Rabbi and the Hit Man: A True Tale of Murder, Passion, and Shattered Faithby Arthur J. Magida
On the evening of November 1, 1994, Rabbi Fred Neulander returned home to find his wife, Carol, facedown on the living room floor, blood everywhere. He called for help, but it was too late. Two trials and eight years later, the founder of the largest reform synagogue in southern New Jersey became the first rabbi ever convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. In a gripping examination of the misuses of the pulpit and the self-delusions of power, Arthur J. Magida paints a devastating portrait of a manipulative man who used his position of trust in the temple to attract several mistresses -- and to befriend a lonely recovering alcoholic, whom he convinced to kill his wife "for the good of Israel." The Rabbi and the Hit Man straddles the juncture of faith and trust, and confronts issues of sex, narcissism, arrogance, and adultery. It is the definitive account of a charismatic clergyman who paid the ultimate price for ignoring his own words of wisdom: "We live at any moment with our total past. ... What we do will stay with us forever."
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The Rabbi and the Hit Man
A True Tale of Murder, Passion, and the Shattered Faith of a Congregation
"There's Blood over Everything"
The sixteen-mile drive from M'kor Shalom to Crescent Burial Park normally took twenty minutes, but so many people joined the funeral procession for Carol Neulander that nearly an hour was required. Police and state troopers were stationed at major intersections to hold back other motorists so that the caravan could wend its doleful way across the landscape. All along the route, commercial enterprises that typified the bestand worstof the Garden State were copiously in evidence. A BMW dealer whose "Ltd." after its name connoted a certain British classiness (even though BMWs are as Teutonic as any car can get); a splattering of capacious diners, appropriate symbols of an area totally lacking a culinary identity; a small, beige cottage whose neon sign advertised PSYCHIC/TAROT CARD READINGS; and an unending series of motels, sometimes up to eight in a row, featuring "free Continental breakfast" -- watered-down orange juice, instant coffee, doughnuts plucked from cardboard boxes.
The procession inched north on Route 73 for a few miles, then turned south on Route 130 until arriving at Crescent Burial Park. This was the largest Jewish cemetery in South Jersey, yet there wasn't enough room for the multitude of cars. Some people parked on the long, narrow road that stretched the entire length of the cemetery; others hunted for space on neighboring side streets.The hearse and the family's limousines went straight to the far end of the cemetary. Pallbearers carried the plain pine coffin to the burial plot thirty feet away, followed by Carol's children, her siblings, and, of course, her husband. A rabbi who had been friends with Fred and Carol recited verses from Psalms that didn't quite provide the intended comfort:
For He will give His angels charge over thee,
To keep thee in all thy ways ...
Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver him;
I will see him securely on high, because he has known My name ...
With a long life, I will satisfy him,
And let him behold My salvation.
The freshly dug ground of Grave D in Plot 910 of Section F was just behind the tall green fence that separated Crescent Burial Park from the modest homes bordering on it. Not the best place to raise kids, but an inexpensive one. Carol Neulander would be laid to rest next to her in-laws, Sally and Ernest Neulander. Their tombstones lay to the right of Grave D. Off to the left were smaller markers for five children unrelated to the Neulanders. They had died in infancy, some on the very day of their birth: Ellen Shaya. Joshua Adam Brodsky. Eli James Lewis. Baby Carson. Baby Dana Emdur. Carol Neulander had never known them, but she might have been pleased to spend eternity with them. After all, she had been a kind and devoted mother of three, and her interest in children had led her to major in child and adolescent psychology in college.
After more prayers were said, the casket was lowered into the ground and the mourners took turns shoveling dirt on it, according to Jewish custom. The thud of earth on the casket's hard surface was intended to remind people of the absolute finality of death. At last, it was time for the ritual recitation of the kaddish, the prayer that asks for peace for the deceased:
"Yisgadal v'yiskadash sh'mai raba, b'olmo deev'ro chir'usai v'yamlich malchusai b'chayeichon uv'yomeichon v'chayai d'chol bit yisroel, ba'agala u'viz'man kariv v'imru: Amen.
("May your Great Name be magnified and hallowed in the world according to Your will and may Your reign be quickly established, in our own lives and our own day, and in the life of all of Israel, and let us say: Amen.)
"Y'hei shmei raba m'vorach l'alam ul'almenu almaya. Yitborach v'yishtabach v'yitpa'ra v'yitromam v'yitnasei, v'yit'hadar, v'yi'ale v'vit'halal sh'mei d'kud'sha b'rich hu, l'ile min-kol-brichata v'shirata, tush b'chata v'nechemata, da'amiran b'alma, v'imru: Amen.
