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CAROL Neulander was an extremely busy person. If someone wanted to kill her, they’d have to find her first.
Carol was the mother of three children aged 18 to 24, and the wife of Fred Neulander, the founder and senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, which made her the “First Lady” of the more than nine hundred families that comprised the M’kor Shalom synagogue’s “family of families.”
Carol Neulander was also a successful businesswoman. She had begun a bakery right out of her home oven, and expanded it over the course of a decade to the point where, by the fall of 1994, it was a full-fledged bakery chain with two growing retail stores in the neighboring New Jersey towns of Audubon and Voorhees.
Even at age 52, with her career and social life well established, Carol’s day-to-day comings and goings hadn’t slowed down. Her schedule was a whirl of appointments and meetings, activities and gatherings. Business and personal trips took her constantly around Cherry Hill and to the surrounding suburban and rural New Jersey townships. She also ranged frequently into the city of Philadelphia nearby and farther on up the Atlantic coast to New York City.
Carol’s close friends regarded keeping up with her as a challenge, but if they left a message on her answering machine they would soon hear back, perhaps as she took a few minutes to call from one of her bakery’s locations. Often she would call from the car phone in her dark Toyota Camry as she drove from one appointment to the next.
Standing just over five feet tall, the 136-pound Carol was never an imposing woman, but she had a straightforward take-charge manner and she made her presence felt wherever she went. Her inherent decisiveness was tempered by a kindness and warmth that seemed to radiate from her. With well-groomed auburn hair, expensive but tasteful jewelry, and large, dark eyes, she seemed to fill up the space around her. Carol was energetic and striking and had her own complex life that consumed most of her waking hours, but she liked to take the time to understand and interact with the people she was dealing with throughout her day. It was this genuinely caring nature of hers that had endeared her to so many people over the years, and it was a characteristic which many people felt she shared with her husband Fred.
As a couple, Carol and Fred Neulander were a matched set and a walking contrast at the same time. Not much taller than Carol at five-foot-four, Rabbi Fred Neulander was a solid wall of muscle in a suit jacket, or on some days just a dress shirt and bow tie. Fred was as sharp and as charismatic as any successful politician, and could be just as arrogant and irritating. He was undeniably dynamic, he oozed self-confidence, and he had a reputation for bringing people together and making sure things got done. Now, at age 54, he was the living embodiment of the community of M’kor Shalom, which he had created by sheer force of will. It was a community that had revolved around him for over two decades, during which he had played a pivotal role in almost all of the major milestones and events in the combined lives of thousands of people. To many of the congregants for whom he had spent a lifetime being God’s messenger, Fred Neulander was the next best thing to the Boss upstairs.
M’kor Shalom, which in Hebrew means “Source of Peace,” was itself a monument to Fred’s electrifying effect on other people. It had rapidly grown to become the largest Reform Jewish synagogue in southern New Jersey, but Neulander had founded it on nothing more than a vision when, in 1974, as a young assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel, Fred led what was in effect a palace coup d’ etat.
Standing in the front room of a friend’s home, the young Rabbi Neulander had gathered together a small handful of potential defectors and spoken forcefully about what he thought a progressive synagogue should be like, and how he would do things differently if he were in charge. It was his own mix of Reform Judiasm—a blend of traditions that he felt needed to be adhered to in order to keep true to Jewish spiritual and cultural identity, but at the same time, a profound willingness to experiment and to add the best elements of modern secular culture to the worship services and, more importantly, to the day-in, day-out life of the synagogue. He wanted M’kor Shalom to be a community, not where people escaped from daily life to visit the traditions of their dead ancestors, but a living place where they carried on their lives in conjunction with their friends and their faith.
Captivated by Fred’s heartfelt message, the handful of couples who were present agreed on the spot to put up the money for the new venture. Eighteen families initially followed Rabbi Neulander out of Temple Emanuel and began M’kor Shalom more as an ideal than as an institution. The first services were held in a house borrowed from a real estate agent; the High Holy Days were celebrated at the Holiday Inn. Eventually a small warehouse in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, was divided into a sanctuary for the congregation and a Hebrew school for the children. It was an experiment operating on a shoestring and held together by Fred Neulander’s forceful personality, but it had an undeniable warmth and a strong core of faith—and soon it had a waiting list to join.
In the early years of the new synagogue, Fred Neulander was a blur of activity: officiating at weekly Sabbath services, presiding over bat and bar mitzvahs, visiting the sick, manning the phones at the crisis hotline he’d helped create, teaching adult classes in Hebrew and the Torah. By his side throughout was Carol, caring and gracious where Fred was inspiring and gregarious.
Just as M’kor Shalom was a blend of different aspects of traditional and modern Judaism, the Neulanders themselves were a blend of Old World and New World backgrounds.
