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After murder in congregation, rabbi writes book on lessons from crisis

Posted: Friday, February 09, 2001

CHERRY HILL, N.J. (AP) -- When the wife of the rabbi at Congregation M'Kor Shalom was beaten to death in her living room in 1994, all 4,000 synagogue members felt the loss -- perhaps none more than Gary Mazo.

The 31-year-old assistant rabbi suddenly had the task of comforting Carol Neulander's family and counseling the congregants of one of southern New Jersey's largest synagogues as they dealt with their shock and grief.

In the days after the killing, word that her husband had been unfaithful became public, and Rabbi Fred Neulander began to emerge as a suspect. Neulander was charged with murder almost four years later and is awaiting trial.

The pressures of overseeing the huge synagogue, dealing with the detectives and a horde of media and guiding the congregation through the stressful time landed on the shoulders of Mazo, just four years out of seminary.

A young father whose wife was pregnant with their third child, Mazo began keeping a journal -- ''a catharsis for a very difficult situation,'' he said in a telephone interview last week from Hyannis, Mass., where he is now rabbi of the Cape Cod Synagogue.

That diary evolved into a book, ''And the Flames Did Not Consume Us -- A Rabbi's Journey through Communal Crisis.''

While the book, published in December by Rising Star Press of Los Altos, Calif., does recount the events of Nov. 1, 1994, and beyond, Mazo is quick to point out that it is not a ''tell-all.''

''If you're looking for who's who and what really happened, you're not going to find it in my book,'' he said. ''It's about a spiritual journey through crisis and drawing strength through your faith.''

In his foreword, Stephen R. Treat, director of the Penn Council for Relationships in Philadelphia, calls Mazo's book ''an important contribution because tragedy, betrayal and human suffering exist, no matter how much we wish they didn't.

''They are part of living,'' Treat writes, ''and dealing with them must be woven into the fabric of life, neither denied nor suppressed.''

After the killing, many in the congregation went through a spiritual crisis, wondering how God could permit such a tragedy, Mazo wrote.

Through services, sermons, counseling sessions and classes, he tried to lead the congregants out of their sadness and bewilderment.

Carol Neulander, who owned a bakery, was involved in the congregation and supportive of her husband, but also was very independent, Mazo said.

''She certainly didn't fit the old orthodox definition of a rabbi's wife who poured tea and coffee at meetings,'' he said. ''That was not Carol.''

Inspiration for the book and its title came from the biblical story of Moses' encounter with God in the form of a burning bush, Mazo said. The bush burned, but was not destroyed.

''As a community we have experienced the flames of loss, anger and confusion,'' he wrote, recounting a sermon he gave shortly after the killing. ''If we look deeply enough into these flames of our lives we can find God, and therefore strength and comfort.''

His challenge was to help the members remain positive in the midst of the trauma.

''We needed to provide people with concrete symbols and ideas they could grasp and use to pull themselves through the darkness, toward the light of hope,'' he wrote. ''We had to move through this crisis by finding ways to grow, individually and communally.''

The synagogue dedicated new windows as a symbol of light, hope and new beginning, and there was a performance of a song commissioned in Carol Neulander's memory.

''There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth though they have long been extinct,'' the lyrics say. ''There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living.''

A series of healing meetings that began just after her death continues once a month.

The congregation also began a program called The Source of Compassion, to reach out to members in need, Mazo wrote.

''There were so many breaks, so many cracks, so many fragmented souls. We were searching for wholeness in a fractured world,'' he wrote.

Neulander was charged in September 1998 with accomplice murder and conspiracy to commit murder. In May, two men admitted killing 52-year-old Carol Neulander and said the rabbi had paid them to do it. Neulander, who is being held without bail, has pleaded innocent. His trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 10. If convicted, he could be sentenced to death.

Mazo left the congregation in July 1999. The pressures of dealing with Carol Neulander's killing and her husband's arrest took a toll on his family life, he said, and he felt he needed to move to a smaller congregation. He expects to be called to testify at the trial.

At Congregation M'Kor Shalom, spokeswoman Sharla Feldscher said Mazo's book is available in the library.

''We are proud of our synagogue and that it continues to be a thriving congregation with a bright future,'' she said, ''When all people struggle, if it's a decent family, they struggle together. We did that.''

End Adv for Friday PMs, Dec. 9



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