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