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October 10th, 2013
09:17 PM ET

FBI: Rabbis plotted to kidnap husbands, force divorces

By Allie Malloy and Jessica Ravitz, CNN

NEW YORK (CNN) –Two rabbis face kidnapping charges after allegedly arranging assaults of Orthodox Jewish husbands to persuade them to grant divorces to their wives, authorities said Thursday.

FBI raids on Wednesday night led to the arrest of the men, who were arraigned in federal court in New Jersey on Thursday, according to court documents.

A criminal complaint alleges that the rabbis charged Jewish wives tens of thousands of dollars to orchestrate kidnappings and accepted $20,000 for such an operation from undercover FBI agents.

Their goal? To obtain "gets," a document that Jewish law requires a husband to present to his wife in order to be issued a divorce, the complaint says.

In the Orthodox Jewish world, a get is more important than any sort of document drawn up in civil courts. The derivation of this law is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-2:

"When a man marries a woman or possesses her, if she is displeasing to him..., he shall write her a bill of divorce and place it in her hand, thus releasing her from his household. When she thus leaves his household, she may go and marry another man."

Without it, a woman is considered an "agunah" - a chained woman bound to a man no matter how over their marriage might be. The implications of not having a get are serious. A woman runs the risk of being shunned in her community, labeled an adulteress if she dares move on. And any future children she has are considered bastards only permitted to marry other bastards.

In one conversation with undercover FBI agents, the complaint alleges, Rabbi Mendel Epstein talked about forcing the divorces with the help of hired "tough guys," who he said used plastic bags to cover the husbands' heads and electric cattle prods and karate to assault them.

"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 told the undercover FBI agents, according to the complaint.

The complaint says Epstein told the undercover FBI agents that his organization had kidnapped a husband every 12 to 18 months.

Another rabbi, Martin Wolmark, told the agents, "You need special rabbis who are going to take this thing and see it through to the end," according to the complaint.

Husbands who withhold gets have been held in contempt for centuries. How to deal with them has long been a subject of debate. Names of recalcitrant husbands are often listed in Orthodox Jewish newspapers to shame them. But more extreme measures have also been supported in the past. A leading 12th century Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, actually advocated that these men be whipped until they issued gets or died, whichever came first.

In Israel, where state and Jewish laws blend, such husbands can be thrown in prison. In the United States, where church and state separation reigns, the justice system offers little help.

Epstein, Wolmark and eight others face kidnapping charges in the case, according to court documents. They are being held without bond pending a bail hearing next week, the U.S. District Court for New Jersey said.

All 10 defendants pleaded not guilty Thursday, said attorney Marc Agnifilo, who is representing Wolmark. If convicted, he said, they face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

"Martin is greatly loved in his community and by his family. ... Hopefully he will be released so he can defend these charges as a free man," Agnifilo said.

Avraham Moskowitz, Epstein's attorney, stressed the importance of the issue the case deals with.

"The only thing I can say is, as is true in all cases, there are two sides to every story. The case deals with a very serious problem in the Orthodox Jewish community, and we will present a defense when the time is appropriate."

He said the rabbi's family is doing well.

"They're doing as good as can be expected under the circumstances. It's obviously a difficult situation when your father or husband is incarcerated," he said.

The names of attorneys representing the others charged in the case were not listed in court documents. CNN was unable to reach them for comment.

The FBI said agents raided two locations Wednesday night, a home in Brooklyn and the Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Suffern, New York.

 CNN's Rande Iaboni contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Courts • Judaism

soundoff (1,043 Responses)
  1. drmeme

    To refuse a "get" to a wife is the ultimate in dishonesty. Most civil divorce courts will recognize the requirement and force the divorced husband to give a get or be in contempt of court- the husband will simply sit in jail until he agrees to do it. The use of "thugs" dates back to old times.. and is no longer necessary- The other option for the wife is to arrange to become a widow.. which.. given the the fact that a man who refuses a "get" is a slime ball.. is probably a good option.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
    • Ted

      And it beats spending 5-times as much on a "thug" divorce lawyer.

      October 11, 2013 at 1:29 am |
      • Chaim Yenervelt

        YEH, but the LAWYER IS LICENSED TO KILL.

        October 11, 2013 at 10:37 am |
    • Randyb12

      Orthodox Judaism tries to adhere to the ancient traditions. Women were the property of their husbands and before that the property of their fathers. A divorced woman was a pariah...used goods that other men usually didn't want. She could starve if her husband put her out. If a man got sick of his wife or just wanted a little variety, he just took another or a concubine. Look at Abraham, Solomon, David, etc. Ahhh...those were the good old days! 🙂

      October 11, 2013 at 9:17 am |
    • counselor39@hotmail.com

      You are SO wrong. The civil court CANT make any orders mandating anything having to do with Jewish law. The closest the civil courts will come, is to enforce a pre-nup mandating that the Bet Din can adjudicate a "Ghet".
      You're WAY off here.

      October 11, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
  2. sigh

    probably they were co-erced into making those statements....why wouldn't a man give a woman a divorce????????....not believeable

    October 10, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
    • Jayy

      its too not to! time to read more!

