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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. Diptrich

    I remember that Sopranos episode...

    October 11, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  2. Styx

    Oy vey! The goyim know!

    Shut it down!

    October 11, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • Ted

      al-Shabbab is ready to comply.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  3. jacob

    This sort of practice has been accepted among the ultra-religious jews as a way to counter-balance the husband's traditional head position in the biblical jewish family so as to give the Wife equal rights. It's simple: We want to follow our laws but at the same time we do not tolerate abuse or domestic violence in the home. It leaves us with only one choice: to lovingly FORCE the abusive husbands to do the right thing and let their wives leave without us having to affront god by disobeying his biblical commands. compared to other ultra-traditional religious practices out there it seems rather sensible to me.

    October 11, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
    • Ted

      I.e words, when my hired guys put the bag on the husband's head and squeeze – do it "lovingly", and then it's kosher.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
  4. Fisch

    Seriously – you can't make this stuff up – Thug Rabbi's ??

    October 11, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
    • Demigod Vadik, CA

      Soon to be a rap song...

      October 11, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
      • Ted

        they will dance to it in Crown Heights.

        October 11, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  5. Ted

    Time to star a new religion: No clergy – no lawyers, and definitely no Congress.

    October 11, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • Alias

      Good idea, but unless you can write science fiction no one will believe you.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • RC

      I think we have more than enough religions as it is. The last thing we need is more. If we could reduce the number (to zero?) so much the better.

      October 11, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
  6. Reli

    Why would any woman subscribe to a religion that doesn't consider them equal in a marriage? It's 50-50. Not 100- 0.

    Thankfully, the US courts don't recognize this religious misogynistic heap of crap as law. One more reason why all women should continue to fight for separation of church and state.

    October 11, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      YES!!!! The only thing that keeps this country sane IS separation of church and state, and thank god for that.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
    • Ted

      These U-dox women do not "subscribe" to it. They are born and bred into it, and then given as girls in a blind marriage called "shidduh". By the time they awake, they have 8 kids and no place to run.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  7. Alias

    And peopel wonder why jewish women want to mary outside their religion ....

    October 11, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • jacob

      a lot of jewish people want to leave the religion. It's a sad and depressing religion with too many rules....

      October 11, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
      • Ted

        And it's not cheap either.

        October 11, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
        • RC

          No sh!t. Having to pay dues belong to a synagogue is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of. Sorry about the hyperbole.

          October 11, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
  8. rwhite

    I still cannot understand why people hold these ridiculous religious belief to be important. Who wants to be in a community with such idiotic rules and laws. God is laughing at us all.

    October 11, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • Alias

      Um, shouldn't that be, 'God is shaking his tiny fist at those of us who do not follow his instructions'?

      October 11, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      Which "god" are you referring to? Thor, Zeus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

      October 11, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
      • RC

        That flying spaghetti monster scares the hell out of me!

        October 11, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
    • Thinker23

      If you understood you would be a member of one of those religious communities yourself, my friend...

      October 11, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  9. JoeyT

    The Rabbi goon squad strikes again

    October 11, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
  10. Ted

    99% of "Jewish" problems come from this one Ultraorthodox community in NY. Scandal after scandal often involving second-third string rabbis ex-yeshiva boys who are not even qualified to be called rabbis. American Jews should just pay them all to move to Israel and practice their archaic ways on the border with Hamastan.

    October 11, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • DJones

      I spent almost a year in Israel and got to know some Jewish kids. One boy of about 10 was talking to me about Rabbis and he said that they are wonderful people, they are all like Grandpa's, then he paused and added, except for American Rabbis, no body likes American Rabbis, they are crazy....... Out of the mouth of babes.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
      • Ted

        American Rabbis are not crazy – they are crazily expensive, except for the U-dox who are hard to "get".

        October 11, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
  11. John

    Sounds like these "thugs" are heroes. It's ridiculous to keep women in that sort of position simply because the man won't consent to a divorce. Disgraceful. Religion really is ridiculous.

