A Rabbi's Terror At Murder Scene Rabbi Gary Mazo Wrote A Book About A Congregation In Crisis.

Posted: May 21, 2000

After a long day at his synagogue, Congregation M'kor Shalom, Rabbi Gary Mazo was at home in his pajamas. He had reached for a cold beer and was about to watch NYPD Blue when a friend walked into the house with terrible news.

"Carol's dead," he said.

"What?" the rabbi screamed.

This, he writes in a forthcoming book, was how he learned that Carol Neulander, a longtime friend and the wife of his colleague Rabbi Fred J. Neulander, had been killed in her Cherry Hill home on Nov. 1, 1994.

Rabbi Mazo ran upstairs and dressed, then drove a mile to the Neulander house, where he found himself in the middle of a murder scene. It was a bitter cold autumn night. Rabbi Neulander, his head buried in his hands, was huddled for warmth with two of his children in an ambulance parked outside their home, which police had cordoned off with yellow tape.

"There was chaos, and pain and confusion," Rabbi Mazo said in the book, to be published this fall by Rising Star Press. He provided The Inquirer with a copy of the manuscript, titled And the Flames Did Not Consume Us, One Rabbi's Journey Through Communal Crisis.

On the night of Carol Neulander's death, it fell to Rabbi Mazo to recite prayers over her body before it was taken to the morgue.

"Terror overtook me," the rabbi wrote, as he recalled the moment when he stepped into the house. Police were dusting for fingerprints and taking samples of fibers and other materials for evidence.

As Rabbi Mazo approached the living room, where Carol Neulander's body lay, an officer stopped him and suggested he wait until the battered corpse was placed in a body bag. She had been bludgeoned, felled by blows so severe they fractured her skull. Two officers put the woman's 136-pound frame into a zippered black bag and gently lay it on the ground before him.

With tears in his eyes, Rabbi Mazo prayed over the body of his friend.

"Oh God, full of compassion, grant perfect rest in your sheltering presence to Carol, who has entered eternity," he said. "God of mercy, let her find refuge in your eternal presence and let her soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life. God is her inheritance. May she rest in peace."

"With that," he wrote, "Carol was taken away."

Rabbi Mazo, who was assistant rabbi at M'kor Shalom at the time of the murder, told of the horror and bewilderment that confronted him and the Neulander family that night and that continued as they learned more about the crime.

He recalled seeing the Neulanders' daughter, Rebecca, sobbing in her father's arms. He wrote of calling the couple's youngest son, Benjamim, at college in Michigan at 3 a.m. to tell him that his mother was dead. First, he awakened a campus rabbi and asked him to be at the young man's side as he broke the news, feeling as though he simply could not find the words to comfort him.

And he wrote of the 900-family congregation's struggle to deal with Carol Neulander's death and later, the troubling allegations about her husband, who was exposed as an adulterer and four years later was charged with arranging the murder.

Rabbi Neulander has pleaded not guilty and has denied any role in the crime.

Carol Neulander, 52, a mother of three who managed two popular South Jersey bakeries, was killed by two men who authorities say were sent by her husband.

Len Jenoff, 54, of Collingswood, and Paul Michael Daniels, 27, of Pennsauken, confessed to authorities earlier this month and are expected to cooperate with prosecutors, who are pursuing murder and conspiracy charges against the rabbi.

Camden County Prosecutor Lee A. Solomon has accused Rabbi Neulander of hiring the men to kill his wife so he could pursue a romance with Elaine Soncini, a Philadelphia radio personality.

Rabbi Neulander, 58, has denied that and has said Jenoff and Daniels are lying. He remains free on $400,000 bail.

Rabbi Mazo, who was 30 and fresh out of rabbinical school at the time of the slaying, said he started the book without intending to have it published.

"I didn't need this to be a book," he said by telephone last week from his home in Cape Cod, Mass. "It started as a catharsis. It was my way of understanding, once I had some distance, what we went through."

Rabbi Mazo wrote about the pain of watching his mentor become an object of scorn and later, a murder suspect.

Rabbi Neulander, the senior rabbi at M'kor Shalom, had encouraged him to enter the rabbinate. He was at Rabbi Mazo's wedding. The two couples and their children often spent holidays together. And so, Rabbi Mazo wrote, the revelations of his colleague's indiscretions were all the more painful.

At one point, he wrote, "I didn't know whether to hug him or slug him."

Rabbi Mazo said the charges against Rabbi Neulander were a source of great pain to congregants at M'kor Shalom. For many, he said, the rabbi had embodied Judaism, officiating at weddings and funerals, teaching Hebrew school and conducting services to usher in the Jewish Sabbath each week.

"For many, this was a crisis of faith," wrote Rabbi Mazo, now 36 and working at a synagogue in Cape Cod. " . . . When the rabbi fell from grace in their eyes, God and their Jewish identity were both called into question. . . . Souls that he had given strength were crushed by his actions."

Initially, the congregation had to grapple with allegations of adultery, as Rabbi Neulander resigned after confessing unspecified misbehavior. His affairs with Soncini and another congregant came to light a few months after the slaying as police investigated and the rabbi became a suspect. The synagogue's board quickly persuaded him to step down.

Rabbi Mazo found himself struggling to find ways to comfort his flock while dealing with his own feelings of confusion and betrayal.

At the same time, he and his wife, Rabbi Deborah Pipe-Mazo, were drawn into the police investigation and pursued by reporters as the story unfolded. Rabbi Mazo wrote scornfully of the media, which he said had sensationalized the story and intruded on sacred space by converging on the synagogue.

In fall 1997, as Rabbi Mazo was at the bedside of a dying congregant, two officers went to his home to deliver a subpoena bidding him to appear before a grand jury that was investigating the slaying. The panel convened just weeks before the High Holy Days, a time of great reverence in the Jewish calendar. That year, he said, his holidays were ruined.

In 1998, two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Rabbi Neulander was arrested in the murder of his wife. Rabbi Mazo recalls how difficult it was to see his mentor and friend in handcuffs and shackles.

Rabbi Mazo gave a sermon that week in which he asked congregants not to rush to judgment and not to spread gossip. He resolved that M'kor Shalom, which is Hebrew for "source of peace," would remain true to its name. "This synagogue will continue to be what it has always been," he said. "A place of peace. A place of strength."

Through it all, Rabbi Mazo wrote, the congregation continued to grow and thrive. "They suffered betrayal the likes of which have never been seen before in congregational life," he said. "Somehow they survived. They reached deep into their tradition and their faith and joined hands and gave each other strength."

Over the years, as Rabbi Mazo counseled others and steered the congregation through difficult times, he found that he was spending too little time with his wife and three children. When he learned that a smaller synagogue in Cape Cod was looking for a rabbi, he decided to apply for the job.

In July, Rabbi Mazo left Cherry Hill and took his family to Massachusetts. Before he left, he went to Rabbi Neulander's home to say good-bye.

"I didn't know if I would ever see him again," he said in an interview last week. "For me, it was as close to closure as I was going to get."

Rabbi Neulander wished him luck, and the two men embraced.

"I was moving on. He was standing still," Rabbi Mazo wrote of that final meeting. "I was reaching for my dreams, and he was about to begin fighting for his life. It was very sad. He truly had nothing, and although much of it was his own doing - maybe all of it was his own doing - it was still so tragic."

Nancy Phillips' e-mail address is nphillips@phillynews.com.

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