      October 11, 2013 at 4:49 am |
    • Joe

      Your ignorance is showing. Men refusing to grant divorces to their wives is a big problem in the Orthodox community. Why wouldn't they grant their wives a divorce? To be mean, hurtful, and ensure the woman never has a chance to start a new life. So please, refrain from talking about things that you literally have no clue about.

      October 11, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
      • senioreditor2

        and many times to extort money..................

        October 11, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
  3. Diocletian

    OI VEH US JEWS ARE JUST VICTIMS I TELL YOU

    October 10, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
  4. Mikeh2o

    First Amish Mafia now this smh...

    October 10, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
  5. EdNv

    wait–WHAT?
    These jews refused to giver their wives a divorce? They deserve to have the @#$%# kicked out of them, hell i'll do it for fricken free! and they bit## about Islam, HA

    October 10, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
    • EdNv

      ~give

      October 10, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
    • Scott

      Why do people make derogatory statements about Jews? Statements likes yours.

      October 11, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
  6. GTA

    Why are Jewish divorces so expensive? Because they're worth it....

    October 10, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
    • EdNv

      lol

      October 10, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
  7. Thomas

    Nothing new; saw this on the Sopranos 14 years ago...

    October 10, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
    • MikeB

      Yeah. I thought of the same storyline. Tony got half of the motel out of the deal.

      October 10, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
  8. Andy

    They were not picking on happily married couples. These are situations where a secular divorce has been issued but the husband refuses to give a religious divorce simply to spite the woman and prevent her from marrying again. Women can't force a divorce and in these situations often have no recourse. I am not defending the violence or the pay for hire but more often than not these husbands do deserve to get their behind whipped.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:06 pm |
    • Jakkfrost

      LOL more man made rules

      October 10, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
    • senioreditor2

      The Beit Din's should just grant them in such situations. They're also to blame.

      October 11, 2013 at 5:01 pm |
      • counselor39@hotmail.com

        Please, PLEASE hide your ignorance, will you ?
        The Bet Din has no power to grant a divorce when the parties are not before it – JUST LIKE THE CIVIL COURTS. In civil courts, the court must have JURISDICTION over the parties. They DO that, by service of Summons and Complaint. They cant even do THAT, if the person is outside the physical or subject matter jurisdiction of the court.
        Likewise, a Bet Din USUALLY doesnt have the power to COMPEL attendance. The Bet Din was originally set up for people who WANT to settle their differences and thus come voluntarily. As I just posted a few minutes ago, to ameliorate this problem, Rabbis now will not perform a wedding unless the parties agree, beforehand to jurisdiction of the Bet Din in case of divorce.

        October 11, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
  9. Topher 2

    Judaism will have the next suicide bombers.....just wait......way before the Christians start doing it (the Buddhists have been doing it to themselves for years in Tibet against the Chinese)

    October 10, 2013 at 10:03 pm |
    • Consmurf

      Its odd to me you would say that Jews will be the next suicide bombers using a reference to Christians , ubuddist and the Chinese the only ones I can think off that actively use suicide anything is the Muslim extremist..... you really got me curious on that one. Lol

      October 10, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
      • Consmurf

        However.... I don't keep up with suicide for social or political ... now ya got me researching !

        October 10, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
      • Uhhuh

        Here's a fun factoid for you: suicide bombing was pioneered by the Hindu Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka in the 80's (totaling close to 400 attacks until they were defeated in 2009). They were Hindus who fought against the majority Buddhists and minority Muslims in Sri Lanka...both Buddhists and Muslims were victims. Even Rajiv Gandhi, prime minister of India, was a victim of a Tamil suicide bomb. So, contrary to popular belief, the first insurgency to use suicide bombings was actually a Hindu one. You're welcome.

        October 10, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
        • Your Welcome

          Tamil Tigers only went after government and military targets. Islamists target innocent unarmed humans.

          October 11, 2013 at 2:00 am |
        • lerianis

          Your Welcome, it's time to wake up and smell the rotting pile of human bones that America is standing on. Because we VOTE for our leaders, whether Congressmen or President, NO ONE in America is truly innocent of the bad things that we have done over the years.

          That is speaking as an Atheist, by the way, so do not try the "He's a MOOSLIM!" bunkus.

          Americans need to start speaking out and saying that NO civilian deaths are acceptable, even if you are going after 'terrorists', who have usually been created by America ourselves!

          October 11, 2013 at 10:59 am |
        • counselor39@hotmail.com

          Hmmm , dont you think the Kamakazi's of WW2 would be considered suicide bombers ? That would pre-date the 1980's dont you think ?

          October 11, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
  10. Keksi

    I am surprised they did not use Jew-jitsu instead of karate.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:03 pm |
    • Pig in a Poke

      Nice one! 🙂

      October 10, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
    • Pig in a Poke

      Anne Frankly I'm kind of surprised they didn't either.

      October 10, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
    • som

      I wish we had never taught Jew Jitsu to the goyim.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  11. John M

    This has reality TV written all over it. Let's call it, "The Orthodox Mafia".

    October 10, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
    • RC

      Why not? Already got an "Amish Mafia" reality show.

