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. Juca

    According to Jewish law?
    I thought they lived in America and did not have to obey to a religious law...
    What's up with that?

    October 12, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
    • AngryJew


      October 12, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
    • Thinker23

      Juca... WHY are trying to pretend that you have less clue of what you're talking about than you really do?

      Don't you know that even in America some people are religious?

      October 13, 2013 at 8:25 am |
      • Juca

        Got to be smart and realize that if a religion puts you under pressure and takes away you freedom, it's time to get out of it and live a life with freedom...
        Here people have that choice and no one has the right to tell you what to do...
        God will never approve laws that men created to make people unhappy and submissive to men...
        People should get a life and be free and happy...

        October 13, 2013 at 9:09 am |
        • Thinker23

          "Got to be smart and realize that if a religion puts you under pressure and takes away you freedom, it's time to get out of it and live a life with freedom..."

          True... and freedom means freedom to practice religion as well. This, in turn, means that no one can take away the freedom of religious people telling them that "it's time to get out of it".

          "Here people have that choice and no one has the right to tell you what to do..."

          Exactly. Now try to practice what you preach.

          October 13, 2013 at 11:18 am |
        • Misty

          Are you seriously defending this practice, Thinker23? Not the "get" itself, but the kidnapping and extortion?

          October 13, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  2. James

    Stop harassing atheists and scaremongering. It sounds like some theist has a pathological fear of doubting the existence of God, which does not sound particularly healthy to me.

    October 12, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
  3. donaldcwhite

    What in the world are you talking about regarding satellite observations of me from outer space. Also, why are you telling me about Parminter's resignation?

    October 12, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
  4. gar

    this is what is wrong with religion .. one of many things. Religion makes nuts! And it costs us all so much! We will be better off when all religions are gone.

    October 12, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
    • andyourpointis

      The world will be a better place when all religion is gone? You mean like Soviet Russia? there are extremists everywhere...even in secular society.

      October 12, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
      • Boojum

        Eastern Orthodox is all over the place in Russia. Don't talk about what you know nothing about, simpleton.

        October 12, 2013 at 8:33 pm |
        • andyourpointis

          maybe now, sure. Back with Stalin? Not so much. Ever read about his Reign of Terror? And name-calling...hmm...makes you sound so superior. LOL

          October 12, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
        • Richard Cranium

          That is a misrepresentation of the facts. In Stalin age Russia, he banned religion, BUT it was still practiced everywhere. It was no longer legal, so all Stalin did was to force religion underground. He didn't wave a wand and make religion disappear. As with all prohibitions, it made the desire for what was prohibitted stronger, and where there's a will, there's a way. Religion did not change, the way they practiced their religion changed.

          October 13, 2013 at 9:14 am |
      • Thinker23

        Not Soviet Russia... Rather North Korea.

        October 13, 2013 at 8:26 am |
  5. Bull


    October 12, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  6. Bob

    How archaic. Seemingly aspects of Judaism are just as misguided as aspects of the Muslim religion frequently pointed out in the media and looked at, from our perspective, with disbelief.

    October 12, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
    • Thinker23

      The main difference between the two is that Muslim extremists try to FORCE their religion on others killing those who disagree in the process. The Jews do not.

      October 13, 2013 at 8:29 am |
      • Misty

        Nah, they just FORCE divorces by kidnapping. Much more peaceful.

        October 13, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  7. lct1119

    a pox on men who seem to think they can control women. your days are numbered with jews and muslims.

    October 12, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
  8. brian

    Is Judaism a religion? A number of Jews have left Judaism because of that question.

    October 12, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • counselor39@hotmail.com

      lol..NO, Brian – no one has left Judaism because they question whether or not it's a religion.
      Where do ppl like you GET this stuff ???

      October 12, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
      • *


        October 12, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
  9. loudmusic

    Can't wait for Monday night. Colbert and Stewart are gonna have a field day with this story. Cattle prods? I'm expecting a "Homeland"-type spoof. The American Tallis-ban? "GET Morty"? Rabbis Gone Wild? Endless comedy gold here.

    October 12, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  10. Nate in CA

    While one abhors violence, great to see a little religion-inspired violence not directed at the women out there.

    October 12, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • c'mon really?

      that is incredibly ignorant. the vast majority of violence is commited by men for mens motives.

      this is a case of men hurting men on behalf of women. its an outrage and you are such a mangina that you cheer it on.

      October 12, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
  11. Ralph_in_FL

    How refreshing to see a story about violent religious fanatics that does not mention Islam.

    October 12, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
  12. Ned

    Orthodoxy of any kind is anathema to rationality and free will.

    October 12, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
  13. extorters meeting beefier extorters

    the husbands are extorting, then they meet their match, one or more ran to the police to whine that their extortion was stopped by cattle prods and thugs.....

    October 12, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
  14. billy

    Wackos – you know what they are going to GET up their B u t t s when they arrive in prison. Yaahoo

    October 12, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • greenaxe

      Time to find a good Jewish lawyer. We have the hasidics living here in upstate NY (check out the attached link and become outraged).
      Talk about the hot mess these people really are as well as disrespectful and downright nasty.

      October 12, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
  15. James Duran

    So three Orthodox Jews walks into a bar, one carries plastic bags, the next one has a cattle prodder, and the third has a black belt in tae kwon do.....

    October 12, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  16. Robert Brennan

    And I thought the Muslims were backward – LOL

    October 12, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • naseem

      Atleast a Muslim woman has a right to divorce without a 'GET'. Catholics are not even allowed to talk about divorce. Once married a woman is a mans possession.

      October 12, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
      • donaldcwhite

        Nonsense! Can't remarry without an annulment. Aren't legitimately married if not married in the church or with marriage being blessed.

        October 12, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
      • Thinker23

        "Once married a woman is a mans possession."

        According to Islam ALL FOUR women married to the same man are his possession...

        October 13, 2013 at 8:34 am |
    • teepu

      Muslim women had the right to demand divorce (called Khul) for as simple a cause as that she found him ugly. If a woman demanded divorce despite her husband fulfilling his legal obligation towards her and the children, then the wife had to forfeit her meher (the bridal gift) to get the khul. This right was given to women by God in the Qur;an 14 centuries ago. Simmilarly a Muslim woman could inherit from her father and husband as well as get alimony 14 centuries ago.

      October 12, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
      • MIJohn

        Yet people call Islam a backwards religion.

        At least their crazies are HONEST about mistreating women. I see the groups I mentioned above raging against how "evil" Islam is for maltreating women, yet their own treatment is even worse. They just hide it behind communities where no one sees or says anything out of fear of their neighbors.

        October 12, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
  17. Reality # 2

    And all of this because of Abraham and Moses who, based on what we know now, were myths!! The significant stupidity of it all !!!

    October 12, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • Thinker23

      The most siginificant stupidity is declaring something you have no clue about - "myths".

      October 13, 2013 at 8:36 am |
      • Reality # 2

        As starters for the new visitors to this blog:

        origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

        New Torah For Modern Minds

        “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob•a•bly
        Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell).

        The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

        Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

        The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

        The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel - not one shard of pottery."

        October 13, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  18. Futureman1

    Now I see what my friends from Israel are talking about. They say the major tension in Israeli society involves the Ultra Orthodox, and even the Orthodox in the way they treat not only Palestinians but even secular Israelis. Group think divides and religious extremism is group think squared.

    October 12, 2013 at 11:34 am |
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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.