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. Dick Wiggler

    These Red Sea Pedestrians are a good example of why church and state should be completely separate. If they gave the jesus crowd free reign in the US, they'd be burning witches within a month.

    October 20, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • Paul Wilson


      November 11, 2013 at 11:58 am |
      • OdinVonTogan

        I don't see the problem with burning witches, but finding a witch is another story.

        November 13, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
    • BUD


      The root of all evil.

      November 26, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
  2. dick

    Wasps, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, All use the name of the lord in a manner to ward off the wrath of GOD while still in human form, while doing the work of the devil. We will all pass their burning souls on our way through eternity.

    October 20, 2013 at 12:45 am |
  3. ShiverMeTimbers

    Wow, so this is the supposed "master race" or chosen humans, what a croc. 🙂

    October 19, 2013 at 12:27 am |
    • Dan

      No, not chosen or master race, thats a common misconception. The term "Chosen" is meant in the sense to set an example, to try to be a light for others to follow. And before anything else gets said, you find rats and saints in every religion, ethnicity, culture, race, etc. and so forth.

      October 20, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
  4. AngryJew

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

    October 18, 2013 at 4:30 am |
  5. Rabbi Benyamin Yosef

    The Jewish Court system is extremely corrupt. The Rabbi’s who run these courts are mostly in trouble or in contempt (Seruv) with the law. The Beth Din of America which is the biggest Beth Din in America is also corrupt with dishonest and Seruv’s against their top Rabbi’s. Read more about it at http://www.thebethdin.com

    October 16, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
    • AngryJew

      Thank you for your honesty.

      October 18, 2013 at 4:28 am |
  6. Bender Bending Rodriguez

    That's weird he's getting a church funeral as we know all Nazis were atheists. Kidding. Kidding. Please don't hurt me.

    October 15, 2013 at 8:53 pm |
    • OdinVonTogan

      Not sure why you feel you have to add the kidding, kidding, portion of your comment. Has someone made you afraid to speak the truth and compose such truth-seeking comments? Why would they do that?

      October 16, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
      • AngryJew

        Never be afraid to tell the truth.

        October 18, 2013 at 4:29 am |
        • OdinVonTogan

          2009,USA,TheLatinoSaid:"They (who had black hair) said they would kill everyone on earth unless they had blonde hair". Ah, yes, the truth. Whatever yew think yew are doing or saying, dew not hope for a dewover. Yew wont like it.

          October 18, 2013 at 10:32 am |
        • Bob the Chef

          True that, good Jew. Provided you speak the truth.

          October 29, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
  7. Susan StoHelit

    Stupid law – but then again, if you're Christian, there is no biblical divorce. So, you could say it's not the worst option.

    October 14, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
  8. Slade Farney

    Why don't these women sue for divorce in Gentile courts? Aye, there's the rub. Biblical law does not enable a woman to sue for divorce, and Talmud law forbids a Jew to take another Jew to Gentile court. So even though these women live in America, they are locked into their burqas of rabbinical law.

    Instead, these rabbis kidnap and torture, committing felonies to avoid violating their "good book." And if they make themselves rich in the process, that is just another a virtue in their good books.

    Only a Gentile would complain.

    October 14, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  9. rabbi golden

    Total lye. Mimonedies never said to wip untill the man dies. he said that in certain cases (such as abusive husbands ) the court should enforce the ruling that the man must give a get.

    October 14, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  10. J. Goldberg

    Although I don’t like the thought of violence, maybe that’s what it takes to get these guys to release their wives. “chained” women (agunot) are like a possession that you don’t want to give up, we’re slaves to the mens’ wills. All we want is our rightful freedom. I've been secularly divorced for 9 years, and my ex refuses to give me a get. It's not important to him, so he doesn't want to put the money out for it. I've offered to pay, my family has offered to pay, and he continues to refuse. He is holding me hostage. Is it an archaic law? Sure, like many of our other religious (and secular) laws, but you don't pick and chose which of your religious laws suit you. And I have no options to force him to give me the get. He has all the control in this situation and I have none.

    October 14, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • OdinVonTogan

      So, these 'Jews' are the holy, sacred, blessed, chosen people of some god, yet, they have variations between 'orthodox' and 'whatever' type of rules given to them by this god. You can't choose? My God gave me free will, with consequences for my choices, but nonetheless, the choices are mine.

      October 14, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  11. LAUREN

    I think women should GO TO THE PRIEST for HELP to DIVORCE and GOOD PEOPLE. HALF do want their divorces and don't know the THINGS to DO.

    October 13, 2013 at 10:05 am |
  12. Bassplayer

    What a great example of how the great physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg characterized Religion:

    "With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

    October 13, 2013 at 9:19 am |
  13. Red

    Oy, I am verklempt about this.

    October 13, 2013 at 4:26 am |
  14. AngryJew

    In Tel Aviv, Jewish mobsters blow each other up with bombs. Now THAT is bad-ass. 🙂

    October 12, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
  15. Alura

    Oy vey, such meshuginas. I got a headache reading this article. What nonsense.

    October 12, 2013 at 9:41 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.