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. He Brewed It

    Hypocrites in any religion are going to hell. Sorry, that's just the way it is. If you swear to uphold the tenets of a particular religion, and you keep breaking them, you're not going to go into the afterlife. You'll just be reborn as the mosquitoes you are.

    October 11, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
  2. suzie669

    This is really a big confusion. I don't get it!! If you are already in America and have a marriage license, then under the law you legally divorce your husband if it is granted in court. Who cares about permission from mosques, temples, churches, etc, ? I mean, you move on and live your life, right? Whoever abuse you or harass you, under US law, you have the right to sue them or report them, right?

    So, hell to all preachers!!! Please mind your own business!! And Jewish women, why you care so much about GET anyway? Let them GET out of your lives, women!!!!!

    October 11, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
    • counselor39@hotmail.com

      You're very passionate about things you know nothing about.
      When a Jewish couple marry by a Rabbi (who is also vested with the authority by the civil courts) he marries you religiously and civilly at the same time.
      When you divorce in civil court, it has nothing to DO with a religious divorce.
      Sure – she can CIVILLY marry another man, but NO Rabbi (orthodox anyway) will marry her to someone else, because she is still married.
      You ask why she would care – she wouldnt, unless her intent is to marry another Jewish man.

      October 11, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
      • Olaf Big

        Correction: unless she intends to marry another Orthodox jewish man. The best part about secular society and civil marriage is that you can marry whoever you please and don't worry what your rabbi, or priest, or mullah or shaman has to say about it.

        October 11, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
        • counselor39@hotmail.com

          No. Your "correction" is "incorrect".
          Sure, many Conservative/reform Rabbi will still marry a previously married woman without a Ghet; Getting remarried does NOT mean that the "new" marriage is "lawful", "legal", or "legitimate" under Jewish law, JUST because a Rabbi married them. Consider.
          You marry and leave your spouse. You move to New York, fall in love and get married. The New York courts dont KNOW you're still legally married. SO – here you are "married" but the reality is that the second marriage is null & void.
          Thus, if a married woman doesnt get a ghet, her next marriage is "void", even if no one knows it.

          October 11, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
      • sftommy

        Question then: Is Jewish divorce "legal" in the yes of God if the Rabbi's are such "men": as these? How could they be "men of God"

        October 11, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
  3. andy

    Stupid religion. And this one is one of the dumbest. Orthodox can go DIAF, they are very unkind, ignorant, and hateful. Learn to read your "holy books" guys you are all doing it wrong.

    October 11, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
  4. Olaf Big

    I think, I am gonna found a new religion. I'll call it tolerantism. The commandments are: have a beer on a sunny afternoon, or a cup of tea; have a lover, or a wife, or both, or none; read a book and remember every word, or forget it all, or don't read at all... I'll have to take a rest now before continuing to write my Holy Book

    October 11, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
  5. Common Sense

    The awful side of religon

    October 11, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
    • Praise Lesus

      Religion is apparently a sphere.

      October 11, 2013 at 5:39 pm |
  6. Andrew

    Further proof that all religions are nothing but shams committing tax fraud and fooling the blind and stupid into just freely handing over money hand over fist all because some invisible spaghetti monster in the sky commands them to.

    October 11, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
    • Alias

      Please don't act like tey are raising their girls to accept this type of domination from the men!
      That would be obsurd!

      October 11, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
  7. counselor39@hotmail.com

    Sorry- the comment above was aimed at Drmeme.

    October 11, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
  8. Dan

    This sounds like the plot from an episode of the Sopranos in Season 1

    October 11, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
  9. Txjew

    And the orthodox wonder why liberal Judaism is embraced by millions of Jews.

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

    say goodbye to j-date !!!!!!

    October 11, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
  11. SamB19

    crazy religions; crazy people.

    October 11, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
  12. Ben

    So...THIS story but Santa Claus is fake?? #adultsplayingmakebelieve

    October 11, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
  13. Jaime Gandarilla

    God doesn't exist.

    October 11, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
    • Praise Lesus

      Everyone already knows that.

      October 11, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
  14. nik green

    Imagine if this was a group of Imams pulling a stunt like this? The corporate weasel-media would be milking the story as the new terrorist threat facing us all.

    October 11, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
    • Alias

      And the christinas would be over using the word 'EVIL' as well.

      October 11, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
  15. senioreditor2

    I'm Jewish, lived a fairly Orthodox life at one time but this is what happens to all religions when folks are fanatical....all common sense and judgment is lost. Doesn't matter what religion it is, extremism is BAD no matter how you look at it.

    October 11, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
    • Alias


      October 11, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
  16. John


    October 11, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
  17. Jinky

    First Rabbi: "What's an agunah?
    Second Rabbi: "I don't know..what's an agunah with you?"

    October 11, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
  18. Jack

    Maybe the A-team can take on the 'get' business now...


    October 11, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
  19. counselor39@hotmail.com

    Yes, Chris (is it "Christian?). No surprise there. NO "majority" likes the idea that a minority would not want to merge with the majority. You, and those of your ilk, WANT other religions to be subsumed into yours.

    October 11, 2013 at 4:20 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.