Rabbis charged with kidnapping Orthodox Jewish men and forcing them to grant divorces

 


FBI agents remove evidence from the Brooklyn residence of Rabbi Mendel Epstein during an investigation on Oct. 10, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The following unusual allegations come from an indictment issued Thursday by federal prosecutors in New Jersey. All the accused are innocent until proven guilty. Lawyers for some of the accused deny the charges.

Under Jewish law, as practiced by many Orthodox Jews, a wife seeking a divorce must get her husband’s consent. He must sign a document called a “get” or the divorce can’t happen.

But sometimes he may not want to do it. It’s not uncommon. He may need some prodding. FBI agents in New Jersey got word that a group of “special rabbis” were taking the prodding too far. So they arranged a sting operation.

An undercover FBI agent posed as a wife whose husband would not give her a divorce. A second agent posed as her brother, who was willing to pay for a little incentive. The agents made contact with the rabbis, who offered them a deal.

According to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office:

In an in-person meeting with undercover agents at his home on Aug. 14, 2013, Mendel Epstein laid out the plans for a particular target, including trapping him in a van and assaulting him with an electric cattle prod.

“I guarantee you that if you’re in the van, you’d give a get to your wife. You probably love your wife, but you’d give a get when they finish with you,” Epstein, the alleged ringleader, told an undercover agent, according to the indictment issued Thursday.

Epstein explained the process.

“We take an electric cattle prod,” he said. “If it can get a bull that weighs five tons to move, you put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know.”

The cost: $10,000 for the rabbis who sit on the rabbinical court to approve the kidnapping and an additional $50,000 to $60,000 to pay for the “tough guys” who handle the beatings used to obtain the get, according to court documents.

The agents later accompanied two of the accused to a New Jersey warehouse where a victim was to be assaulted. According to the U.S. attorney:

The team arrived at the warehouse in two dark minivans shortly after 8:00 p.m. Some put on masks and entered the warehouse office with one of the undercover agents, while others walked around the outside of the warehouse with flashlights. Members of the team went in and out of the office wearing disguises, including ski masks, Halloween masks and bandanas. They discussed the plan. Among them, they carried rope, surgical blades, a screwdriver, plastic bags, and items used to ceremonially record a get.

The agents had heard enough. They moved in and arrested eight members of the rabbinical team last October.

Armed with audio recordings of the agents’ conversations with the rabbis, the U.S. attorney in Trenton, N.J., charged four Orthodox Jewish rabbis and one of their sons Thursday with kidnapping Jewish men and violently forcing them to grant gets. According to the indictment filed in New Jersey federal court, Mendel Epstein and his son David Epstein, Martin Wolmark, Binyamin Stimler and Jay Goldstein kidnapped or conspired to kidnap and torture men. They plotted crimes from at least 2009 until 2013.

If found guilty, the rabbis could face up to life in prison and a $250,000 fine for each kidnapping, Reuters reported. U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said several of the men are part of a larger group previously charged in the alleged plot, the Associated Press reported.

Attorneys for Goldstein, Wolmark and Stimler said their clients denied the charges.

The AP reported:

Goldstein’s attorney, Aiden O’Connor, said the case was ‘overcharged’ and failed to take into account the individual circumstances of the women who had been seeking divorces. … Benjamin Brafman, an attorney for Wolmark, issued a statement calling the charges false, and added his client was a Talmudic scholar and expert in Jewish divorce who had resolved hundreds of marital disputes, always through legal means. Rabbi Stimler’s attorney, Nathan Lewin, said his client denied the allegations he was a member of a ‘kidnap team.’ He said Stimler is sought out because of his expertise in religious divorces, which he has always conducted through legal means.

Messages left for attorneys representing Mendel Epstein and David Epstein were not immediately returned on Thursday, according to the AP and other news outlets.

Last year’s alleged kidnapping conspiracy wasn’t the first encounter between the law and the “special rabbis” — only the latest.

According the U.S. attorney:

Rabbis Mendel Epstein, Martin Wolmark, Jay Goldstein, a/k/a ‘Yaakov’ and Binyamin Stimler had previously been charged, along with others, with conspiracy to commit kidnapping in a complaint unsealed Oct.10, 2013. Four of the others charged, including Jay Goldstein’s sons, Avrohom Goldstein, 34, and Moshe Goldstein, 31, both of Brooklyn, N.Y., have since pleaded guilty to extortion charges in connection with the case

Does this sort of thing actually happen? Or did the special rabbis just allegedly talk about them?

According to the New York Times:

The first kidnapping cited in the indictment occurred in November 2009. According to court papers filed by prosecutors, the victim was forced into a van in a parking lot in Lakewood, N.J., where he was bound with duct tape and zip ties. The victim, who is not identified in court papers, had his genitals shocked with a stun gun; a rabbi holding a video camera was in the front seat of the van and directed the man to say the words necessary for a divorce to go forward, according to court papers.

 

Lindsey Bever is a national news reporter for The Washington Post. She writes for the Morning Mix news blog. Tweet her: @lindseybever
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