Thursday, October 10, 2013

 

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. 



Federal Bureau of Investigation agents raided a home in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn early Thursday morning.


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 drastic action, such as barring a defiant husband 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 decree permitting violence and $50,000 for hiring 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 “kidnapping team,” appeared in Federal District Court in Trenton after a sting operation in which an undercover federal agent posed as an Orthodox Jewish woman and solicited Rabbi Epstein’s services.

Martin Wolmark
Paul Fishman, the United States attorney for New Jersey, said in an interview that investigators have “uncovered evidence of at least as many as a couple of 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.

While the case might surprise some New Yorkers, the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn has grappled for years with challenges facing women who want to divorce their husbands. In 1996, for instance, the Central Rabbinical Congress, a 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 by local rabbi, Abraham Rubin, who claimed 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.

How such violent practices, if proved, would have been able to persist for so long may be an indicator of the challenges local law enforcement agencies face in trying conduct investigations of insular religious or ethnic groupslike the ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic communities.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 — such as electric shocks — that 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. He took a special interest in the constraints wives faced, speaking about the rights of women in terms not often heard in his deeply conservative, ultra-Orthodox community.

Prosecutors say that he used violence to enrich himself. 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 help 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., explained in a recorded telephone call on Aug. 7. He went on to describe 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 forced the husband into a vehicle and threatened him.

“I guarantee you that if you’re in the van, you’d give a get to your wife,” he explained 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 rituals — 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, who performed the role of scribe and witnesses.

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. They seized masks, ropes, scalpels and a feather quill and ink bottles used to record the get they anticipated making the man sign.

On Thursday, the 10 defendants, many bearded and some wearing skullcaps and white shirts, 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 across from his home in the Kensington section of Brooklyn described him as a well-known and respected figure. Ms. Davis said she was skeptical of the charges against him, 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.

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