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Rabbi Quits Amid Rumors of Murder, Infidelity : Crime: Reports have named synagogue leader as a suspect in wife's slaying. His abrupt resignation has shaken the large congregation he helped to create.

March 26, 1995|JENNIFER GREENSTEIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHERRY HILL, N.J. — For the 930 Jewish families who belong to Cherry Hill's largest congregation, the story of its founding has become a legend: Several families gathered in someone's living room--no one can quite remember whose--as the young rabbi, Fred Neulander, described the synagogue he wanted to create.

"There were 18 families," said David Garfield, a former president of the Reform congregation, "but it seems like 300 people have told me they were there."

Twenty-one years later, M'Kor Shalom is a sprawl of cream-colored buildings where hundreds gather each week for worship, Hebrew school and dozens of community activities. But the rabbi and his congregation have parted ways.

Neulander, 54, resigned amid a police investigation into his wife's bludgeoning death four months ago and rumors of extramarital affairs. His abrupt departure came days after published reports quoted unidentified investigators naming him as a suspect in the slaying.

The rabbi, in his resignation letter, denied any involvement in his wife's slaying. He said the media frenzy and "information and misinformation" from the police after her death prompted him to step down.

"Anyone who could have seen his face and lived through those first 24 hours with him after she died would know he couldn't have had anything to do with her death," said associate Rabbi Gary Mazo, who is temporarily leading the congregation.

But Neulander's resignation letter, in which he referred to "behavior I am not proud of," also fed gossip that he had had extramarital affairs.

Investigators found no signs of forced entry at the family's home on the night of Nov. 1, when the body of 52-year-old Carol Neulander was discovered on the living room floor. She died of blows to the head.

At the time police called the crime a possible robbery because Carol Neulander's purse was missing. Officials said she struggled violently with her assailant.

The crime sent shock waves through this prosperous bedroom community across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Nearly a third of its 70,000 residents are Jewish. There was one other homicide in the city last year.

The rabbi said he was teaching at the synagogue the night of the killing and came home to find his wife's body.

News reports have quoted unidentified law enforcement sources as saying circumstantial evidence may link Neulander to the crime.

Camden County Prosecutor Edward F. Borden Jr. has repeatedly said no one has been ruled out as a suspect. But he also has said many of the reports alleging Neulander is a suspect are inaccurate or exaggerated.

Nonetheless, one congregant who spoke on condition of anonymity said police have questioned him several times about the rabbi since the slaying.

Neulander was an assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel in 1974 when he and a friend, Samuel Lear, hatched the idea of founding their own synagogue.

They brought together a group of families who began worshiping in an empty house loaned by a real estate agent. Services for the High Holy Days were held at the Holiday Inn.

Later they converted a warehouse into a Hebrew school and sanctuary. Neulander picked the name M'Kor Shalom, which means "source of peace." Soon there was a waiting list.

"It just kind of happened," said Lear, who was the congregation's first president. "Rabbi Neulander was the center of it."

Friends and members describe Neulander as a warm and approachable man, deeply involved in a close-knit congregation that included his wife and three children.

"Sometimes a rabbi's family is untouchable, but his was right there," Mazo said.

After the synagogue grew to be the largest of Cherry Hill's eight synagogues, Neulander kept his personal touch, attending meetings of the building committee, even manning the phones at a crisis line he helped create.

His resignation and the rumors of affairs have left the congregation struggling to reconcile their image of the rabbi with a picture of a man with all-too-human flaws.

At the meeting where the resignation was announced, Neulander's son, Matthew, told the congregation: "His behavior was an indiscretion, and he feels so terribly that we should have to suffer for it. . . . His actions were beneath the way a rabbi should act."

Matthew Neulander did not explain what the indiscretion was, and members of the Jewish community aren't saying either.

"In Judaism, spreading rumors is ungodly," said Alan Respler, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Cherry Hill.

A board member who spoke on condition of anonymity said Neulander explained his indiscretions to the board, but the member would not say whether they involved infidelity.

"The board took a very high road and chose not to divulge any confidential information out of respect for his dignity and his children. You have to know that everybody on that board loves that rabbi. The board did not coerce him in any way," the member said.

Neulander's departure was not related to the murder investigation, the member said.

With or without his daily presence, Lear said, M'Kor Shalom "will always be his synagogue."

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