    October 11, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • DJones

      These women weren't in any sort of position except one of religious arrogance. They live in America, the land of the no-fault divorce and they could have one anytime they want. The only control these men have over them is that they want their divorce and they want to pretend to be righteous too. It is highly ironic and telling of how worthless these women are to think that they had no problem arranging kidnapping and torture, both of which carry a far greater weight of condemnation in their religion than divorce without a "Get", for both are punishable by death.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
      • GnatB

        Except from a quick research, according to their religion, the talmud pretty much specifically states that the correct approach in these situations is to have the rabbi "coerce" the husband to issue the get. "Coerce" doesn't strike me as particularly polite. Strikes me as falling in line with kidnapping/etc.

        So the women are apparently actually following their religion.

        October 11, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • NorCalMojo

      It would be simpler to just admit it's a misogynistic and outdated rule and scrap it altogether.

      October 11, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
  12. som

    I wonder the if the Rabbi also did brothers-in-law who refused to release their right-of-first-refusal to allow the brother's widow to remarry.

    October 11, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  13. MikeO

    hasidim but i don't believe em..

    October 11, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Ahab the Arab

      good post

      October 11, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • scotch

      LOL. Paulie in Sopranos, when talking with Tony. Seems like the same situation

      October 11, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  14. Jimh77

    Sounds more like slavery to me.

    October 11, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  15. Alex

    Funny. If these were Muslims Imams – every single CNN commentator and response from the community will be that this is all Islam's fault. Prove otherwise,

    October 11, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • Ted

      They would be afraid to publish it for fear that some nut would stab them in the back. Remember Amsterdam.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
      • Alias

        You can say nasty things about them all day.
        Just don't draw their hero.

        October 11, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
        • RC

          Wait-WHAT? They have a hero? Dang, I want a hero.....

          October 11, 2013 at 10:16 pm |
    • Gayle Gill

      So True! In New York a Jewish community has there own police. nypost.com/2011/07/31/orthodox-cops-separate-and-unequal/

      October 11, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • Dalia

      Seems like it is more of a skin colour issue as well.

      But you are right Daniel Pipes, Pamella Gellar, Steve Emerson. John Hagee, Pat roberson, Robert Spencer and othe islamphobes would be on their issue 24×7 non-stop and of curse the greatest Fox News.

      October 11, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  16. Tiana

    I am a Christian Black American woman. I do not think that posting this story of criminal activity is anti-Semitic. I do however realize that the Jewish people are unfairly targeted and have been throughout the generations. This started way before hitler & nazis. The senseless genocidal attempts started anytime people noticed the growth and progression of the Jews as the favored people of God. Will people use this as a case for anti Semitism, of course they will. They will say you are just being overly sensitive and this is an isolated incident and that you are making too much of things, but looking at history is a way to not repeat it. People also love to take any chance they can to bash people that love and believe in God.

    October 11, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • som

      Amen, sister. I'm a Jew and I get tired of other Jews calling anyone who criticizes Israel anti-semitic. There are stories about Amish beard cutting bullies and Muslim honor killings, so why not a story about a thuggish rabbi.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • Thinker23

      I fully agree with you. If what these rabbis are accused of is true they should spend the rest of their life in jail. A criminal is a criminal no matter which religion he belongs to

      October 11, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • DJones

      I agree, the story is not anti-Semitic as it is about criminal activity for profit, not race. But just like many other stories, racists will find a way to try and exploit it to their own twisted agenda.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
      • Mike

        Jews are not a race. It is a religion, with many ethnicity. There are many different of races that practice judaism. Most modern day Jewish Israelis are not Semites, whereas Palestinians ARE semites. That is fact.

        October 11, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
        • Mike

          typos..

          October 11, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
        • Alias

          Wrong.
          Jewish is also a race. They think they are god's chosen people.

          October 11, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
        • RC@alias

          Calling Jews "Gods chosen people" doesn't make it a race.

