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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. jewsstealingfromjews

    Jews stealing from Jews? How can this be?

    October 10, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
  2. brian

    So why be religious? Many Jews and others now take the secular route. There is something diabolical about religion.

    October 10, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
    • Jewsaregreat

      There is nothing wrong with Judaism. There are human beings who are idiots in every religion. Sadly in order to get a divorce in Judaism (a spiritual one) each party must consent, just as when Jews marry, instead of placing a ring on their fiance's ring finger, each places the ring on the pointer finger of their fiance, and then each takes the ring and places it on their own ring finger. Thus symbolically showing that they are making the decision themselves and not being forced into it.

      I am a reformed Jew, meaning on the liberal side of Judaism, as opposed to Orthodox. However, when I was going through a divorce from my husband, (the legal, secular divorce) was such a mess and took so many years (5) that I began to want something spiritual. I asked my (soon to be former) husband for a "get." All he had to do was say yes, in a letter, and I could obtain the get on my own with a Rabbi of my choice (which simply involved my participating in a private ceremony and reciting some prayers.) There was literally, no negative for my husband. He had to sign a one paragraph letter. He was a Jew by birth, but didn't practice. He didn't want to do it, and so said he wouldn't sign the paper. He was being vindictive. He didn't want to be married to me, we'd been separated for five years, but he didn't want me to have the emotional and spiritual peace I sought by my participating in a religious ceremony, that took place in the Rabbi's office, not even in a temple. And, like I said, he didn't have to be there, pay for it, anything.

      Anyhow, when the judge heard that he was being difficult and won't allow me to practice my own religious choice, he made an interesting judgement.... Now, mind you, this was a secular judge, part of the county court system. He said, that while we have separation of church and state in the US, and he couldn't force my husband to sign a letter saying I could receive a get, he said that my husband's stubbornness was creating a situation where in the future, I may not be able to marry someone else in the Jewish religion (more conservative factions of Judaism then I practice) but, anyhow, he said my husbands behavior (which was childish) was his right. But by my soon-to-be ex-husband limiting my ability to remarry someone else of my choosing, that he (the Judge) could order my husband to pay alimony for the rest of my life.

      Well, that did it right there. My husband signed the letter on the spot. I had a get the next week (even before my legal divorce wasn't done) but it gave me a sense of relief and of moving on that I could never get in the court system.

      It's doubly funny, because I had never asked my husband to support me or to pay alimony. Nor did I want him to. But just the prospect of it meant he stopped being petty about my religious desire.

      I 100% believe in separation of church and state. I will do all I can to battle any shadow court system, or Sharia law, for example, taking hold in the US.

      It's possible that the women who wanted the gets were being forced to stay in marriages they wanted out of. Which is no excuse for thuggery. But clearly there are many sides to a story.

      I'm posting because of the hateful conclusion Brian wrote, condemning a whole religion because of the idiocy of a few.

      October 11, 2013 at 2:50 am |
      • jungleboo

        But you gloss over the point that your personal 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 5:23 am |
        • RC

          This is the 3rd or 4th time you've posted this same inane drivel verbatim. We get it-you know how to copy and paste. Now have an original thought or shut the hell up.

          October 11, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
      • atlguy

        Seems to me that that you allowed a civil court to help get your way in a religious dispute. The honorable thing would have been to tell the judge to keep out of it. You let the judge coerce your ex on a religious matter. It's a slippery slope I think.

        October 11, 2013 at 8:28 am |
        • jan tomas

          I don't see it that way. Friend husband forgot all about allowing his wife some emotional/spiritual relief when the judge threatened alimony. Now if he REALLY wanted his wife to suffer, he would have accepted the alimony. But it turns out he wasn't THAT interested in making his wife's life less that it could be with the get. Hooray for the judge.

          October 11, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
        • G to the T

          I don't know the details either but maybe she deserved a little vindictiveness? Just sayin'...

          October 11, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • andyourpointis

      God is awesome. Some of those who claim to follow Him aren't.

      October 12, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
  3. dike

    but why must the husband give this letter... The wife should also be able to give this letter. Another Muslim like religion

    October 10, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
    • Dru

      Not really. In this instance the wife has asked for a divorce and the husband has refused. She is, at least Judaically, chained to her husband.

      October 10, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
    • what

      do you even know what Abrahamic Religions mean?

      October 12, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  4. Jerry

    Not surprised in the least.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
  5. Frank

    Religion, making people act crazy since the dawn of man.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
    • andyourpointis

      there have always been extremists but I'm sure craziness existed before God called Abraham to be His own.

      October 12, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
  6. Lewy

    " ... the complaint alleges, Rabbi Mendel Epstein ... " Rabbi Mendel Epstein. Don't you just love it? I sure do.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
  7. asdf

    More of the "good" work being done by religion around the world. At least it didn't involve little boys this time.

    When are people going to turn away from these cults. I widely accepted cult, is still a cult 😦

    October 10, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
  8. vixen

    they sound like they were just some greedy-ass men.they r in a profession of being spiritual leaders n the communtiy, but once again capital gain seemed much more appealing than trying to do away with 'get'.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
  9. Irving Bernstein

    Common thugs. Throw these religious nut jobs in the slammer and make them eat pork.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
  10. Fubarobama

    Sounds like something Obama/ Holder would do to get their way

    October 10, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Cruz's cronies are the experts on extortion.

      October 10, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
    • sadlyperturbed

      Hello mister I can't comment on a story without bringing my hatred to bare, glad you could join us.

      October 10, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
    • Observer

      Fubarobama,

      It must be killing you that the stock market is WAY up under Obama and we're not losing over a half million jobs each month like Bush left us with.

