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. anchorite

    The posts by muslim2012 are much more compelling than the story in this article. In truth, it can't be said that anyone did this for religious reasons. Judaism, like Islam and Christianity, encourages marriage and large families. If anything a zealot would have been forcing people to stay together. These were just gangsters doing it for the money.

    October 11, 2013 at 10:11 am |
  2. muslim2012


    October 11, 2013 at 10:10 am |
  3. zaphed

    the descendents of abraham moslims and jews are the root of the evil on the planet.

    October 11, 2013 at 10:08 am |
    • khepera420

      You know that Christianity is one of the Abrahamic religions too, right?

      October 11, 2013 at 10:14 am |
      • c w

        Christianity is a bunch of make-believe phooey too

        October 11, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  4. Doc Vestibule

    Finding Shaman approved ways to end marriages has a long and illistrious history.
    Just ask Henry VIII

    October 11, 2013 at 10:07 am |
  5. cacique

    Just your regular run-of-the-mill criminals in a black robe, a cute hat and a shaggy beard..

    October 11, 2013 at 10:05 am |
  6. massconn72

    This is no different than the extortion they pull when they go into bakeries to bless them Koser. They walk into the bakery, look around for 30 seconds and put the thousands of dollars in their pocket and leave. If you don't pay the money, you will never get your product in the chain super markets and you are done. It's just another way these "men of god" keep lining their pockets in the name of their false god.

    October 11, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  7. Ace

    Religion breaking bad...

    As it always does...

    Live a good life and help others...

    That is my motto...

    October 11, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  8. muslim2012


    October 11, 2013 at 10:00 am |
    • zaphed

      so what?

      October 11, 2013 at 10:07 am |
  9. rad666

    God works in mysterious ways.

    October 11, 2013 at 9:45 am |
    • ME II

      ... but apparently it's still His day off.

      October 11, 2013 at 9:46 am |
  10. Dee

    Give these guys a medal. Too many people extort money and child custody away from their wives in exchange for the basic human right to be free.

    October 11, 2013 at 9:35 am |
    • ME II

      A medal? to the kidnappers?

      Leave the idiotic religion that requires them to get a 'get' in order to be free.
      Or get the rabbis, rabbinical council, or whatever, to declare "gets" unnecessary.

      It is barbaric to enslave women this way and it is barbaric to need kidnapping rabbis to get the women out of bad situations.

      October 11, 2013 at 9:44 am |
  11. Giggidy

    What is this all about? Cnn is showing its true anti semetic colors here. Cnn is as bad as stormfront but is somehow still regarded as a serious news outlet, lol. Go figure.

    October 11, 2013 at 9:34 am |
    • lerianis

      No, they aren't. Read all the horror stories about women who want divorces from their Orthodox Jewish husbands yet cannot get them because the husband is acting like a total bu11hole and refusing to give them the 'get'.

      Really, we need to say that "No, a get is not necessary in the real world, they just have to go to a secular judge for a divorce and the religion in question has to honor that!"

      October 11, 2013 at 9:43 am |
    • Ruka Razyll

      So what are you saying here, that no crimes were committed? Is this just a normal thing, then? Has CNN presented the kidnapped and assault in a negative light, or is an acceptable practice to you?

      October 11, 2013 at 9:43 am |
      • Paul

        Obviously laws were broken and the people responsible must be held accountable, however, let us keep this in perspective., compared to "honor killings' and other violent practices being perpetrated by other religions, this is pretty tame.

        October 11, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • Wes Scott

      Are you truly alleging anti-semetism just because CNN stated that this crime was committed by a group of Jewish Rabbis?

      You are nuts!

      October 11, 2013 at 9:50 am |
    • Jason Schick

      No they're not. I'm Jewish, and I can truly say these people are tweaked; the women and the men. The crimes aren't justified, but the male dominated values of this sect are deplorable. I can't understand their system of values and beliefs any more than I can understand those of extremist Islamists.

      October 11, 2013 at 10:00 am |
    • Jerry5555

      A Jew accusing someone of being anti Semitic....How typical. Jewish people are the most protected people in the US and they always try to have people feel sorry for them and accuse anyone who questions them of being anti Semitic..

