This week a Syracuse, N.Y., physician active in his local Jewish community was indicted in the murder of his wife.
Whether the 62-year-old Robert Neulander — who chaired his local federation’s campaign and has served on the board of his JCC — is found guilty or innocent in the Sept. 17, 2012 death of his wife, Leslie, he will be the second American Jewish leader named Neulander to face such charges.
In 1998, on the eve of the High Holidays, Rabbi Fred Neulander of Cherry Hill, N.J., was taken into police custody and accused of hiring a hit men to murder his wife, Carol, in their home four years earlier. The longtime spiritual leader of Congregation M’kor Shalom, a 1,000-member Reform temple he founded (he resigned before the indictment, after news leaked that he was under investigation), Rabbi Neulander is believed to have been the first American rabbi ever tried for murder. While his first trial resulted in a hung jury, Neulander was convicted in 2002. Now 72, he is serving a life sentence in New Jersey State Prison.
In addition to the shared indictment of wife murder and each man’s prominence in his local Jewish community — Dr. Neulander is still listed as a board member on the Jewish Federation of Central New York website — the two Neulander cases have a number of things in common. (It is not clear whether or not the two are related by blood.) Each was freed on bail after being arraigned ($400,000 for the rabbi, $100,000 for the doctor); each was indicted more than a year after his wife’s death and both had several adult children (three for the rabbi, four for the doctor). Each wife was found dead in the home she shared with her husband — Carol in the living room, Leslie in the bathroom.
As Rabbi Neulander’s trial neared a close, JTA attempted to ascertain “the impact of the Neulander trial on the Jewish community.” Kim Fendrick, a member of Neulander’s temple, told JTA that when Neulander “was a rabbi, he was a rabbi, and he did a very, very good job. When he didn’t assume the rabbi’s cloak, he was a very vulnerable person. This is not unusual in the world in general. I suspect that Hitler was very nice to Eva Braun.”
But the disconnect between the two was problematic:
“This really touches our souls, because we trust our religious leaders, and we wonder whether we can trust anybody when something like this happens,” she said. “It certainly touches me as a Jew.
“So many people, especially young people, put such faith and trust and honor in this man, and they have been so disappointed,” she said, pointing to those for whom Fred Neulander was a teacher, a role model, a religious leader — the man who shaped their values and officiated at their life-cycle events.
How Dr. Neulander’s trial will affect his central New York community remains to be seen, although for now, the Forward reported this week, local leaders are calling his arrest “a major shock, especially given his activism in the Jewish community and in other humanitarian causes.”