      October 10, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
  11. loudmusic

    Always nice to see you kids from the Hitler Youth posting away. Don't be stupid, be a schmartie!

    October 10, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
  12. weix giekfrink

    GBIT

    October 10, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
  13. weix giekfrink

    yers

    October 10, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
  14. wow

    the new amish mafia

    October 10, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
  15. Geoff

    This type of story makes me very angry and fed up with the level of political correctness in our modern day society. Why on Earth does Jewish law matter? If a woman wants a divorce, she should be allowed to have one! Not held hostage by her husband. Would this Jewish law hold up in court? The people who should be really charged with kidnapping are the husbands of these wives who felt like these women needed to go to these extremes to get a divorce. This isn't the Middle East, and the only law that should count is the law of the United States of America, not Jewish, Sharia, or any other law.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
    • Relictus

      Divorces are generally immoral and damage the greater society. Women have financial incentives to divorce in my state (California), and this worsens the problem. The divorce rate for "till DEATH do you part" is about 50% – an embarrassment. I would honor marriage with commitment. It sickens me to see women throw good men away once the woman has become bored or disenchanted with the hard work that make relationships work.

      October 10, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
      • paul

        care to provide some evidence for even one claim you're making?

        October 10, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
        • jungleboo

          Yeah, I'd like to see that.

          October 11, 2013 at 5:26 am |
        • Go Faqua Self

          Just go and watch the movie Enough Said if you want proof. It was written and directed by a woman!

          October 11, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
    • Adam

      You don't need be divorced in the eyes of your religion to legally divorce anywhere in the United States, at least to they best of my non-lawyer knowledge. If it were otherwise, then Catholics wouldn't be allowed to legally divorce (as opposed to getting an anullment).

      October 10, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
      • andyourpointis

        In CatholicLand (which I'm sure most of you will start bashing at the mere mention) even if you get a civil divorce, you are still married in the eyes of God. God doesn't recognize divorce. An annulment means there was never a valid marriage to begin with. So...if a husband is beating his wife, the wife should kick his ass out and make sure she and the children are safe. But, unless an annulment is granted, she is not free to remarry. Again, that's CatholicaLand. As far as this news story goes, I don't know much about Judaism but it seems wrong for rabbis to beat men into signing that paper. Question, though, no one is Jewish by force, are they? Couldn't those women leave the community, religion, seek a divorce from a civil court and move on with their lives?

        October 12, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
  16. Supercool Jew

    the way a Get works is that if the woman askes for it the husband by Jewish law cannot refuse.So there men are not holding to our true belief its a shame and this so called Rabbis are also never ever sopoosed to halm people. So, their are really not G-d Fearing people and are pretending to be a Rabbi for the all stupid mighty $$$$
    The Ketoba is the marriage contract and if the Husband wants to divore first there is a dollor amount written in the contract normally about 10k-20k so he is suppuse to pay to get out,
    in Israel a man refuses the Get he can serve in prison
    So bottoms line folks is that all you people who are now going to make fun of Jew again please don let a few corrulted individual make you believe we are evil. G-d help us all.Mosiach Now!!!

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

      SCJ, first, your spelling is atrocious, but everything else is accurate.
      In America, a woman can get a divorce that is recognized in the US, but not by the Jewish religion. If a man will not grant a divorce, he can have pressure put on him. Traditionally a boycott of his business puts enough pressure to force him to give a 'get'. Remember, the divorce is legal in the US, but in the eyes of the Orthodox religion, is requires the man to allow it.
      The rabbis have gone way overboard in forcing the get, although this type of pressure has been practiced for quite some time under the radar. The authorities have looked the other way, since it's hard to understand, and they didn't want to step in the middle of a religion.
      Some consider this whole sect a bit cultish, but it's been this way for over 5700 years and they simply are keeping the tradition alive. Still, the rabbis really overstepped their bounds when they kidnap and asault.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:19 am |
      • Jewsaregreat

        The (secular) Judge in my US divorce told my husband that because of separation of church and state, he couldn't force him to grant my get (signing a simple letter) but he could order him to support me for the rest of my life, because his childishness might cause me not to be able to marry the man of my choice, in the future. My husband signed on the spot! LOL. And I never wanted or expected him to pay me alimony. Thanks Judge! 🙂

        October 11, 2013 at 3:00 am |
        • jungleboo

          ...Again: But you gloss over the point that your personal 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 5:28 am |
        • Andy Daniel

          (this is actually a reply to Jungleboo) yes, but it's not just her – it's her potential new husband and/or the husband's family, who might oppose the marriage because of her status as an Agunah – even if she herself doesn't care very much.

          October 11, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
  17. loudmusic

    Can't wait to see who does the spoof of "Homeland" first, Stewart or Colbert. The jokes kinda write themselves. RICO Rabbis. The American Tallis-ban. Comedians are gonna have a field day here.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
  18. Elliotu

    This is a very complex religious issue and what appears to be wrong may turn out ot be right and visa versa

    October 10, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
    • DN3

      What?

      October 10, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
    • smdahl

      Kidnapping and torture are not complicated at all. They are only legal if you're in the white house, PERIOD!

      October 10, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
    • Anti-Semitism is a MYTH !

      Complex? Thats really stupid . why do even people follow a out dated religion.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:40 am |
      • Andeee

        If Judaisim is outdated, then so is atheism...its an even older belief system.

        October 11, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
        • TDR

          I think he is referring to the fact that in this particular fairy tale, the god of the Jews provided an update via Jesus, and the Jews havn't quite got up to date with that yet...

          October 12, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
        • andyourpointis

          that was an awesome answer, Andeee 🙂

          October 12, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
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About this blog

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.