("May your great name be blessed for ever and ever! All praise and glory, splendor, exaltation and honor, radiance and veneration and worship to the Holy One of Blessing, even beyond any earthly prayer or song, any adoration or tribute we can offer, and let us say: Amen.)
"Y'hei sh'lama raba min-sh'maya, v'chayim aleinu v'al-kol-yis-roel, v'imru: Amen.
("May there be great peace from the heavens, and life for us and for all of Israel, as we say: Amen.)
"Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya-aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol yis-ra'el, v'imru: Amen."
("May the one who makes peace in the high heavens send peace for us and for all of Israel, as we say: Amen.")
Then, the family turned to pass through two parallel lines of relatives and friends uttering a prayer of consolation: "Ha'makom yenachem et'chem b'toch she'ar avelei tziyon vi'Yerushalayim." ["May the Lord comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."] Finally, Fred Neulander and his children -- Matthew, Benjamin, and Rebecca, all young adults -- left the cold November winds for the comfort of the limousine and the somber journey back to the house where Fred had found Carol's lifeless body. She had still been wearing the gold necklace with six small diamonds that Fred had given her a few years earlier on their wedding anniversary. In eight weeks, they would have celebrated their twenty-ninth anniversary.
On the Tuesday night of Carol's murder, Fred had stayed at the synagogue later than usual. M'kor Shalom was always busy on Tuesdays, with choir practice in the evening and lots of meetings for adults while their kids attended religious classes ...The Rabbi and the Hit Man
A True Tale of Murder, Passion, and the Shattered Faith of a Congregation. Copyright © by Arthur J. Magida. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. 006621288X<%FIRSTCHAPT%>Love in the Asylum
An asylum, Alba believes, is where you are sent when you want to die -- a sanctuary for the prevention of suicide.
Alba's asylum, Abenaki Hospital, sits, elegant as a hotel, atop one hundred acres of land -- devoted to farming in the days when inmates worked for their stay -- now grown over with fields of wildflowers and the occasional wooded grove, blue-gray mountains skulking in the distance. To get there you must cross the Manasis River, giving your name to the security guard in the hut that waits before the covered bridge. The nearest town is almost twenty miles down Rural Route 3 -- a sleepy Maine village where the residents have the hospital's phone number on speed dial, for when they spot a suspicious character on Pleasant Street. Though most of the inmates these days are self-committed, leaving Abenaki is made so inconvenient that, once inside, the majority of patients, out of lethargy or comfort or discouragement, do not think of escaping. Except of course for the drug addicts, for whom special precautions are taken.
Abenaki is an Algonquin word meaning "People of the Dawnland." In the eighteenth century, the land was occupied by a small tribe of Abenaki Indians, who had managed to save a scrap of their homeland by maintaining a neutral position between warring French and English colonists, and making themselves useful to both. There was a tradition -- no one knew quite how it started -- of sending white women off to live with these natives: wives, mothers and spinster daughters who had displayed behavior that could not be explained or cured by local doctors. Women who wept too copiously and often; women who walked or screamed in their sleep; women who attacked their husbands with sharp instruments, or defecated in their own kitchens; women who tried to take their own lives. The Abenaki were thought to be especially tolerant of the old, the sick and the insane; some believed they had secret, potent drugs that could cure things white medicine couldn't even diagnose. But mostly the women were sent there because they could be; the Indians took them in and saved the white families from shame and inconvenience. There were stories of husbands who, wracked with guilt, went riding out to see their wives and found them leatherskinned and toothless, dressed in native clothing, speaking a barbaric language, with no memory of their former lives or no desire to return to them. But generally, people did not visit the Abenaki; they were sent there to disappear.
Ultimately, most of the Abenaki men, lured by the promise of better land, became Revolutionary soldiers and were killed in the war. The women, both Indian and adopted white, died in a massacre in the winter of 1777, the details of which remain a mystery. In the aftermath of the war, the land was bought, despite the rumors of spells left behind by grudge-hungry Indians, by a doctor who had controversial theories about the origins and treatment of insanity.
