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Rabbi In Divorce Intimidation Sting Has Long History Of Involvement With Agunot
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One of the rabbis arrested Wednesday by the FBI in a sting operation targeting a kidnapping and intimidation scheme has a long history ofadvocating for women trapped in bad marriages and representing them in religious courts.

In an interview with the Five Towns Jewish Times last summer, Rabbi Mendel Epstein said he was "disturbed by the number of women who find themselves in unbearably difficult situations" in divorce proceedings because they received bad advice from rabbis. He proposed a "bill of rights" for Jewish wives that includes " A woman in an abusive relationship has a right to seek a get."

According to the article he has been a toev, or advocate, in rabbinical courts for over 30 years.

But according to the complaint filed by the FBI, who raided the rabbi's Flatbush home and several other locations late Wednesday and Thursday in connection with the investigation, the rabbi crossed a line in his advocacy. He and two other rabbis are accused of conspiring to hire thugs that would kidnap and beat husbands who refused to fulfill the halachic requirement to hand their wives a written divorce in front of witnesses.

Rabbi Epstein spoke to agents about using  'tough guys' who would beat the husbands using karate and even electric cattle prods to force their submission, an agent said in the complaint. The fee: as high as $50,000. The rabbis allegedly convened their own bet din, or rabbinical court, to authorize their own actions.

The United States Attorney in New Jersey, Paul Fishman, told the New York Times that two dozen husbands in divorce cases have been identified who may have been abducted from New York and taken to New Jersey to be roughed up by the defendants. Their treatment included being stunned with Tasers or stun guns, prosecutors allege.

An undercover agent posing as an Orthodox woman approached two of the rabbis and said she wanted out of her marriage and was told that if her husband came to New York he would be persuaded to give the divorce, according to the complaint. In addition to Rabbi Epstein, the other rabbis arrested were Martin Wolmark and Rabbi Jacob Goldstein. Another individual was identified as Ariel Potash.

Rabbi Goldstein is not the same person as the politically active Crown Heights chasidic leader by the same name who  is chairman of Brooklyn's Community Board 9.

In all, 10 people were arrested in the scheme, apprehended in a warehouse in New Jersey as they gathered to carry out a plot set up by the undercover agents, the FBI said. The case is a federal matter because it involves alleged kidnapping and crossing state lines. They remained in custody as of Friday afternoon after being denied bail by a federal judge in Trenton.

The news sheds light on the ugly world of non-amicable Orthodox divorces in which men are empowered to prevent women from moving on with their lives. 

Numerous organizations have been formed to advocate for such women, known as agunot, and New York law has been amended to allow judges to consider the get status when dividing marital assets. Also, several area rabbis have been known to act as intermediaries in such cases, sometimes asking for payment for their services.

Goon squads that force recalcitrant husbands to issue the divorce have been mostly the stuff of Jewish urban legend, but in July, 2011, a Lakewood, NJ couple was accused of imprisoning a man to intimidate him into giving a get. The case is still pending.

"There may be a very small percentage of cases where this happens," said Rabbi Yehuda Levin, founder of a Brooklyn-based organization to help Agunot, GET Free, which no longer operates. He stressed that he had no firsthand knowledge of such an incident.

"But in the aftermath of the [Lakewood] arrest a few years ago, nobody with any seichel [common sense] would do such a thing. I wonder if it was some kind of Abscam type of thing." He was referring to a 1970s FBI sting operation that uncovered corruption in Congress, in which many defendants argued entrapment by the FBI.

Rabbis Epstein and Wolmark, along with the two alleged accomplices, were due to appear Thursday in U.S. District Court in Trenton, N.J. Six others could be charged, according to reports.

In the yeshiva raid, the students, of high school age, were forced to remain outside for the bulk of the law enforcement operation, the Journal News reported.

According to the complaint unsealed Wednesday morning, the rabbis charged $10,000 to persuade the rabbis on the rabbinical court to approve the kidnapping, and another up to $60,000 to pay for others to handle the kidnapping and beating and other physical torture, The Star-Ledger newspaper reported.

Epstein is a divorce mediator in the Orthodox community, according to The Star-Ledger.

JTA contributed to this report


Last Update:

05/12/2014 - 13:59
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I hope this brings to light the struggle of husbands and fathers who are pressured into acquiescing in divorce litigation against their own benefit many men end up paying exorbitant child support and alimony payments and have little visitation rights but are accused of being recalcitrant.

I find it interesting that, even though these rabbis are accused of having beaten up dozens of recalcitrant husbands, none of these "victims" went to the police to file a complaint, until this sting operation. What this tells me is that these husbands knew that what they were doing was wrong (denying a get where one was appropriate), and that -- until the beating / prodding -- they were the ones trying to blackmail the wife into an outrageous settlement.

Sorry but what exactly did the Rabbis do wrong? ALL tactics should be permissible to free Jewish women from their abusive husbands. These men should have no rights since they take away these women's freedom. Well done to these Rabbis for taking action.

"All tactics". Even murder? That would certainly solve the problem, wouldn't it? Is that what you want, the law of the jungle?

From your comment it is apparent that you did not comprehend the matter at all. It should been very clear to you from the article that the so called “rabbinical court” of Epstein and Wolmark was a farce. There is no such thing as obtaining a PSAK (verdict) from a rabbinical court by paying in advance a bribe -five cents or the ten thousand dollars that was indeed charged-in order to obtain a specific outcome or ruling -because then the verdict is entirely invalid and void. In other words, A rabbinical court PSAK ordering a husband to give a Get derived by bribery is not a PSAK. What remains here, in each of the Epstein/Wolmark kidnappings, a husband is being forced via kidnapping and torture to give a Get -ABSENT A VALID PSAK. The resulting Get is INVALID. No authentic Halachic opinion can validate such a worthless Get. The foolish women that paid $50,000.00 to Epstein and Wolmark et al. were duped and robbed of their money. In essence they received the equivalence of worthless tissue paper for their money but no Get. They therefore remain married to their first husband. If they remarry they are according to Halacha a “zona”(as in ill reputed woman), and children from any subsequent marriage are illegitimate -known as mamzeirim - according to the Torah. The wicked and cruel Epstein and Wolmark both know this but prefer the $$$ over destroying the souls of these women and kids.

What a chilul Hashem to see the newspaper headlines: The Prodfather and Kosher Assault.

And where does one begin? That a man would refuse to give a get in a failed marriage? That a beit din can be bought for $10,000? That rabbis engage in kidnapping and criminal assault (albeit the type that does not leave visible marks)? Or a system that permits husbands to refuse to give a get and keep a woman an agunah unless she pays an extortion fee?

And now the whole world gets to chortle over the crazy religious Jews. A light unto the nations indeed.

Dirty or not the fact is these Rabbi's where operating a needed service. I just hope they didn't extort Women. A lot of the type of men who refuse to give their Wife a get are also sicko enough to do worse things.

While it's possible that these rabbis operated "a needed service", they were certainly not altruistic. They charged $10,000 to buy the beit din and $50,000 to beat / electrically prod / extort the "agreement" to issue the get. In their own way, they also extorted the women. The real solution is to change the divorce rules so that the woman does not have to depend on the agreement of the husband to issue the divorce. Prenuptial agreements address some of the problems but are not in and of themselves fool proof as a recalcitrant husband can still refuse to agree to a get. I can't believe that this is what the Torah wanted.

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