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. Babak from LA

    Was this article about the rabbis breaking the law & getting caught......or to educate us in Jewish divorce laws?

    October 11, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
  2. Dean

    I don't know why, but the term "Rabbis' thugs" just doesn't strike me with fear.

    October 11, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
    • NYC_Disaster

      I guess only Black Thugs, right?

      October 11, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
      • mrBORGest


        You sir have got it right

        MWA hahahahahahahahahaha
        Rabbi Thug ?...BWA hahahahahahahahahaha

        October 11, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
    • mrBORGest

      GOOD ONE
      Bw ahahahahahahahahahaha

      October 11, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
  3. Joe Plumber

    Ahhh, religion. The bastion of knowledge and understanding.

    October 11, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
  4. kren

    Jews and Judaism. Woman can't even get a divorce in such cult.

    October 11, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
    • truebob

      I know more about splitting the aton than you know about Judaism.

      October 11, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
  5. Gregg Teslovich

    Which is more hateful and enslaving towards females – conservative Christians, conservative Muslims or conservative Jews? Which for the past thousands of years has treated them at some level near or below the property status of animals? Oh, I forgot, God or someone who claims to speak for God wrote it into law. Not a bad protocol since the audience was essentially illiterate.

    October 11, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
  6. SillyMe

    I guess it just goes to show, that like in all marriages, you get what give. Maybe they didn’t give a get because they were not getting any. Give it up and maybe she would get at get. But hey, you can only give what ya got.

    I wonder if you give a get does she still get alimony. If so, I can understand it might be cheaper to not give a get. A little give and take and the guy would probably be willing to give a get. Would you want to give a get if you were going to get it in the end?

    Okay, this is getting a little silly.

    October 11, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
  7. Fuad

    Imagine You were living in a Jewish state of Israel, I believe a lot of us would have been thrown in jail simply for refusing to divorce our wives because we still love them. This says a lot for the so called democratic country in the ME. I bet they now want to bring their Jewish laws to the US. Just because Jews control the American congress with their powerful lobbies does not necessary mean they could also control the laws of the USA!

    October 11, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
    • Mike, Albany

      Absolutely staggering ignorance you display.

      October 11, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
  8. mr sensitive

    Thought "Get" was about getting pregnant and/or specifically your children...

    October 11, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
  9. bubba's cousin

    Did they get the get or did they just say forget it? I

    October 11, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
  10. brian

    Wait. you mean religious law is being followed rather than civil law? gasp.

    October 11, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
    • Michael Girouard

      At least someone is enforcing a law. And keeping the lawyers out of it, thereby avoiding greater pain and expense.

      October 11, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
    • Andy Daniel

      Religious law is only being applied to those who choose it to applied to them. A woman can obtain a civil divorce and can remarry without a "get". It's only the orthodox religious establishment that will fail to recognize either the divorce or remarriage. However for people in these highly orthodox communities, it's a big deal, as one would be ostracized.

      Don't forget that not too long ago in the USA, in many states either party could refuse to grant the other a divorce.

      That's not to condone what these Rabbis are accused of. If true, it's a civil criminal matter, plain and simple.

      October 11, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
  11. Mike, Albany

    A wonderful use of the word "agunah" appears in the Yiddish translation of "A Boy Named Sue":

    Ikh bin geve'en a pitzel Kind
    Wenn mayn Tateh hot farloysn den Hoys gezind
    Un fun demols is mayn Leben a groysn Tsureh
    Nicht geneyg dass die Mamas gevoren an Agunah
    Mir alleyn git er oykh a fayn Metuneh:
    Der Tateh hot mir a nomen gegeben Sureh!

    October 11, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
  12. kevin lanigan

    Simple solution civil divorce and get over it

    October 11, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  13. bobby

    "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.

    I'm sorry, but when I read that I think of Jackie Mason saying that. And it sounds really funny.

    October 11, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
    • Ian

      Billy Crystal in a weird taken on throwing Mama from the train . . .

      October 11, 2013 at 7:45 pm |
  14. metzitzat b'peh is so gross

    they should also be charged with cold molestation for that disgusting Jewish tradition named metzitzah b'peh.

    October 11, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is so gross

      ugh, Swype fail (swypeO?)- the above should read "… Child molestation…"

      October 11, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
      • ram

        Thanks for clarifying that...lol. I was wondering what a cold molestation was!

        October 11, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
  15. glonq

    Why not just write a 'get' into a pre-nup? If a civil divorce occurs, the husband is contractually required to issue a 'get' or pay a ton of $ instead.

    October 11, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
  16. jeff

    Ah religion, no matter what form it takes it is all just crazy silliness that gets in the way of reason.

    October 11, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • Olaf Big

      Not only that. It also gets in the way of fun, and makes you either a sinner or a hypocrite...

      October 11, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
  17. Dan

    I was brought up in a jewish household, but I am an atheist now. This type of insanity is one of the many reasons I shun religion. If it isn't setting bombs off, forcing pre-teen girls to marry 50 year old men or shooting abortion doctors, its something like this.

    October 11, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • Praise Lesus

      It's always something!

      October 11, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • No Nothing


      October 11, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
    • newtothis

      We always blame God for the stupid foolish things we do.The wives wanted a divorce and the Rabbies wanted to gets paid. God had nothing to do with this foolishness, this is religious politics.

      October 11, 2013 at 6:15 pm |
  18. sftommy

    Lot Folks are still Married in the eyes of God, then.
    From divorcee to two- timin' hussy cause your God man was bad

    Silly Rabbi's!

    October 11, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
  19. JBShlo

    What's omitted here is that the rabbis are defending women, because morally reprobate husbands have treated them badly and take advantage of a problem in religious legislation to evade culpability; they are basically the criminals in the story, and would be represented as such if the wives' side were represented at all. Instead it becomes a story of 'rabbis' thugs', and deliberately so, in order to feed the wave of anti-religious feeling promoted by the religiously illiterate and unsympathetic corporate thugs.

    October 11, 2013 at 5:39 pm |
    • Andrew

      Oh yes, the rabbis are so innocent. Kidnapping men, having plastic bags put over their heads, using electric cattle prods, etc. So holy. Regardless of what the men did at home or put the women through, that didn't give the rabbis the right to do what they did. Throw the book at them and let them rot in jail for the full length of their term, religious position be damned.

      October 11, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
  20. Stephanie


    October 11, 2013 at 5:32 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.