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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. Jim

    Old news. The Sopranos did an episode on this phenomenon about 12 years ago.

    October 11, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  2. Chazbo

    ABsoultely insane. Why in the world does anybody believe in this rubbish and follow these idiotic religions. Where are the minds of these people?

    October 11, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
    • Thinker23

      INterestingly enough, they have similar thoughts about YOU and YOUR beliefs...

      October 11, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
  3. tonyl

    The American hypocrisy is amazing. If this was in the news about orthodox Muslims were involved in this act inside USA, the media whiould create an uproar. But because this is a orthodox Jewish criminal act so then it is not such a big deal.

    October 11, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
    • Chris

      I assure you I don't like jews for this and many other reasons. It's not because they are jews. It's because they don't like people marrying others that aren't jewish. Most are like that and most are racist because of it. That to me...is enough to hate a group. Now I know not all jews follow that, but most do.

      October 11, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
      • Jim

        Well, thanks for reassuring us that you don't like Jews. Just being a good Democrat, I guess.

        October 11, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
      • PJPSR

        Wrong. I suggest you read up on the PEW research regarding Jews and their association to Judaism. You will find the majority are Reform if not secular (no religion) and there is a rise in inter-faith marriages.

        October 11, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
      • Thinker23

        WHY would Jews be willing to marry you and your ilk, Chris?

        October 11, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
      • Ronbo

        So you're racist because they are. sounds like you are your own enemy.

        October 11, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
      • WestWorld

        Do you also hate other ethnic groups who prefer to marry others within their own ethnic group? Aren't they racists too? It seems to be the only bigot is you.

        October 11, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
      • Alias

        The jews do have their own culture. Part of that culture involves helping other jews. That leads to stronger and more prospreous communities.
        Some call it racist.

        October 11, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
      • Shpilkus

        Chris, how many Jews do you actually know in real life. Are you getting your information from a stupid relative or are you figuring this out all by yourself?

        October 11, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
  4. Steve

    Just cage these guys next to the amish beard cutters cell.

    October 11, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  5. Tyler Clancy

    To observe Orthodox Judaism at it's most incredible height you need to go to Lakewood, NJ. I have no issue with people practicing organized religions other than they pretty much divide us all and deviate us from the truth of our creation and existence. Back to Lakewood; there are strings hung up all over the place on the street corners from the telephone poles and wires. I one day asked a police officer in that area what they were and he explained that it was for the Orthodox Jewish women. Specifically a boundary. I think extreme beliefs breed extreme everything across the board for the people living in that society.

    October 11, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • RK

      A boundary for women? Absolutely not. It's called an "eruv" and has nothing to do with what you're implying, don't be quick to judge!

      October 11, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
      • therockingmoose

        Yes, the boundary lines in Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods have to do with the observation of specific Sabbath laws, not gender division. In short form, it is forbidden to carry anything from one domicile to another on the Sabbath–ANYTHING, which includes keys and even babies–which presents a problem for mobility (especially if you happen to be the caretaker of a baby, which may have been where the confusion came in about it being a law "for women"–it's not). By creating artificial boundary lines around the neighbourhood, it's an agreed upon way of saying that the whole neighbourhood is one domicile, so it's okay to move freely about in it and carry things as needed on the Sabbath. There are plenty of Jewish laws that apply differently to men and women, but this doesn't happen to be one of them.

        October 11, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
    • regenesis0

      I have no issue with people practicing organized religions
      -----------–

      No religion is organized, they're all faking it.

      October 11, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
  6. Wolfgang Halbig

    Please watch President Obama and his promises.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5uGXmWRVmA&w=640&h=390]

    Please explain to me in a way that I will be able to understand as to why a President of the US promises the American people that he will use every resource of his office in investigating the heinous Sandy Hook Shooting.

    In this National Televised Press Conference he tells us that he personally contacted the Director of the FBI Mueller and the CT Governor Malloy and telling them that every resource will be made available in investigating this crime at Sandy Hook.

    If that is that is best the FBI and CT Governor Malloy can do with every resource from the Presidents office then we better start worrying about the next big shooting at an Elementary School.