A mental asylum, retreat, center or hospital -- depending on the politically correct terminology of the day -- has existed on the Abenaki land ever since. The name has been changed a number of times. At the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was run by the Catholic Church, it was called Saint Dymphna's Asylum, after the Irish patroness of nervous illness, and resembled a convent, with halls full of stealthy nuns. Nowadays it is one of the most renowned and expensive hospitals in New England, and includes adult and adolescent wards, as well as a drug rehab program with a highly publicized success rate. Famous people come here, and praise the staff in interviews in People magazine; movies have been filmed among the half-dozen Georgian buildings, where only a close-up lens reveals heavy gridiron lining the glass windows. Behind the main buildings are a few log cabins, left over from when the hospital housed both staff and patients in a pavilion plan. Though they should be torn down, there are some who feel the outbuildings give the place a sense of history -- as if those native women are still there, tending pots over a fire. Of course, the cabins were built long after the Native Americans were gone, but this is conveniently forgotten. The movie directors love them.
No one disputes that the hospital has saved lives, though it has also lost a few -- in bathrooms, the river, on tree limbs in the woods, and, once, in one of the historical shacks -- but these episodes are rare, not to mention hushed up. In 1983, the name of the hospital was changed back to Abenaki, partly because of the inspiring translation -- the doctors think dawn is a hopeful word -- but mostly because it validated a new plaque endowed with the words ESTABLISHED, 1789.
When Alba Elliot was still in high school, she traveled with her father to San Francisco. They took a boat tour to Alcatraz, and when Alba stood in the concrete prison yard and saw the city's skyline across the water -- looking like life held captive and miniaturized in a confetti-filled dome -- she thought immediately of Abenaki. She'd already been a guest there twice, and remembered that, late at night, through certain hospital windows, she could see the faint glow of real life beyond the borders of that unused cushion of land. Prison, she thought, would be similar to a mental asylum. Not as comfortable, but operating under the same dichotomy of rehabilitation and punishment. A place where you watched your life tick by. Alcatraz became her nickname for the hospital, and she always says it with a biting, almost furious humor, which her father refuses to find amusing.
Alba knows Abenaki's history not because she has been there so many times that the nurses remember her birthday, but because she read about it in a book she found while organizing the hospital's new library ...Love in the Asylum
A Novel. Copyright © by Lisa Carey. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Arthur J. Magida is the author of Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan and His Nation. A former contributing correspondent to PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, he has also been senior editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times. He is currently writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore.
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Inspite of the reviews, I found the book interesting and a real page turner (completed the book in one night). Description of the personalities involved were sufficient to understand what motivated these people but not enough to judge them. All idols have feet of clay!
While the story itself was shattering to the Rabbi's family, friends and congregation, it was a shock to the Jewish community. The author did a good job of capturing the essence of the criminal mind and tied it well to the gross manipulation and charisma of the Rabbi. I did, however, find the writing rather slow.
I must agree with all of the other reviewers, this story is just too good to be true. Magida has done a masterful job of capturing all of the eccentric characters and their complex motives in this engaging tale of corruption.
'Magida's cast seems to have been recruited from the dank, smoke-filled and, invariably, black-and-white alleyways and barrooms more commonly conjured by Philip Marlowe or Raymond Chandler.... Yet this is not make-believe, but horribly, vividly and even nauseatingly real.... The result is a dense yet tightly paced retelling that reads like a top-notch crime novel and has more angles than a dodecahedron.... '... a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying read... Magida's writing demonstrates his backbreaking research and is spiced with just enough emotion and personality to avoid the banal tone of daily newspaper reporting but not dip over the top into a morality play.'
This book should come with a disclaimer: Read only on a weekend when you don't have early morning plans. Magida effectively portrays Fred Neulander as the rabbi from hell: a sociopath who breaks every possible commandment while abusing the trust of his congregation and community, not to mention his profession. That Neulander meets up with Janoff, the hitman, is tragic karma for Janoff, the classic loser, who is easily manipulated by this evil man. Had the two not met, Neulander would have found some other mechanism through which to kill Carol. This book demonstrates Magida's journalistic skill. He does not moralize but rather salts his narrative with quotes from Jewish sources that leading the reader to conclude that Neulander's lifelong behavior and choices represent an inversion of normative Jewish values and ethics. I hope that Magida sells the film rights to this book to a foreign director. I don't know if an American could capture the sense of 'film noir' that the story demands.
Arthur Magida has done a fantastic job of bringing the details and motivations behind a shocking crime to light. Far more than a journalist's recounting of events, the author sheds valuable insight on the meaning of faith, congregation, community, and spiritual leadership. He skillfully weaves the facts of the crime and investigation with the disturbing details of the Rabbi's narcissistic, sociopathic personality traits. The reader is taken inside the congregation and made to understand how Rabbi Neulander captivated an entire congregation, seduced several of its members, and came to believe he was above the laws of man. A captivating story from beginning to end that forces us to look inside and to question those in whom we place our faith and trust.