U.S. Accuses 2 Rabbis of Kidnapping Husbands for a Fee

In Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish
neighborhoods, Mendel Epstein made a
name for himself as the rabbi to see
for women struggling to divorce their
husbands. Among the Orthodox, a
divorce requires the husband’s
permission, known as a “get,” and tales
abound of women whose husbands
refuse to consent.
While it’s common for rabbis to take
action against defiant husbands, such
as barring them from synagogue life,
Rabbi Epstein, 68, took matters much
further, according to the authorities.
For hefty fees, he orchestrated the
kidnapping and torture of reluctant
husbands, charging their wives as much
as $10,000 for a rabbinical decree
permitting violence and $50,000 to hire
others to carry out the deed, according
to federal charges unsealed on
Thursday morning.
Rabbi Epstein, along with another
rabbi, Martin Wolmark, who is the
head of a yeshiva, as well as several
men in what the authorities called the
“kidnap team,” appeared in Federal
District Court in Trenton after a sting
operation in which an undercover
federal agent posed as an Orthodox
Jewish woman soliciting Rabbi
Epstein’s services.
Paul Fishman, the United States
attorney for New Jersey, said in an
interview that investigators have
“uncovered evidence” of about a couple
dozen victims. Many are men from
Brooklyn who were taken to New
Jersey as part of the kidnappings.
In court, the lead prosecutor in the
case, R. Joseph Gribko, explained how
the abductions were carried out. “They
beat them up, tied them up, shocked
them with Tasers and stun guns until
they got what they want,” Mr. Gribko,
an assistant United States attorney,
said.
Mr. Gribko said the defendants had
been motivated by money, not faith.
While the case might surprise some New
Yorkers, accounts of such kidnappings
have percolated through the Orthodox
Jewish community in Brooklyn for
years. In 1996, for instance, a rabbinic
council in Williamsburg issued a
statement denouncing the rogue men
who subjected husbands to such
beatings, according to a news report.
Rabbi Epstein was sued in the late
1990s by another Brooklyn rabbi,
Abraham Rubin, who claimed that a
group of men shoved him into a van as
he left synagogue, hooded him, and
applied electric shocks to his genitals in
an effort to force him to provide a get
to his wife. The lawsuit was dismissed.
According to newspaper accounts from
the late 90s, other men, too, have come
forward with similar tales of curbside
abductions and mistreatment.
How such violent practices, if proved,
would have been able to persist for so
long may be an indicator of the
challenges that local law enforcement
agencies face in trying conduct
investigations of insular religious
groups including the ultra-Orthodox.
Rabbi Epstein seemed confident that
local authorities wouldn’t investigate
too closely. In a recorded meeting with
the female undercover F.B.I. agent,
Rabbi Epstein explained that his
preferred torture techniques, like
electric shocks, offered little physical
evidence of abuse, according to the
complaint. Without obvious visible
injuries, Rabbi Epstein said, the police
were unlikely to inquire too deeply if
any victims came forward.
“Basically the reaction of the police is,
if the guy does not have a mark on him
then, uh, is there some Jewish crazy
affair here, they don’t want to get
involved,” Rabbi Epstein explained,
according to the criminal complaint.
Rabbi Epstein made his living
appearing before the rabbinical courts,
known as beit din, where he advocated
on behalf of a spouse seeking an exit,
another rabbi said. He took a special
interest in the constraints that wives
faced, speaking about the rights of
women in terms not often heard in his
deeply conservative community.
When two undercover F.B.I. agents —
one posing as a woman seeking a
divorce, the other as her brother —
asked a rabbi for help, the rabbi
explained how Rabbi Epstein might be
able to assist them.
“You need special rabbis who are going
to take this thing and see it through to
the end,” Rabbi Martin Wolmark, a
respected figure who presides over a
yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y., said in a
recorded telephone call on Aug. 7. He
described Rabbi Epstein as “a hired
hand” who could help, according to the
criminal complaint in the case.
When the undercover agents met with
Rabbi Epstein a week later, he said that
he was confident he could secure a get
once his “tough guys” had made their
threats.
“I guarantee you that if you’re in the
van, you’d give a get to your wife,” he
said to the male undercover agent
posing as the brother. “You probably
love your wife, but you’d give a get
when they finish with you.”
The undercover female F.B.I. agent
told Rabbi Epstein that she wanted to
divorce her husband, described as a
businessman in South America, who
refused to grant her request. Rabbi
Epstein urged her to lure the man to
New Jersey, which she pledged to do.
Next Rabbi Epstein and Rabbi Wolmark
convened their own rabbinical court,
complete with legalisms and
formalities, to issue a religious edict
“authorizing the use of violence to
obtain a forced get,” according to court
records. The undercover agent offered
testimony before the two rabbis, who
were joined by other religious figures.
Told that the husband was arriving in
New Jersey, eight of Rabbi Epstein’s
associates met at a New Jersey
warehouse to finalize the kidnapping
plan, according to court documents. At
that point F.B.I. agents moved in to
arrest the group. The agents seized
masks, ropes, scalpels and feather
quills and ink bottles used for
recording the get they anticipated.
On Thursday, the 10 defendants were
denied bail after appearing in court in
Trenton on the kidnapping conspiracy
charges.
Juda J. Epstein, the lawyer for Rabbi
Epstein, declined to comment.
A neighbor, Rose Davis, who lives
opposite his home in the Kensington
section of Brooklyn described him as a
respected figure. Ms. Davis said she was
skeptical of the charges, and suggested
they might be the concoctions of
enemies he had made as an expert in
divorce work: “There’s always a loser,”
she said, referring to divorce cases.