      October 11, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
  12. Topher

    Being a Jew is kind of like being a Christian or like being a Muslim.

    They all say No, No, No to reality, then invent a story that you must believe or you deserve death, in this life, the real one, or the next one that they invent for you so that they can believe that their punishment is enforceable.

    They have no more power in life than Anubis or Loki or Vishnu.

    goodbye gods, time to die in our collective consciousnesses.

    Helllllllllooooooooo SCIENCE, LOGIC, and REASON 🙂

    October 10, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
    • shk87

      I am an atheist but my family is jewish and I am still culturally jewish in some ways... and in no way shape or form do jews want to kill people who dont believe what they believe. that is such an insane statement.

      for someone who claims to be of science and logic like myself you are proving to be a hypocrite by making unfounded claims. also orthodox judaism is like another religion on to itself, they are crazy (again, this is coming from a jew), but they keep to themselves and hardly want to harm anyone.

      October 10, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
    • Silly

      Thank you! Great comment and 1000% more truthful than the "word of god".

      October 10, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
    • i12bphil

      Since humanity will one day be extinct, the sum of all human knowledge and wisdom is precisely bumkis.

      October 10, 2013 at 10:18 pm |
    • Your Welcome

      SCIENCE, LOGIC, and REASON is why Jews have been awarded more Nobel Prizes than people of any other faith.

      October 11, 2013 at 2:03 am |
  13. Rational Thought

    Killing and murdering are minor inconveniences within religion. Whew, at least no one had a pork sandwich or a BLT.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
  14. Jim

    As a Jew, all I can say is...schmekel

    October 10, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
  15. Ashley

    The rabbis are actually the good guys in a weird round about way. It is a stupid jewish law that for a jewish divorce the man needs to consent to the divorce, there is no way a woman can get a jewish divorce without the man's consent. This includes women with abusive husbands etc. The men can hold their women hostage in a way. I'm sure many more civilized methods were tried first, but it creates a real problem among the religious when the men refuse to grant the divorce. The reality is, the rabbis should adjust to the times and allow women the right to divorce without the man's consent, rather than kidnap them. In Israel, men can go to jail if they wont grant the woman a divorce.

    October 10, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
    • anonymus

      You are right. If u were stuck in an abusive relationship that u couldn't break you would realize these people are heroes. I have a family friend who is Jewish and she is in a terrible abusive relationship. The man gave her a legal divorce but she is still stuck from a religious perspective. She was planning on using the services of these rabbis and now she's devestated

      October 10, 2013 at 10:18 pm |
      • jungleboo

        Again: you gloss over the point that your story is witness to the fact that you would rather create your own id!otic suffering in order to comply with id!otic religious dogma that has absolutely no place in the 21st Century. How do you rationalize that? Or better yet, how do you feel 'closer to your god' by crushing yourself into a mold that kills your spirit? Makes no sense to anyone with a clear mind.

        You are free to wreck your own life by choosing the wrecking ball that that gives you a thrill.

        October 11, 2013 at 5:34 am |
    • Jennifer Hinton

      It is funny how you feel like your are being held hostage and then turn around and do the same thing. And how do you pay $20000 if you are divorced and trapped? In no way, shape or form is this acceptable? You can't force someone to do something. Now if you want to stick to the good book, divorce is wrong in every way. It is until death do you part. So if you are truly religious, then stay in your marriage!!!

      October 10, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
    • Anti-Semitism is a MYTH !

      So they send people to jail for following a jewish law? how pathetic . Its kinda outdated law people need to follow something new

      October 11, 2013 at 12:45 am |
  16. Topher

    ...if god was real, I suppose it would care about this.

    October 10, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
    • Andeee

      God, you atheists are so self righteous. Pun intended. Of course a few deviants do not diminish the big picture. This is news because most Jewish people are successful, law abiding citizens. Maybe join an atheist ethical society and learn to respect the views of others instead of turning every chatroom into your soapbox.

      October 11, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
  17. Rational Thought

    Oh religion, you never fail to corrupt morality and human decency.

    October 10, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
    • Andeee

      Why do people assume that all religious people are irrational and illogical? Religion and atheism have both existed since the beginning of mankind. What serves as illogical to me is that people on either side can't peacefully coexist without attacking each other's belief systems.

      There are people of every faith and people with no faith that do dumb things. The common denominator is dumb people.

      Duh.

      October 11, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
  18. Topher

    It's like we alwayz grew up sayin' ... "those JEWS!!!"

    October 10, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
    • Don

      Yeah, we get it, the original "Topher" beat you pretty bad in an argument, you have to stoop to such low levels , act like a coward and post using his handle.

      October 10, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
      • Topher

        Huh?

        October 10, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
        • Don

          If you have the gall take "topher" up on an argument. Stop being a wimp.stop using other people's screen names.

          October 10, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
    • Tom

      So you grew up a bigot?

      October 10, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
  19. manny

    You thought the Yakuza were ruthless? Well, watch out, here comes the Yamaka.

    October 10, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
    • sigh

      never heard of the mossad?

      October 10, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
  20. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    Sounds nasty.

    Fundamentalism in action again.

    October 10, 2013 at 9:34 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.