          October 11, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
    • OdinVonTogan

      Search for (recent) riots in Israel, for the purpose of 'forcing' the government to expel Sudanese refugees, calling them a cancer on their society. Some of the rioters were members of the kinesset. Big difference between believing in God and claiming that He made you superior to everyone else. Big difference. 5,000 yrs of superiority, and still, no electricity until some inferior gentile did it. No modern medicine, no modern dentistry, etc., for 5,000 yrs. Plenty of modern deceit, however, for 5,000 yrs.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • Mike

      Okay, calling the Jews the "chosen ones," as though they are superior, is racist and prejudice against everything else. That's dangerous.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      Tiana, no people don't take every chance they can to bash religion. They are trying to defend themselves when believers tell them they are going to hell for not believing or when they are ostracized in society for not "fitting in" with religious believes. We just want to be left alone, so stop forcing your believes down our throats, and we will stop bashing your imaginary friends.

      October 11, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
  17. swtlor12

    I'm not Jewish. I am curious – why don't the Jewish husbands offer the get voluntarily?

    October 11, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
    • Hexdragon

      Just like in most divorces, they will do anything to anger and frustrate the person they are divorcing.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
    • Ted

      First off, it is only some U-dox Jews which have problems giving their wifes "gets". There are various reasons but it all comes down to, "You are mine and I do as I please whenever I please".

      October 11, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • Another fed-up fed

      Often, it is a matter of money. While the civil divorce may result in a reasonable settlement, the husbands will hold out for the "best" (most onerous) financial deal - no alimony, no child support, keeping the house, etc. It's a disgrace. And it's a disgrace that Jewish law won't move to read into that Biblical provision the authorization to "assume" the "get" after some reasonable point in time or in the proceedings.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • Thinker23

      Members of other religions also do not immediately agree to a divorce demand sometimes.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
    • GnatB

      Because they're misogynistic pigs, and they probably deserve the beating they're going to receive.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • SM

      Its like any divorce both sides use all of their resources to gain an advantage. The GET is a tool (for a man because the man needs to give it to the woman) used to get what you want. No Pun intended (in general the marriage contract is totally lopsided for the woman.....the divorce ...slight edge goes to the man). Usually if the husband does not give one it is greatly frowned upon and totally unacceptable. Hence the early Rabbis could use force to compel the husband to give the divorce. That alone was usually enough and there was no need for violence. Now because Rabbi's are essentially powerless because we live in a secular society so there is no recourse for the woman if the husband does not want to give a GET. There were other ways to compel a husband to give a get and violence was hardly (if ever) used. Today there is a clause( that the Rabbi added and know about) in the wedding contract to automatically give the Get if the husband doesn't want to give it. As you can imagine this would anger any normal person. Of course there is no room for any violence but it is a very stressful situation for the woman. Think about, if your daughter could not remarry and continue her life because her ex-husband was being vindictive.....On the other hand Sometimes it is withheld legitimately because the woman did something inappropriate. Sometimes the people that know the woman get carried away ....the money part is out of my league.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  18. DJones

    I guess all religions, and non-religions for that matter, have their share of nuts. This is almost hilarious though. A woman who simply moves on and gets a civil divorce fears a bad name, but she is okay if she is guilty of arranging kidnapping, torture, and possibly murder? They should check the files of these men and not only send them to prison but every woman who hired them.

    October 11, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
  19. Leah

    lol, karate

    October 11, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
  20. Eddie Haskell

    Jews are disgusting blood-thirsty subhumans.

    October 11, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • Ted

      That perception is entirely a product of your mind. So focus on it, or get help.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
    • DJones

      Said the subhuman, blood thirsty, racist......

      October 11, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • Kyle

      I wholeheartedly agree.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
    • Hexdragon

      Zig heil Adolph....

      October 11, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
    • Stevelb1

      So was Jesus then because he was Jewish.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
    • Alias

      Only when it comes to how their culture treats their women.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
      • rdn0819

        How our culture treats women? And how is that? Illuminate that for me will you? Jewish men are known as "good providers", being well endowed, educated and in general desirable mates.

        October 12, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • sigmundfreud

      Hey Eddie – sounds like you need a good Jewish psychiatrist.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • NorCalMojo

      Most Jews keep it in perspective. These are backwards fundies that take the OT literally. They're the Westborough Baptists of the Jewish world.

      October 11, 2013 at 2:32 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.