CHERRY HILL, N.J. (Nov. 14)
With no decision on whether their former rabbi is a murderer, members of Congregation M’Kor Shalom are seeking solace in community.
Hours after a jury reported Tuesday that it couldn’t decide if Rabbi Fred Neulander had contracted his wife’s 1994 murder, some 35 members of M’Kor Shalom came together to sing songs and listen to peaceful readings.
Neulander’s wife, Carol, was found beaten to death at the couple’s home on Nov. 1, 1994.
Authorities say the rabbi wanted his wife killed so he could continue an affair. Neulander resigned his pulpit in February 1995 amid reports that he had been unfaithful.
After 40 hours of deliberation, the jury announced that it couldn’t reach a unanimous decision, and Judge Linda Baxter declared a mistrial. A guilty verdict could have sent Neulander to death row.
Camden County Prosecutor Lee Solomon said his office will retry Neulander.
Neulander’s attorney, Jeffrey Zucker, said his client “certainly is relieved, but he’s disappointed he wasn’t completely cleared.”
Zucker said he will ask for bail.
Solomon said his office will oppose any request for bail. Neulander has been in jail since June 2000.
Local resident Ron Boben, of Cinnaminson, N.J., called the lack of a verdict “a shame.”
“It’s kind of like playing a sport and getting to the Super Bowl, and then saying it’s a tie and having to play all over.”
Even without a clear decision, members of M’Kor Shalom felt the need to process the outcome together.
“This is a simple gathering of prayer,” Rabbi Barry Schwartz, who now presides over the synagogue of 900 families, said of Tuesday night’s gathering.
At the trial, Neulander was accused of picking a Tuesday night for the murder since it’s a busy night at the synagogue and many congregants would see him there. In fact, Cantor Anita Hockman testified that Neulander visited her choir practice that night, something he had rarely if ever done before.
Indeed, just before the congregation’s 30-minute healing service began on this Tuesday evening, the choir could be heard practicing and the confirmation class could be seen winding down.
Many of those at the service had been close to Carol Neulander. They wanted the comfort of being together, Schwartz said.
“Shared joy is double. Shared sorrow is halved,” he said. “Family and community become so important in trying times.”
Schwartz never once mentioned Neulander’s name or the trial’s outcome.
“We pray for tidy endings,” he said. “We pray for certainties, but that’s not always the way. Life is complicated.”
Many at M’Kor Shalom had hoped for a clear verdict to end this seven-year ordeal.
“I just wish there was closure,” said Sheila Goodman, who had been president of the synagogue when Carol Neulander was killed. However, she said, life at M’Kor Shalom goes on.
“We are whole,” she said.
Sherry Wolkoff, a member for 23 years, agreed.
“The synagogue has grown. We are vibrant,” Wolkoff said. “I as a congregant am proud of the way we’ve dealt with it and stayed as dynamic as ever. I don’t know if many other congregations could have gone through with this as well.”
After the jury reported that it couldn’t reach a decision, the synagogue’s president, Robert Elias, issued a statement.
“As a community, it was Congregation M’Kor Shalom’s hope that this lengthy trial would have come to a legal conclusion,” he said. “It is our continual hope that justice will be served. Our hearts continue to go out to the family of Carol Neulander and to all those in our own community who continue to be affected by these events.”
Indeed, for many in the community, the trial had been almost as newsworthy as America’s war in Afghanistan.
“It hasn’t been just the main topic of conversation. It’s the only topic,” said Jerrold Colton, who sends his children to M’Kor Shalom’s day school. “It’s devastating for people to know that the person who married them, Bar- Mitzvahed them, officiated at their parents funeral turned out to be a treacherous, lecherous human being — and that’s regardless of whether he’s a murderer.”
After the trial, attorney Glenn Zeitz called the hung jury “predictable,” noting that the two hit men, Leonard Jenoff and Paul Michael Daniels, lacked credibility, and that Neulander himself had been “seriously impeached” during cross examination.
Jenoff had testified that he killed Carol Neulander after her husband had promised him $30,000 and a chance to work for the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency.
However, Jenoff later admitted on the stand that he often lies to inflate his achievements and that he has a drinking problem. Daniels testified that he has suffered from drug problems.
“There was probably a small number of jurors, a well-entrenched group” that took one side right from the start, Zeitz said.