Nearly any Orthodox woman who has struggled with the process of obtaining a halachic divorce from an uncooperative or vindictive husband in the New York area has heard the name Mendel Epstein.

The 68-year old rabbi, who appears to have homes in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Lakewood, N.J., has been closely involved in the world of agunot, or “chained women,” for some three decades, serving as a toen, the halachic equivalent of a lawyer.

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

But according to the FBI, which rounded up Rabbi Epstein and nine other men in an alleged interstate abduction ring last week and raided several homes and a Monsey yeshiva, his methods of persuading husbands to come around ran afoul of the law, if not halacha, and could land him and his associates in federal prison.

“I always knew he is a vigilante operating in system similar to the Wild West,” said Rivka Haut, a longtime activist on behalf of agunot who has known the rabbi for years, but said she had no direct knowledge of any abductions.

However, she said that women in such situations frequently asked her advice about pursuing such extreme measures. Haut, a co-founder of the advocacy group Agunah, Inc., says she has always counseled people to steer clear of violence or illegal schemes.

“Most of these women had to leave the marriage not because they want to go live with someone else, but because they married someone with serious problems,” Haut said. “Usually, they are desperate to be halachically released.”

According to the FBI, there are plenty of area women desperate enough to go through with illegal means. The complaint by New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman, which was obtained by The Jewish Week, says Rabbi Epstein boasted to undercover agents that he carried out batei din, or rabbinical courts, to authorize the use of force, followed by abductions and coerced divorces on a regular basis “every year … year and a half” for an unspecified time period.

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.

A message left at Rabbi Epstein’s Brooklyn home was not returned as of Tuesday afternoon. A number listed for Mendel Epstein in Lakewood appeared to be connected to a fax machine. Attempts to identify a lawyer representing him were unsuccessful.

The Asbury Park Press, citing an unnamed source, reported on Oct. 11 that the investigation was directly related to a similar ongoing case involving an Orthodox couple from Lakewood, David and Judy Wax, who were charged in 2011 with abducting an Israeli man to force him to grant a get. That case is still pending. More arrests related to both cases will be forthcoming, the source told Asbury Park Press.

The FBI investigation originated in August and spanned until Oct. 7, when agents, including two posing as an agunah and her brother apprehended the defendants in a warehouse in Middlesex County, N.J. The fake scheme involved luring a supposed husband from New York City.

The complaint alleges that Rabbi Epstein solicited $10,000 for the rabbis presiding in the bet din and an additional $50,000 to $60,000 for “tough guys” to carry out the abduction and coercion. The complaint does not specify whether Rabbi Epstein himself was to receive any of the fees.

It doesn’t take more than an Internet search to link Rabbi Epstein to controversy. One man, Givon Zirkind, has launched an online crusade against the rabbi, posting an e-book and several YouTube videos that accuse him of various misdeeds against him. The rabbi’s name comes up on several blogs devoted to Orthodox wrongdoing, abuse and corruption.

The rabbi himself speaks candidly about his unorthodox methods in an interview in “Women Unchained,” a 2011 documentary by filmmakers Beverly Siegel and Leta Letik.

“I received a call from a young lady; she called and told me her son was kidnapped off a bus in Texas,” Rabbi Epstein says in a clip from “Women Unchained” posted by the Journal News of Rockland.

“She had heard that I have an ability to do things that are outside the normal parameters and normal channels and if I can help her find her son and if I can help her get a get. … I told her to first call the FBI. If the FBI comes out [and says] that they can’t help, I would then be a little bit interested to see what I can possibly do.”

The Oct. 7 complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Trenton quotes Rabbi Epstein saying that “basically what we are going to be doing is kidnapping a guy for a couple of hours and beating him up and torturing him and then getting him to give the get.” At one point he mentioned electric cattle prods being used, and at another said his son used karate to persuade the kidnapped men.

In addition to Rabbi Epstein, the other rabbis arrested were Rabbi Martin Wolmark and Rabbi Jacob Goldstein. Rabbi Wolmark is rosh yeshiva of Shaarei Torah, a prominent High School in upstate Suffern. On Wednesday night, following the arrests, federal agents in six cars conducted a search for evidence at the yeshiva, as well as at Rabbi Epstein’s Brooklyn home, according to press reports.

Another individual was identified as Ariel Potash, who is cited in the complaint as the man who served as a shaliach, or emissary, to accept the get on behalf of the agent pretending to be an agunah.

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 at the warehouse in New Jersey as they gathered to carry out the fake kidnap plot. The case is a federal matter because it involves alleged kidnapping and crossing state lines. Denied bail, the defendants remained in custody as of Tuesday afternoon, though a bail hearing was set for that day.

Rabbi Epstein is known to have served as a toen, or advocate/adviser to people appearing before rabbinical courts for the past 30 years. It is unclear if he has any other livelihood, though haut said he at one point held a synagogue pulpit and was the principal of a girls’ yeshiva.

A business, Mendel Epstein and Associates is listed at his Brooklyn address with him as managing partner.
The arrests, which garnered national news coverage, cast a spotlight 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 and New York law has been amended to allow judges to consider a couple’s 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, though a few cases, such as the 2011 Wax case, have gone to the legal system.

Haut, an Orthodox activist who is working on an upcoming book, “The Agunah Chronicles,” with Susan Aranoff, with whom she cofounded Agunah, Inc., said she was “surprised to see the headlines” about the FBI sting but “not surprised to see the content.

“Everybody knew very well about his activities, which were not always on behalf of women, but sometimes on behalf of husbands. He plays many roles: dayan [judge], toen and vigilante.”

Haut said that when she and Aranoff started out as advocates for agunot, Rabbi Epstein approached them “in a very charming way” to teach them about a “fascinating, complicated world” and referred many women to their organization.
She said that while she and Aranoff deal extensively with the rabbi and his activities in their book, to be published by MacFarland Publishing, they had not named him in early drafts, but will do so now.

Haut faults leading rabbis who shape modern halacha for failing to come up with a takana, or solution, to empower women to free themselves from bad, sometimes dangerous marriages, though many such modifications have been proposed by rabbis and agunah advocates. Proposals include a pre-nuptial agreement to provide a get, and a process of ex post facto annulment of a marriage agreement, if needed.

“Today’s rabbinate is not willing to use halachic solutions that certainly exist, leaving the field wide open for other rabbis to take advantage,” said Haut.

While denouncing any illegal methods, Haut said, “I blame the established rabbis for leaving a vacuum where people like that can step in.”

In addition to the legal issues in the case, there is also the question of whether those who may have paid tens of thousands for the rabbi’s alleged services got what they paid for.

While it has been a common practice to pressure husbands into granting a get through actions within the community — such as issuing a seruv, a kind of excommunication from religious life, –physically forced gittin create, at the very least, a halachic gray area.

“A get, in limited circumstances, after a reputable beis din has decided it is proper to pressure the recalcitrant husband, is valid even if given under duress,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America. “Usually, though, in our society, such duress consists of “shunning” sorts of pressures: not allowing the man to receive an aliya, and things like that.

“Physical duress, if it violates secular law, would not, to the best of my knowledge, be permissible.”

adam@jewishweek.org