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Rabbi’s Trial Was Diversion for Some, but Jews Ponder the Consequences

November 15, 2001
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The trial of Rabbi Fred Neulander, which ended in a mistrial Tuesday, has served as fodder for hungry media outlets around the United States.

The former rabbi of M’Kor Shalom, one of the largest congregations in southern New Jersey, Neulander is accused of hiring a congregant to murder his wife in 1994 so he could carry on an affair with another congregant. His tawdry tale has been packaged for the public by The New York Times and Court TV — not to mention People magazine and “NBC’s Today Show.”

But while the trial was a curiosity for much of the U.S. population, some rabbinic leaders and Jewish thinkers are wondering how it could affect perceptions of a rabbinate already beset by two major sex scandals in the past year.

To be a rabbi is a “sacred calling” and the rabbi is “an exemplar of Jewish life, so I’m embarrassed when any rabbi engages in misconduct, especially in my movement,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the congregational arm of Reform Judaism.

It is still unclear whether Neulander is guilty of arranging the 1994 murder of his wife, Carol. It also is unknown whether he will be tried again, as prosecutors have vowed.

What is clear is that Neulander’s behavior, and the publicity around his trial, does not cast a positive light on the rabbinate: Neulander has admitted to affairs with at least two women who came to him for counseling.

“Synagogues are the places where people go for support and consolation and Jewish grounding. And they depend on the rabbi,” Yoffie said.

Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, U.S. Jews appear to be looking even more toward their rabbis for moral and spiritual guidance.

According to a poll released this week during the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly, Jews overwhelmingly have turned to synagogues for comfort and support during the turmoil since the terrorist attacks.

Yet rabbis never were meant to be put on a pedestal, according to Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America, an umbrella organization for Orthodox rabbis.

“A rabbi in Judaism has the same opportunities and obligations as any other person,” he said. “Just like doctors and lawyers and Indian chiefs can do the wrong thing, so can rabbis.”

Gary Mazo was associate rabbi of M’Kor Shalom at the time of the murder, and wrote “And the Flame Did Not Consume Us,” a book about the congregation’s experience during the crisis. He says that congregants have a basic expectation that their rabbi “operates on a moral and ethical plane.”

But Mazo concedes that congregations probably place too much pressure on their rabbis.

One rabbincal leader said the case of Neulander, who resigned as M’Kor Shalom’s rabbi in 1995, even could have a silver lining.

“To the extent that this case reminds us that rabbis, like the rest of us, are human, that’s good for the rabbinate and good for the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, vice president of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “Any time you create an artificial moral or ethical divide between so-called leaders and the people they supposedly lead, then there is a divide we can’t cross.”

For some in the community, the divide already has been narrowed by two sexual scandals involving prominent rabbis in the past year.

First, allegations surfaced that Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a top leader of an Orthodox youth group, harassed and molested teen-agers for more than 20 years. Though it has yet to be legally proven, the charge was backed up by a report commissioned by the Orthodox Union.

Next, a Reform Jewish leader, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, resigned from the presidency of the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion after being suspended for past sexual misconduct.

In addition, recent years have seen other local cases of misconduct involving rabbis, as well as clergy of other faiths.

Another silver lining might be an increased awareness of violence within the Jewish community, according to Susan Weidman Schneider, editor in chief of Lilith magazine.

Schneider calls the Neulander case “aberrant” and is careful not to judge Neulander innocent or guilty. Still, she said, “Regardless of the outcome of this trial, perhaps one of the consequences will be that some of the veil of silence around violence in Jewish families may be lifted.”

Jewish women are more likely to remain in abusive relationships than other women, due to community denial and disapproval, Schneider claimed.

Even though the Neulander case is — to say the least — bad publicity, it is unlikely to harm the Jewish community’s collective reputation, Yoffie said.

“For those who looked at him as their rabbi, they will be impacted, they have been impacted,” Yoffie said. “But most people are well aware that the sad, sordid tales surrounding Rabbi Neulander are, in every sense of the term, exceptional, and not indicative of either the rabbinate or congregational life.”

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