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Mourning, intermarriage in rabbi’s murder trial

CAMDEN, N.J., Oct. 22 (JTA) — A confessed hitman has told a jury that he killed the wife of Rabbi Fred Neulander because Neulander promised him $30,000 and a job with the Mossad.

Leonard Jenoff recounted how Neulander had told him “there was a person in Cherry Hill,” N.J., who “had to be killed. There was a person in Cherry Hill who could destroy Israel, who could destroy Cherry Hill.”

Jenoff’s claim about the Israeli spy agency is just one of several specifically Jewish issues — including Jewish mourning, intermarriage and synagogue life — that have emerged during the early days of the trial of Neulander, who could face the death penalty if he is found guilty of paying to have his wife killed.

Carol Neulander was found lying dead in her own living room Nov. 1, 1994, a victim of a vicious beating to the head.

Neulander, the former spiritual leader of Congregation M’Kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, maintains his innocence.

Jenoff, along with Paul Michael Daniels, has pleaded guilty to beating Carol Neulander and taking her purse. Jenoff could receive a reduced sentence for cooperating with the state.

“I was kind of broke. I wanted the job with Israel. It was the darkest day of my life, sir, when I took that man’s promise,” Jenoff testified. “He was making me these promises, like a job with the Mossad.”

Citing an earlier alcohol problem and low self-esteem, Jenoff admitted in court that he often lies to make himself look better. Hoping to gain Neulander’s respect, he lied about his achievements, saying he had graduated college, had worked for the CIA and had become a Bar Mitzvah — none of which, he now admits, is true.

While Jenoff is involved in the trial for his own actions, the Neulanders’ three adult children have been dragged into the case.

Rebecca, Matthew and Benjamin Neulander must relive the events, hearing repeatedly about their father’s admitted affairs and how he allegedly planned to murder their mother.

The Neulander siblings have maintained their composure, with only brief sobbing and hand-holding showing their grief.

Both Rebecca and Matthew Neulander have testified about the events surrounding their mother’s death.

Both siblings testified that they were very close with their mother. Rebecca Neulander said she spoke daily with her mother and visited her once a week.

“We were very close, like best friends,” she testified.

Matthew Neulander, who lived at home at the time of the murder, said he also had a very close relationship with his mother.

Matthew Neulander was working as an emergency medical technician when the call came in that a person was bleeding. In the seven minutes it took for the ambulance to get to his home, it became clear that something much worse than bleeding was going on, he testified.

A friend prevented him from entering the house, Matthew Neulander said.

His testimony also focused on a fight between his parents two days before the murder.

“She asked him whether or not he wanted to save the marriage, whether or not he wanted to go to a marriage counselor, whether or not we wanted a divorce,” he testified, referring to his parents.

Fred Neulander has admitted to several adulterous affairs.

Rebecca Neulander said she was talking to her mother on the car phone about a week before the murder when her mother arrived home to find a man with an envelope for Rabbi Neulander.

“There’s somebody here to drop off a letter to daddy,” Rebecca remembered her mother saying. She heard her mother say the man could use the bathroom, and then they hung up. Her mother called her back shortly to say the man was gone and had left an empty envelope.

About a week later, the two women again were speaking on the phone when Carol Neulander told her that the “bathroom guy” was here again.

That was the night of the murder. It also was the last time Rebecca Neulander spoke to her mother.

Several witnesses have explained to the jury about shiva, the seven-day period of Jewish mourning, in reference to time spent in the Neulander home after Carol Neulander’s death.

Indeed, some witnesses questioned the idea of holding shiva in a murder site, and some witnesses said there were water stains where they believe blood had been cleaned off the carpet.

Jenoff said it was during one of the shiva nights at the Neulander home that the former rabbi handed him a manila envelop filled with $7,000 cash, which Jenoff said was part of the $30,000 promised him for the hit.

The subject of intermarriage also has come up, with Jenoff testifying that the rabbi officiated at his marriage to a non-Jew several years after the murder.

While Neulander wasn’t pleased about Jenoff marrying outside the faith, he not only conducted the ceremony but did it in his own home and bought the wedding cake — which came from his late wife’s bakery company, Jenoff testified.

Neulander resigned from M’Kor Shalom soon after his wife’s murder, but resentments from his time at the synagogue surfaced during the trial.

Myron “Peppy” Levin, Neulander’s racquetball partner, testified last week that before the murder, Neulander had said to him, “I wish I could come home and find my (curse word) wife dead and on the floor.”

Levin also testified that Neulander had asked if he knew anyone willing to do the murder, and Levin said he had told Neulander he didn’t want to be involved.

During cross-examination by Neulander’s attorney, however, Levin admitted he was angry because he believed the rabbi had cheated him financially. Levin had paid between $16,000 and $20,000 to purchase a Torah for M’Kor Shalom, to be used at his grandson’s Bar Mitzvah.

Levin said he later found out the Torah was worth closer to $2,000.

“I’m still mad about it,” Levin told the jury.

When Neulander’s attorney, Dennis Wixted, accused him of testifying against the rabbi because he felt cheated, Levin angrily replied, “That is so sick.”

The trial is expected to last at least three more weeks.

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