Sharla Feldscher couldn't believe what she was seeing and hearing last weekend on TV.
"I actually stood there and blinked!" recalls Feldscher.
The Voorhees, N.J., woman was not alone in being startled by the news that a painful part of her South Jersey community's past was being unearthed. The trigger: the sudden revelation that Len Jenoff had recanted his damaging testimony as a key witness in the trial of Fred Neulander, the Cherry Hill rabbi who was charged and ultimately convicted of arranging for his wife's murder by Jenoff and an accomplice.
The murder of Carol Neulander, a popular member of the Cherry Hill community who had launched and operated a successful bakery, took place on Nov. 1, 1994, in the living room of her home. Stunned area residents, and most painfully, congregants of M'kor Shalom — the synagogue Fred Neulander had founded — initially assumed the crime had been connected with a robbery.
The community, recalls Feldscher, was struggling to cope with the loss.
"I still can remember the service at the synagogue the night after the murder was discovered, and how we tried to comfort one another. All these years later, it's still indelible," says Feldscher, a pubic- relations practitioner and longtime M'kor Shalom member.
After several years of an ongoing investigation, the rabbi himself was taken into custody in September 1998 and indicted by a grand jury in January 1999. Neulander was tried on charges of murder for hire, resulting in a hung jury in his first trial, and a conviction in his second in 2002.
Jenoff's testimony was widely regarded as the most damning, despite his numerous admissions, under oath, of inventing a personal history laced with inaccuracies and untruths. A self-described alcoholic who met the rabbi during his treatment, the desperate Jenoff had become attached to Neulander, who had paid attention to him and had helped him to reconnect to his lapsed Judaism.
According to the testimony Jenoff offered in a guilty plea to charges of aggravated manslaughter, he had agreed to kill Carol Neulander in her home when the rabbi convinced him that she was a dangerous threat to Israel and the Jewish community. A payment of $30,000 was promised, but according to Jenoff's trial testimony, was only partially paid.
In a two-page affidavit dated January 2009, however, Jenoff had totally changed his story. "Fred Neulander never asked me to kill his wife, and to the best of my knowledge, he's never had any idea of any attempt on his wife's life," insisted Jenoff in his affidavit. That document is now included in Neulander's recent relief application, the rabbi's last avenue to avert his life sentence in the state of New Jersey.
The rabbi has made two claims: ineffective assistance by his trial and appellate lawyers; and denial of due process because authorities withheld the fact that Jenoff had been promised a light prison sentence for his testimony.
Jenoff has said that he concocted the story about the rabbi in order to receive that promised leniency from the Camden County prosecutor's office. Assistant U.S. Attorney James Lynch, who tried the Neulander cases in his former capacity as Assistant Camden County Prosecutor, could not comment on Jenoff's recent claims because the matter is now before the court.
'Painful and Dramatic and Terrible'
So what has this turn of events meant in the South Jersey area, where conversations about the sensational case had largely receded? What has been the reaction to this latest salvo in a long and twisted tale that received national attention when the Neulander trials were covered by Court TV?
"You just want it to be over," says Joy Weissman, who's lived in the area for more than 20 years. "It was so painful and dramatic and terrible."
"This new development really doesn't change my mind — I think Jenoff was never a credible witness, and I don't believe him now," says her husband Richard Weissman, an executive in a Pennsauken printing company.
Donald Meltzer, a Cherry Hill radiologist who was among those who knew and admired Carol Neulander, finds the déjà vu aspect particularly troubling.
"There were so many in this community who lived with the shame of a rabbi being accused and convicted of a terrible crime," he says. "I think justice was done, and that Jenoff's testimony was not the only damaging evidence against the rabbi. Meanwhile, an entire community was damaged because of the notoriety of the trial."
Rabbi Steven Fineblum of Temple Sinai in Cinnaminson, N.J., also recalls the ravages of the Neulander trial on the community.
"People were bewildered and anxious, and as the rumors swirled, the sin of lashon hara or the 'evil tongue' was very much in evidence," says the rabbi, who knew Fred Neulander as a colleague.
"The Jewish tradition always has been to seek justice," continues Fineblum, "and to assume nothing without the proper evidence. So if reopening this chapter means seeking truth and thus justice, the process should go on."
Richard Levine, rabbi emeritus of Temple Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, N.J., with a 40-year history in the local Jewish community, remembers leading a minyan at the home of Rabbi Neulander during the shivah period.
"And now, we seem to be opening a painful wound again," reports Levine. "In my view, Len Jenoff's testimony is absurd whenever he speaks. So who is to know when he's lying and when he's not?"
South Jersey writer Marilyn Silverstein, who worked for nearly 20 years at the Jewish Exponent and who initally covered the Neulander case, conducted a prison interview with Jenoff in 2006 for The New Jersey Jewish News.
Jenoff told the reporter: "I fell for him [Neulander], and I did what he wanted me to do. Back then, my head was so wrapped around Fred Neulander, I couldn't think … ."
Jenoff also told Silverstein how the rabbi made him feel important. "In my whole life, I never had a rabbi give me three hours of his own time," Jenoff said of his first meeting with Neulander.
Jenoff started going to services at M'kor Shalom, where the rabbi would always acknowledge his presence.
"That made me feel important. It made me feel like a Jew. … Now I could go up to anyone and say 'Len Jenoff has his own rabbi.' "
There is one person who is definitely not surprised by the new claims. That person is Michael Riley, who was the defense lawyer for Rabbi Fred Neulander in his second trial.
Riley, a veteran former prosecutor and now a seasoned South Jersey defense lawyer, recalls: "While Jenoff steadfastly denied any promise of leniency when he was on the stand being cross-examined, he clearly showed astonishment when the sentence of 23 years was imposed. If you look at the Court TV tapes, you see that clearly. Jenoff was totally stunned."
Riley denies the allegation that his assistance was ineffective.
He also describes Neulander as a "cooperative, bright and gracious client" with whom he has remained in touch over the years.