CHERRY HILL, N.J. ““ 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 and well-known 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 post-conviction relief application, the rabbi’s last avenue for relief 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.
South Jersey writer Marilyn Silverstein, who worked for nearly 20 years at the Jewish Exponent and who initially 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 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.