    11 months and NO report but you did have Eric Holder your Attorney General personally fly to Newtown to deliver a 2.5 million dollar check to police for all the overtime in investigating this heinour crime with NO report. What did they find with all that overtime money?

    Now we are told that the report will not be released until June of 2014. I hope that our President will intervene and questions his FBI, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Department and the Secret Service as to how they cannot figure out who the shooter was.

    This as you must know has created outright panic and fear throughout our countries schools. The President has an obligation I believe in stopping that reckless over reaction in spreading panic and fear. It must stop.

    I am hoping that you are a parent because only then will you understand why I am being told that I am crazy.

    I truly want to apologize to you or whoever is responsible for reading this e-mail.

    I know I sound crazy and insane but after training over 100,000 school teachers, school police officers, school board members, school principals and school superintendents it bothers me to see panic and fear running out of control in our schools.

    I hope whoever is reading this is a parent because then you will understand.

    There is truth and then there is untruth.

    I am in the minority of one which makes me sound crazy as can be.

    I truly understand how something like Sandy Hook School Shooting could have happened, but I don't understand when a President of the United States says in a Nationally Televised speech states that he will bring every resource of his office in investigating this heinous crime.

    He states that he called the Director of the FBI then Mueller to make that happen.

    11 months since the shooting and we have solved the Boston Bombing and the Navy Yard shooting but we cannot get the FBI to tells us what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

    Eric Holder the Presidents man goes to Sandy Hook and delvers a check for 2.5 million dollars for overtime in doing what?

    As a former Florida State Trooper we where taught as the FBI was on looking only at the facts.

    Suspect is dead because he killed himself with his own gun in the classroom the CT State Police say.
    24 children and school staff are supposedly found dead inside the schoolhouse and two died supposedly died at the hospital
    Guns used are found inside the classroom
    Suspects car is in front of the school black Honda civic
    Long gun found in the trunk of the car
    Broken glass at the front door of the school

    Those are the basic facts and I don't understand why the FBI is taking 11 month in figuring out what happened on Dec 14, 2012.

    You at the Whitehouse are the best means of ever finding the truth and I only hope that you as parents working for ABC will feel as I do that we today need to know the truth.

    Thanks for reading this.

    Wolfgang W Halbig
    352-729-2559

    October 11, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  7. Rob

    These Rsbbis Are out of control! Rabbis with rabies i tell ya!

    October 11, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
    • Irving Bernstein

      Make them eat pork for a year – that will be sentence enough.

      October 11, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • MikeB

      @Rob: Learn to spell. Don't try to be a comic. And, 'get' outta' here.

      October 11, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  8. Just not that into you.

    She's just not that into you dude. And who would be if they had to deal with that crap for a lifetime.

    October 11, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
    • Just not that into you.

      But...you can't torture people.

      These people appear to have a lot of money.

      October 11, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
  9. Rich

    Those women are craving different mens

    October 11, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  10. Muskie

    Not cool Rabbis. Not cool at all.

    October 11, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
  11. Madtown

    Rabbis plotted to kidnap husbands, force divorces
    -----
    Is this something a guy can volunteer for?

    October 11, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
  12. regenesis0

    I know I shouldn't be laughing, but the image of karate-Rabbis wielding cattle prods to abuse deadbeat husbands just makes me laugh and laugh and laugh....
    (Torture is a very serious crime and is never funny.)

    October 11, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • Some guy

      Yes, torture is not funny, and yet...c'mon, who wouldn't get even a momentary chuckle at the image of an orthodox rabbi going all cattle prod on someone!!! ("Bzzz, and THAT one is for having a ham sandwich last Saturday, I saw you!")

      October 11, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
  13. Sam

    Ira Lieberman from the FBI has been trying to crack the case on the GET Squad for years, looks like he made a rookie break in the case. There are many more doing it better. Any Man that does not give a get should be deserving of this... The emotional torture the wives go through is worse than the Physical torture they put the men through..

