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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. SEAL Team Alpha and Omega

    I guess I just don't get it.

    October 12, 2013 at 10:33 am |
  2. Terri

    The important point that you left out was that with only a civil divorce the man can remarry under Jewish law, The woman can only remarry under Jewish law after obtaining a get from her former husband. (This double standard dates back to ancient times when men were allowed to have more than one wife.) Most of these men probably have already divorced their wives under civil law and have married someone else. The women are still "chained" to their former husband, neither a wife or allowed to remarry under religious law. Giving a get also forces the husband to abide by the property agreement of the religious marriage contract (Ketubah).

    October 12, 2013 at 10:17 am |
    • LOUIS LITVIN

      That is a crazy situation. When I used to go to Temple, I remember a sermon in which the Rabbi lauded our faith by speaking about how women have always had equality. This sounds like a bit of Jewish Sharia law to me.

      October 12, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • counselor39@hotmail.com

      Uhhh, WRONG. Without a Ghet, a Jewish man CANT re-marry. Same as the woman. Please educate yourself before spewing B.S.

      October 12, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  3. rp518dan

    Did you see the video of the House of Representatives' chaplin pretending to be talking to God during the opening prayer? He was lecturing Congress. Pretending to speak to God while really attempting to alter the behavior of others is what we atheists, and people who take their faiths seriously, call "coercive prayer". It's blasphemy to people who work hard on their faiths and it's creepy to atheists.

    How do you feel about praying aloud while really addressing other people?

    October 12, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  4. oldleftcoastdude

    This sounds like Sharia law; Isn't it interesting how all these religions have so many things in common?

    October 12, 2013 at 10:03 am |
    • mickeym1313

      It is interesting, it is also interesting that christianity is just a cult off shoot of jewism, and Islam is a cult off shoot of Christianity. And all these looser wackos hate each other. There god is either not real, or does not deserve worship. any way you look at it, monotheists are a waste of resources on this world.

      October 12, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  5. Jojo

    Boy this a weird story. Someone should compile a list of odd things different peoples do/believe and write a book.

    October 12, 2013 at 9:58 am |
  6. nugget

    The very premise is stupid. Their religion requires the man to decide to give this get. But then the state of Israel, public shaming, and other mechanisms attempt to force the man to give the get. If the man doesn't need to decide to give the get, then this part of the religion should be struck. The notion that you're going to hold to the letter of a law. but not the spirit. just because it's written in some book is ludicrous.

    And, where are the women's rights groups on the issue of whether women ought to be considered property ? There's no shortage of condemnation when other cultures advocate same.

    October 12, 2013 at 9:42 am |
  7. Observer

    Lawyer: "What did you do?"
    Rabbi: "I made him an offer he'd be meshuggah to refuse."

    [klezmer plays theme to The Godfather]

    October 12, 2013 at 9:28 am |
  8. sigmundfreud

    Jeeez, sounds like you need a good Jewish psychiatrist to find out what you always prattle the same phrase and never have anything else to contribute.

    October 12, 2013 at 9:11 am |
  9. David

    those rabbi's are gangsta... Kosher Nostra

    October 12, 2013 at 9:10 am |
  10. The Popey

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lo-bWWg2pzE&w=640&h=390]

    October 12, 2013 at 8:59 am |
  11. centeredpiece

    I have to say I am somewhat sympathetic to these Rabbis who were trying to help women imprisoned by their selfish husbands. Reading the headline I thought they were tough-guy extortionists making money for themselves. The answer lies within the community itself which should shun these selfish men instead of making their wives' lives a living hell and punishing innocent children. You can respect the law and tradition but in a way that cleanly puts the consequences for bad actions on the bad actor.

    October 12, 2013 at 8:58 am |
    • mickeym1313

      If you believe in theism, and you bend the rules, you do know that you are condemning yourself to he ll. All of these women, and rabbis will be punished by god, IF such a figment is real. To follow the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law is EVIL, but then again most of the past 50 years of jewish apology is evil.

      October 12, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  12. Kebos

    Another pathetic example of religions twisted logic.

    October 12, 2013 at 8:50 am |
  13. SixDegrees

    At least they're empowering women.

    October 12, 2013 at 7:04 am |
    • curie

      What a typical Jewish answer? You never admit fault!

      October 12, 2013 at 9:01 am |
      • rs1201

        because there's no fault...and it's true...the rabbis are helping women get rid of husbands that refuse to give them divorces...I applaud them!!!!

        October 12, 2013 at 9:53 am |
        • Andrew

          So you applaud kidnapping and beating people, using cattle prods on them, putting plastic bags over their heads, etc? Sounds like Afghanistan and the Taliban would be more suited for you. I can only hope you end up on some secret watch list at the CIA for the rest of your life.

          October 12, 2013 at 10:21 am |
        • AngryJew

          By breaking the law???? I fail to see your logic.

          October 12, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
  14. sick of christian phonies

    Ah, religion! Can you ever NOT surprise me with the depths your adherents will sink to?

    October 12, 2013 at 6:22 am |
    • MIJohn

      Oh I'm not surprised at all. Especially to find out it was Jews. I've known for years that the sweet and smiling face they show to the public hides the same depths of uglyness. Only instead of admitting to themselves that they're rotten, they rationalize and project it rather than accept the guilt.