Carol had been born Carol Toby Lidz, the daughter of a wealthy button manufacturer in New York City’s fabled Garment District. She had grown up on a sweeping estate in Hewlett Harbor, Long Island, with her sister and two brothers, where they were served by a butler and doted over by a governess.
Carol’s upbringing on the manicured ocean-side lawns of coastal New York stood in sharp contrast with the early years of Fred Jay Neulander, who grew up in a rough-and-tumble section of Albany.
Neulander’s immigrant parents owned a dry-cleaning business that his father struggled to run while his wife stayed home and cared for Fred, their only child. The Neulanders’ surroundings were humble, but they had a profound love of learning and literature, both of which they instilled in Fred at an early age. They also took great pride in the fact that six successive generations of the Neulander family had produced rabbis, the most recent being Fred’s uncle.
Fred Neulander and Carol Lidz’s very different worlds would collide on a blind date in 1963. Fred was a senior at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He was studying religion and philosophy in a sophisticated environment that was new to him, but which he nonetheless adapted to wholeheartedly. Carol was a junior at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she was studying psychology. It was an era when girlfriends wore their boyfriends’ college pins, and soon Carol was “pinned” to Fred. An engagement followed and they were married right after their graduations in 1965.
It was a standing family joke that the prospect of having Fred, who could manage to look either like a distinguished businessman or a truck driver, depending on how he was dressed, as a son-in-law had terrified his future in-laws. Carol would slyly tell the story of how her father had turned to her as she stood in her wedding dress—just moments from walking down the aisle—and whispered hopefully to her, “I can still get you out of this.”
At first the newly married couple stayed in New York, moving to Queens, where Fred earned a degree in Hebrew literature and was ordained as a rabbi in 1968 at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion. It was his pursuit of a graduate degree at Dropsie University that moved the couple to the Philadelphia area. Three years after their marriage, Fred had found the position as an assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and he and Carol had moved to an apartment in that expanding suburban township.
In 1975, the year after Fred defected and began M’kor Shalom, the Neulanders purchased a modest but nice two-story Colonial house on a quiet side street in the Wexford Leas section of Cherry Hill, and began raising a family.
Cherry Hill, and most of western New Jersey, had once been rolling farmland punctuated by woods. But over the years it had become increasingly bisected by artery roads taking advantage of the growing suburban sprawl. The new grid of paved roads brought a cycle of boom development that in turn required even more roads until, by the time the Millennium hit, it seemed like every franchise that had ever advertised in North America finally stretched cheek-by-jowl down the length of Route 70.
In the 1960s, residential developers swept through Cherry Hill and built hundreds of houses practically arm’s-length apart on winding little roads and cul-desacs that were carved out of the remaining farm fields with all possible expediency. Sprinkling in as many Colonial and Federal architectural details as they could think of along the way, the home designers tried to keep some reference to the history-steeped neighborhoods of Philadelphia, located just a few miles to the west, where the nation had been born. Then they tried to make up the difference by giving the tangle of brand new streets a series of particularly unlikely but historic-sounding names. These ranged from the merely improbable (“Gatehouse Lane” and “Candlewyck Way”) to the overly imaginative (“Society Hill Boulevard” and “Buckingham Place”).
With his own reputation as a charismatic spiritual and cultural leader well established, and his congregation steadily growing and prospering, it soon was time for Fred Neulander to lead M’kor Shalom to a more permanent location. In 1991 Rabbi Neulander guided the synagogue’s swelling membership out of the converted warehouse to a piece of land on the Evesham Road in southeastern Cherry Hill, only a few miles from his own house.
The new complex of cream-colored buildings with their orange standing-seam metal peaked roofs sat beside one of the region’s artery roads. The collection of buildings was a testament to how firmly the community had taken root during the two decades Fred Neulander had been at the helm. It was the eighth synagogue to be established within Cherry Hill, where a third of the 70,000 residents are Jewish, but it was now also the largest.
At its heart, any religious congregation is a reflection of, and is in fact all about, the families that make it up. By 1994, when it was said that M’kor Shalom had over 4,000 members, what they really meant was that 930 families considered it the hub of their spiritual and social life.
For so many of those who belonged to M’kor Shalom, Carol, as the wife of the beloved senior rabbi, was practically a member of their own extended families. The congregation greeted her with affection and admiration when she walked through the hallways. They enjoyed her insights and her sharp sense of humor. They shared stories about their own lives and their families with her.
Each Friday evening as worship services were about to begin, the congregation took note as Carol entered and sat in her accustomed place near the front of the sanctuary. But within the peaceful walls of M’kor Shalom, amongst the hundreds of congregants who watched Carol Neulander’s comings and goings, there was at least one person who was planning to murder her.
Copyright © 2002 by Eric Francis.