    October 11, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • fima

      really... and the emotional trauma that women cause to their ex-husbands and their kids are ok? Usually women want a divorce because they want to be left alone.. or they want another husband. So instead of working out their problems, they go the easy way out... divorce.. not even thinking for a second how this decision will affect her, her husband, the families and the kids.. for years to come.. If she is not smart enough to realize that she is making a mistake and her husband is aware of that.. who are you to judge him for doing what he feels is the right thing to do for his family??? Please dont post stupid comments like that.

      October 11, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
  14. asdf

    At least here in the US they have an excuse why they don't serve in the military (volunteer army and all) unlike in Israel where they collect welfare and have lots of kids.

    October 11, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
  15. counselor39@hotmail.com

    Desperation leads to things that are otherwise unthinkable.
    IN observant Jewish law, only the husband can grant the divorce. To deal with the inequality, Jewish law in Israel allows for punishment. Like the article states, there is no such right here, because of the separation of church and state. HOWEVER, this can (and more often now IS) be dealt with by a pre-nup mandating Arbitration via "Bet Din" (Jewish Tribunal) in case of Divorce. A Rabbinical Court here could then mandate that the husband give the Ghet and the the order would be enforceable in a civil court.
    Just as an aside, (and as a lawyer myself), I wonder if the defense of "Defense of another" (like self defense) could be used here, in that the husband was, in a sense, enslaving the wife.

    October 11, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
  16. sdfsfsadf

    Sounds like the rabbis did the right thing by forcing the idiotic husbands to release their wives.

    October 11, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
    • asdf

      Saying torture is the right thing might be why Israel is considered a rogue nation in most of the rest of the world.

      October 11, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
      • Brad

        Wait, are you saying that no other nation (Islam being a prime example) condones torture? So Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghan, Pakistan, India, China, and many many others are completely against this??? Yet always in the news, we hear about people being sentenced by a judge to whippings and imprisonment because of religious beliefs.

        October 11, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
        • Alias

          The USA tortures.
          We just call it something else and do it in 'secret' camps.

          October 11, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
    • Sam

      I'm with you on this one. Looks like the Orthodox Rabbis are starting to work on woman's behalf. FBI has too much time on their hands...

      October 11, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
      • Doc

        Who's working on who's behalf? These guys accepted money as payment for committing crimes. That's a crime in itself. While someone should speak for women who are not trated equally, these guys were working on their own behalf to load their pocketbooks at the expense of women who wanted a divorce but were not otherwise able to obtain it due to inequality in Jewish law. The women deserve equality under the law, but these guys deserve what they get for extorting money from victims. Do they dabble in illegal immigration on the side, too? Same kind of thing.

        October 11, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
        • timverba

          This is a weird case. The women do not want to be shamed by being a divorced woman. They hire a Rabbi to shame the man into giving her a divorce. The Rabbi beats the man into shame and collects a fee from the woman. Where did the woman get the money for the fee? I suspect from her husband who gets beaten into shame.

          Perhaps the Orthodox need to do away with the get process, and just let the community judge if the couple should split with no bias against either party. But in reality, the woman is going to get shun with a get or without a get anyway.

          October 11, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
    • WestWorld

      If the Rabbis were only trying to "help" the women, they would not demand or accept any payment. Their actions are disgusting from top to bottom.

      October 11, 2013 at 4:46 pm |
  17. NorCalMojo

    Sane Jews need to quit humoring and indulging the fundy loons. They're the Westborough Baptists of the Jewish world.

    October 11, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  18. TomGI

    Wow, I always felt the Jewish Orthodox stuff was wacky and now here is the proof.

    October 11, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  19. Alex

    Kidnapping and torture someone to get them to do their job. Do you think that would work with congress?

    October 11, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • Alias

      You may think you are kidding, but they gave the President that power. As soon as he labels them terrorists he can round them up and send them to Gitmo. No lawyers, no speedy trial, no excuses.

      October 11, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
      • marky merlot

        We can only hope!

        October 11, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  20. Ben

    The rabbis aren't concerned. They'll just escape to the sanctuary of Israel and US law enforcement will never touch them again.

    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.