WHIPPANY, N.J. (Nov. 25)
The guilty verdict rendered in the second murder trial of Rabbi Fred Neulander is an opportunity for closure and whatever mourning needs to be done.
Such is the view of Dan Gottlieb, a family therapist and longtime radio host in the Philadelphia area.
“This was a man who did wonderful things, and he was a man who did terrible things,” Gottlieb said.
“In his life, he’s helped many people immeasurably, and he’s hurt many people irrevocably,” said Gottlieb, a member of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J., the Reform congregation where Neulander once served as spiritual leader.
“Now, he’s paying the price for what he did,” Gottlieb said of the rabbi who will be sentenced to a minimum of 30 years in prison.
Neulander’s case was believed to mark the first time in American Jewish life that a rabbi faced trial for murder.
“I think, as a community, we need to feel gratitude for what he did and grief for what he did,” Gottlieb said.
The grief for what Neulander did began on the night of Nov. 1, 1994, when his wife, Carol, 52, was found lying dead in a pool of blood on the living room floor of the family home in Cherry Hill. She had been brutally bludgeoned to death.
Camden County Assistant Prosecutor James Lynch later described the slaying as a classic case of murder for hire, charging that Neulander had paid confessed killers Len Jenoff and Paul Michael Daniels to murder his wife so that he could freely carry on his love affair with former Philadelphia radio personality Elaine Soncini.
Neulander’s first trial on the murder charges ended in a hung jury.
But on Nov. 20, eight years and 19 days after the brutal murder of his wife, the 61-year-old Reform rabbi, founder of the 1,000-family M’kor Shalom, was found guilty on all counts for which he had been indicted and tried — capital murder, felony murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
Last Friday, Neulander, following a sermon-like appeal to spare his life, was spared the death penalty after the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the death penalty, as required under New Jersey law.
For Rabbi Richard Levine, who was a friend of Fred and Carol Neulander’s, it will not be so easy to cast the Neulander case aside.
“I don’t think it’s any closure, really,” said Levine, longtime religious leader of the Reform congregation Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, N.J.
“What kind of closure? That he’s guilty? It’s one of those things like a game where there’s no winner. Will there be closure? I’m sure for some people there will be. But I don’t know what closure really means.”
When he thinks of his friends Fred and Carol Neulander, said Levine, he simply feels very sorry.
“I’m sorry for the waste of two very talented human beings,” he said. “It’s a shame. There’s really no winner.”
The verdict came at 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 20, some 27 hours after the jury of seven men and five women had begun deliberating.
“The court has received a note. The jury has reached a verdict,” Camden County Superior Court Judge Linda Baxter said as she convened her courtroom in Freehold, N.J. “The verdict should be treated with silence.”
As each member of the jury recited the guilty verdict in turn, Neulander stood unmoving and seemingly unmoved — his face fixed in the same inscrutable stare that had marked his demeanor throughout most of the four-week trial.
But others were gripped by emotion. Two young women on the jury, their faces etched with the emotion of the moment, clutched each other’s hands as the verdict was recited.
Carol Neulander’s brother Robert Lidz and his wife, Barbara, also tightly held hands, and her sister Margaret Miele and brother Edward Lidz wiped away tears.
Across the courtroom aisle, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Nancy Phillips broke into silent, uncontrollable sobs.
As she covered the case over the years, Phillips, who is Jewish, had cultivated Len Jenoff as a source. Jenoff, who had been posing as the rabbi’s private investigator, confessed to Phillips that he was instead the rabbi’s hit man, and she had been instrumental in convincing him to come forward and confess his role in the crime to investigators from the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office.
In his closing statement to the jury on Nov. 14, Lynch had quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address: “Why should we not await, with quiet confidence, the ultimate justice of the people?”
As he left a brief news conference following the verdict, Lynch was overheard saying to Carol Neulander’s family, “Good result; good result.”
At a separate news conference, defense attorney Michael Riley described himself as “disappointed with the result. Beyond that,” he said, “there’s not much that I can say.”
And as for the rabbi? “He’s obviously disappointed,” the attorney said, referring to his client as “a very courageous, strong man.”
Two days after the guilty verdict was announced, the jury that had convicted Neulander abandoned its deliberations in the penalty phase, announcing that it was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the death penalty.
Under New Jersey law, Neulander must serve a term of at least 30 years in state prison with no possibility of parole.
In the wake of the verdict in the Neulander trial, the leaders of M’kor Shalom issued a formal statement: “We have emphasized throughout this ordeal our embrace of both justice and compassion, as reflected in the great biblical teaching of the prophet Micah, ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God’ and of Deuteronomy, ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’
“We also recognized that our American legal code requires that an accused be presumed innocent unless and until found guilty by a jury of one’s peers. Now a jury has spoken with one voice. As a congregation that respects the rule of law, we accept its verdict.
“Our hope and prayer is that all those touched by this tragedy will now begin to know some measure of the healing peace we call shalom.”
On the evening the verdict was issued, members of M’kor Shalom reached out for that healing peace during a prayer service.
Kim Fendrick, a member of the congregation and a clinical social worker, was on hand.
“It was just a general prayer service,” she said. “It was just a way of putting a period at the end of this enormously long sentence.”
Everyone at the service seemed to be wrestling with very personal feelings, according to Fendrick. “It feels to me it’s more sad than anything else,” she said.
“It’s the end, and it’s a good thing. Everybody needs to get on” and to “begin the grieving.”
The Neulander case is sad for the Jews, but not only for the Jews, Fendrick said.
“It’s a tragedy, and it’s not only a tragedy for any particular faith. It’s a tragedy in general,” she said.
“It’s sad for us, but I think it’s a sad event in human events.”