi Mangel spoke of the pain brought to a family, a community, to Neulander's former congregation. Indeed, after Neulander was found guilty, his name was finally purged from a list of M'kor Shalom officers inside the front door of the synagogue.

At Chabad, Rabbi Mangel said, the rabbi found neither condemnation nor pardon. "Synagogues can't offer forgiveness. They can allow you to search for forgiveness," he said. "God can forgive."

On the eve of Neulander's sentencing, the young rabbi offered this hope for his troubled congregant: "To come to terms with the past and recognize the need to see the future and see the best that he can. He will, I guess, spend many years behind bars. Now he has to just use the knowledge that he has, the strength that he has to help others, to come closer in his relationship to God, ask God for forgiveness, and if he has failed man, ask them for forgiveness."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad