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Rabbi’s murder trial: A first?

PHILADELPHIA, May 11 (JTA) — One by one, the headlines have screamed the story of murder, marital infidelity, scandal and disgrace:

“Rabbi Among Suspects in Wife’s Death.” “Religious Leaders React With Sadness, Shock to Neulander Indictment.” “Suspect: Rabbi Paid to Have Wife Killed.” “Confessions of ‘Hit Men’ Rock the Neulander Case.”

In a case that has both rocked and riveted the local Jewish community, Rabbi Fred Neulander, 59, founder and former longtime religious leader of one of the largest Reform congregations in Cherry Hill, N.J., stands charged with accomplice murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the brutal 1994 bludgeoning of his wife, Carol.

In the latest stunning development in the case, two men have now come forward and confessed to beating Carol Neulander to death with a lead pipe — allegedly at the behest of the rabbi.

Leonard Jenoff, 54, a man who has portrayed himself as the rabbi’s private investigator and friend, allegedly told Camden County Prosecutor Lee Solomon in late April that Neulander had offered him $30,000 to kill a woman the rabbi had described to him as “an enemy of Israel.”

In light of the confessions, Neulander’s trial, which was to have begun June 19, has been postponed indefinitely.

And Solomon is said to be considering “all the options,” including seeking a new indictment against the rabbi for capital murder — a crime punishable by death.

The case quite possibly marks the first time in American Jewish life that a rabbi has faced trial for murder.

The story began on the night of Nov. 1, 1994, when the 52-year-old Carol Neulander was found lying in a pool of blood on the living room floor of the family’s stately Colonial home in Cherry Hill.

Since that night, a story has slowly unfolded that some observers have likened to a Greek tragedy — the fall of a man from his position of high status, honor and power through the agency of his own hubris, or pride, in a drama that evokes pity and terror in those who witness it.

If so, then the chorus in that tragedy has been the media that have chronicled the often-sensational details of Neulander’s fall:

• December 1994. Edward Borden Jr., then-Camden County prosecutor, speaking at a news conference, refuses to rule out the rabbi as a suspect in the murder case.

• February 1995. In the wake of sensational news leaks reporting that the rabbi is being investigated as a suspect in the murder, Neulander requests and is granted a leave of absence from his position as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom, which he had founded some 21 years before. M’kor Shalom issues a statement affirming its belief in the rabbi’s innocence.

• March 1995. Neulander resigns from his pulpit at M’kor Shalom. In a funereal Sunday morning meeting, more than 700 congregants crowd into the synagogue’s sanctuary, some of them openly weeping, as the congregational president reads Neulander’s letter of resignation.

The “media frenzy,” the rabbi writes, has “revealed information I am not proud of” and “behavior that brings no honor to me.”

It is assumed that he is referring to revelations brought to light by the ongoing murder investigation of his involvement in marital infidelities, including a liaison with Philadelphia radio personality Elaine Soncini.

• April 1996. Citing those marital infidelities, the executive board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the organization of some 1,750 North American Reform rabbis, votes to suspend Neulander’s membership for at least two years. The move deprives Neulander of placement services and other privileges of membership in the CCAR. The suspension currently remains in effect.

• September-October 1997. During the High Holidays, it comes to light that Neulander is the likely target of a grand jury investigation under way in Camden, N.J. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that ex-felon Myron “Peppy” Levin, an acquaintance of Neulander’s, has testified to the grand jury that a few weeks before Carol Neulander was murdered, the rabbi had asked him if he could help to arrange to have her killed.

• September 1998. On the eve of the High Holidays, Neulander is taken into police custody and arraigned on charges of accomplice murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the death of his wife.

At his arraignment, the rabbi — handcuffed, shackled around the waist with chains and wearing a bright-orange correctional facility jumpsuit — is led into the courtroom by three police officers. The prosecutor charges in his brief that Neulander “planned and directed the murder of his wife, Carol Neulander,” adding that the circumstantial evidence of the rabbi’s involvement in the murder is “compelling and overwhelming.”

Neulander pleads “not guilty” and is released on $400,000 bail.

• January 1999. A second grand jury convenes in Camden and, on Jan. 11 indicts the rabbi on charges of accomplice murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The maximum penalty on the charges is life imprisonment, with no possibility of parole for 30 years.

Rabbi Richard Address, regional director of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations and a member of M’kor Shalom, gives voice to the pain of the community when he reacts to news of the indictment with a weary: “Sadness. Just sadness. Just overwhelming sadness.”

• June 1999. Neulander’s attorneys file a motion to dismiss the murder indictment against the rabbi, citing, among other things, their concerns that critical developments in the case coincided with “religious periods of holiness for the Jewish religion.”

• February 2000. The judge in the case, Linda Rosenzweig, denies the motion to dismiss the charges against Neulander. During the hearing, defense attorney Dennis Wixted characterizes the evidence against his client as “insufficient,” with “no eyewitness, no corroborating evidence, no weapon recovered.”

But Assistant Prosecutor James Lynch issues a stinging rebuttal. He calls the circumstantial evidence against the rabbi — including the testimony of his daughter, Rebecca, indicating that Carol Neulander believed there was a link between her husband and the unknown delivery man who is now alleged to have murdered her — “substantial in volume, broad in scope and powerful in impact.”

As the proceedings draw to a close, Neulander declines an opportunity to initiate a plea bargain in the case. The judge sets June 19 as the date of his trial.

• May 2000. Leonard Jenoff allegedly confesses to being that delivery man. He and his alleged accomplice in the murder, Paul Michael Daniels, are arraigned on charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Unable to make bail of $200,000 and $400,000, respectively, they remain in the Camden County jail. The judge sets the next pre-trial hearing for early September.

When Neulander’s trial finally unfolds, will it truly be an event without precedent in American Jewish history? Will the State of New Jersey vs. Fred Neulander mark the first and only time in American Jewish life that a rabbi has been tried for murder?

An extensive online search of American periodicals yielded a small but colorful catalog of criminal cases involving rabbis, but no murders.

Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, the Reform seminary, said the only case he can recall happened in 1928, in Messina, N.Y.

Zola said a rabbi was arrested and accused of killing a child in order to use the blood to make matzah for Passover — a “blood libel” case that was ultimately dismissed.

Jewish historians won’t rule out the possibility that such a case existed before, but they say it is unlikely.

Jonathan Sarna an American Jewish historian, said he is reluctant to give a definitive answer to the question, but added, “I can’t think of another example of a rabbi on trial for murder.”

Sarna, who holds the Braun Chair in American Jewish History at Brandeis University, said “I can’t pretend to know the history of every rabbi who’s ever been, but I have to imagine that a murder trial of a rabbi would have reverberated through the pages of history. I’ve got to imagine that a premeditated murder case would have had some kind of ripples.”

(Marilyn Silverstein is a staff writer for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.)

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