WHIPPANY, N.J. (Oct. 22)
Monday, the rabbi went on trial for his life.
It sounds like a sequel to “Friday the Rabbi Slept Late” or one of Harry Kemelman’s other best-selling religious mysteries. But in chilling counterpoint to those works of fiction, this is a real life story of murder, conspiracy, adultery, and disgrace, in which a once-prominent pulpit rabbi is facing murder charges in the brutal slaying of his wife.
The main characters are Rabbi Fred Neulander, founder and former religious leader of Congregation M’kor Shalom, a thriving, 1,000-family Reform congregation in Cherry Hill, N.J., and his late wife, Carol, who was found lying dead in a pool of blood on the living room floor of the family home in Cherry Hill on the night of Nov. 1, 1994.
In what has been alleged to be a classic case of murder for hire, Fred Neulander, 61, stands charged with arranging for his wife’s murder so that he could carry on his love affair with former Philadelphia radio personality Elaine Soncini.
One year ago, in Camden, N.J., his first trial in the capital murder case ended in a hung jury. After declaring a mistrial, Superior Court Judge Linda Baxter made the decision to move the second trial away from Camden County, where the glare of publicity had been so strong.
If Neulander is found guilty on the capital murder charge, he could face the death penalty. This is thought to be the first time in modern history, and certainly the first time in the state’s history, that a pulpit rabbi has faced such a charge.
On Oct. 21, eight years after Carol Neulander was bludgeoned to death, the rabbi again went on trial for his life — this time at the Monmouth County Court House in Freehold, N.J.
Outside a second-floor courtroom, members of Carol Neulander’s family, including her brothers, Edward Lidz of Montclair, N.J. and Robert Lidz of New York, awaited the judge’s opening gavel.
Inside the courtroom, a pensive Neulander sat beside his attorney, Michael Riley — at one moment staring into the distance, at another point closing his eyes and holding his palms together, as if in prayer.
As opening arguments got under way, Camden County Assistant Prosecutor James Lynch told the jury panel of nine men and seven women that people had looked up to Neulander as a religious leader. However, he said, the rabbi failed to live up to his role.
“The man was deeply, deeply flawed,” Lynch charged as he sketched in some of what he described as the clear and compelling evidence against the rabbi. “This was a man of God who acted in a thoroughly ungodly fashion. He planned and plotted and conspired to take the life of his wife.”
Neulander’s defense counsel reminded the jury that despite the prosecutor’s words, the burden is totally on the state to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
“As Fred Neulander sits here this afternoon,” Riley said, “he is cloaked in the mantle of innocence.”
The journey from the last night of Carol Neulander’s life to the first day of Fred Neulander’s second murder trial has been a long one. It began with the rabbi’s fall from grace in early 1995, as the murder investigation unearthed his marital infidelities. In March of 1995, in the wake of those revelations, Neulander resigned from his pulpit, acknowledging “information I am not proud of” and “behavior that brings no honor to me.”
In the spring of 1996, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis suspended Neulander’s membership, effectively denying him the CCAR’s placement services. Still, Neulander continued to officiate at funeral services and weddings — including the wedding of Leonard Jenoff, the man who later confessed to beating Carol Neulander to death at the rabbi’s behest.
In 1998, Neulander was arrested and indicted on charges of accomplice murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
In June 2000, on the eve of Neulander’s scheduled trial on those charges, the case was rocked by a stunning development. Two alleged hit men — Jenoff, now 55, and Paul Michael Daniels, now 28 — came forward on their own and confessed to the murder, alleging that the rabbi had hired them to kill his wife. Neulander was alleged to have promised Jenoff $30,000 to carry out the contract.
In light of the confessions, a Camden County grand jury indicted Neulander anew on charges of capital murder, felony murder, and conspiracy to commit murder.
At a hearing on June 21, 2000, Baxter revoked the rabbi’s bail. He was led away in handcuffs to a cell in New Jersey, where he remains.
A few rabbis contacted for this story said the story is a back-burner issue for them.
But for one Reform rabbi in the area, Rabbi Richard Levine of Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, N.J., the Neulander case is still very much on the front burner. A personal friend of both Fred and Carol Neulander’s, Levine is on the witness list for the retrial.
“I’m sorrowful,” the rabbi said, noting that whenever he happens to be leading a graveside service at the Crescent Burial Park in Pennsauken, he walks over to Carol Neulander’s grave to say a prayer.
“I knew both parties. I have mixed emotions,” said Levine. “In my heart, I would pray he had nothing to do with it. In my head, I see all the evidence and I understand the direction in which things are going.”
He can still remember rushing over to M’kor Shalom the night Carol Neulander was murdered to try to help congregants and friends deal with the shocking news, Levine said.
“How can you not be touched by it? This is something that the south Jersey community especially has to come to some kind of resolution they can live with,” the rabbi said.
He said he is looking forward to the time when he can say, “It’s done. It’s over. Whatever is, is. Now let’s pick up the pieces and move on.”