      After all, for the people trying to excuse their actions as "empowering women" – wake up. This was about money. Lots of money paid for people to break CIVIL law because of a social situation that they themselves actively strengthened. As Rabbis they COULD have simply gotten together and insisted that they change the policy for their congregations to no longer need a get. But instead they exploited some peoples desperation to avoid being spat on by their neighbors to fatten their wallets.

      October 12, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  15. sick of christian phonies

    Like a metronome, or an addled zombie muttering the same nonsensical phrase over and over and over, this guy. Always with the" prayer blah blah blah". Try "thinking and using your brain changes things". You'll see better results.

    October 12, 2013 at 6:21 am |
    • Frank

      the idea of working for anything is foreign to him –

      October 12, 2013 at 8:36 am |
    • centeredpiece

      Glad to see that you are an equal opportunity religious bigot!! Reason and faith are not opposites, but prejudiced bigots live in such an "either/or" world they cannot see this.

      October 12, 2013 at 9:00 am |
  16. AngryJew

    So these are the type of people who are stealing Palestinian land. hmmmmmm.

    October 12, 2013 at 5:49 am |
    • Thinker23

      Definitely not. For starters, there is no "Palestinian land" so it can not be stolen. Further, "these people" live in New York and (as far as I know) even Hamas and Hezbollah did not claim yet that New York was "Palestinian land".

      October 12, 2013 at 6:26 am |
      • curie

        Since all Jews are considered a citizen of Israel, Jewish people living in USA or any other country is considered part Israeli.
        Yes, Israel stole the lands belonging to Palestinians! Too bad that Jews cannot fool the world anymore!

        October 12, 2013 at 9:08 am |
        • Thinker23

          "Since all Jews are considered a citizen of Israel..."

          They are not. According to Israeli law any Jew HAS A RIGHT for Israeli citizenship. Similarly, YOU have a right to own a Rolls Royce.

          "...Jewish people living in USA or any other country is considered part Israeli."

          Just like YOU are considered a Rolls Royce owner (a "partly" one, of course).

          "Yes, Israel stole the lands belonging to Palestinians!..."

          Why don't you SHOW THE LEGAL DEEDS proving that the lands in question belong to 'Palestinians'? and WHO are 'Palestinians'?

          "Too bad that Jews cannot fool the world anymore!"

          Apparently, they can... and it's YOUR fault! If you bothered to support your accusations by FACTS it would be way more difficult for them to fool the world, genius.

          October 12, 2013 at 9:33 am |
        • rs1201

          why don't you go post at al jazeera...it's more up your alley...you miserable POS

          October 12, 2013 at 9:56 am |
        • Don Lee

          You can not take from a person or group what they never owned-Palestinans. Jews owned and still own this land. Too bad You fool yourself, not anyone else, who has read the scriptures.

          October 12, 2013 at 10:04 am |
        • AngryJew

          Well said. These Hasbara shills forget that the UN recently voted to recognize the state of Israel. Welcome to reality my zi0nazi friends. 🙂

          October 12, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
        • AngryJew

          Ooops, I made a mistake. Well said. These Hasbara shills forget that the UN recently voted to recognize the state of Israel. Welcome to reality my zi0nazi friends. 🙂

          October 12, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
        • AngryJew

          I think I got it right this time. Well said. These Hasbara shills forget that the UN recently voted to recognize the state of PALESTINE. Welcome to reality my zi0nazi friends. 🙂

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

        Check with the UN. Most of the world voted to recognize the state of PALESTINE. Suck on that. 🙂

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

      What a non sequitur!

      October 12, 2013 at 6:37 am |
      • jungleboo

        Thinker 23 is twisted, that much is true..

        October 12, 2013 at 8:00 am |
        • Frank

          you are a hater and a racist that is all that is true here-

          October 12, 2013 at 8:35 am |
    • rp518dan

      Angry Jew, they are also the people who raise children to vandalizine Christian graveyards and spit on clerics Iin the Old City.

      October 12, 2013 at 9:09 am |
    • sigmundfreud

      Ah .... no... these are the kind of people who reject Israel because the hand of God didn't literally come down and create it. These are the kind of people who prefer to deal with Iran and other extremist states rather than dealing with Israel. These are the kind of people who want to live in theocratic ghettos.

      October 12, 2013 at 9:10 am |
    • sam kohen

      Actually Islamic, Sharia law is completely identical to Jewish law in regards to this issue.

      October 12, 2013 at 9:47 am |
      • AngryJew

        Ha ha ha, now where are all the protesters in Manhattan. Why aren't they protesting in front of a synagogue?

        October 12, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
  17. AngryJew

    I am praying really hard for a playboy bunny, but so far, no luck. 😦

    October 12, 2013 at 5:49 am |
  18. tat

    jews are so jews

    October 12, 2013 at 4:20 am |
    • Thinker23

      Yes. So is everyone else including yourself.

      October 12, 2013 at 6:27 am |
    • Mike

      I had no idea Jews were so bad-ass. They must have found an 11th commandment: "Thou Rabbi shall kick-a ss."

      October 12, 2013 at 9:04 am |
  19. joey

    "For I will at this time send all my plagues upon thine heart, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people; that thou mayest know that there is none like me in all the earth." Who else but the biblical god ?

    October 12, 2013 at 4:19 am |
    • truthprevails1

      Once again your special brand of stupid is here...are your Mommy and Daddy perhaps related (you know your Daddy being your Grandpa)??? Do you know that Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Facebook all support gay marriage? Is that reason enough for you to stay off of computers and stop polluting the internet with ignorance and bigotry (please)???

      October 12, 2013 at 6:32 am |
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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.