      October 11, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  12. Ralph

    People are strange. If someone doesn't want to be with someone any longer, why would anyone want to stay with them? If you truly love someone, show some respect, the same respect you want from others, and set them free.

    October 11, 2013 at 9:33 am |
    • Dee

      It's about control. If they refuse to grant their wives a divorce they can prevent them from moving on with their lives, remarrying and/or having more children before their fertility clock runs out. Pigs.

      October 11, 2013 at 9:36 am |
      • lerianis

        Dee, that is exactly what it is about and that is why it is time to lay down the HAMMER on the Orthodox Jews and tell them "No, they do not need to go through your religion in order to get a divorce, they just have to go through the courts and the man in question has no right to say "No!" if the woman wants a divorce!"

        October 11, 2013 at 9:45 am |
        • DF

          lerianis, as someone with experience in the orthodox community, let me try to explain. No one is stopping the women from going to the secular courts and moving on with her life without a 'get'. In fact, they most probably obtain a civil divorce before even dealing with the 'get'. The 'get' is purely for religious purposes, and only matters to the woman if she chooses to believe and follow jewish law. If she chooses not to, and accepts the social consequences of leaving the orthodox community, she can go on, marry someone else, and live freely. Not an easy choice, but a free choice nonetheless.

          October 11, 2013 at 10:19 am |
        • lerianis

          DF, allow me to frigging explain.... RELIGIONS SHOULD NOT HAVE THINGS IN THEM THAT MAKE WOMEN SECOND-CLASS CITIZENS! That means, that when things like this are found? The secular authorities should come down HARD on it and FORCE the religion in question to kowtow to secular beliefs.

          I am tired of people saying "It's in my religion!" With thinking like that, we could justify eating first born female babies! Yes, this IS just as bad as that previous statement.

          October 11, 2013 at 11:03 am |
        • DF

          Lol. So what your saying is that the gov't should be able to force someone to change their beliefs? Can't exactly do that in a free society.

          October 11, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      It has nothing to do with love or respect .. if they had that I'd bet their wives wouldn't be seeking a divorce.
      This is about control (like Dee said), but it's borne of insecurity and fear. One of the problems with men getting this type of empowerment (granted by their religion) is that they can let their insecurities rule the lives of both them and their families.

      October 11, 2013 at 9:44 am |
  13. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Humans being human, always have been always will be. Religion is nothing more than a concept of human abstract psychology .. it's all just humans being human.

    October 11, 2013 at 9:33 am |
  14. ME II

    This would be hilarious, if it weren't so tragic.

    October 11, 2013 at 9:32 am |
  15. SB1790

    Typical Jews.

    October 11, 2013 at 9:23 am |
  16. Jack

    Well, like most conservative, fundamentalist religions, women have less rights than men. Doesn't matter whether its Christian, Jewish, or Muslim etc. The men get to make the rules and make the decisions. They'll deny this and come up with some dogma about the importance of women and motherhood and the equality of women. It's all a cover. And we see this is conservative politics as well.

    October 11, 2013 at 9:18 am |
    • Lucille

      This is so true. I wouldn't believe it if it hadn't happened in my own life. Maybe not as dramatic but the process and end result were the same. Yes, the men were the only ones making decisions. I didn't make any decisions. The elders of ex husband's assembly, husband, the judge in court are all males and they made decisions that affected my life. It was as if I had nothing to say about anything. But they forgot God or don't know Him for He has plans for them. He told me so in his word. It's OK that I am now "... old and gray headed ..." He will deliver me from the wicked, "...unrighteous and cruel man." My persecutors shall suffer shame, dishonor and reproach.

      October 11, 2013 at 9:50 am |
  17. Andrew

    How is this any different than what the Dirty Lawyers and Judges do in NJ and NY. They never work towards getting the parents back together for even the children's sake. Rather they (with the judge's help, he or she gets PAID OFF BY THE LAWYERS) force the family to disclose all their assets by the Judge's Order, then the Divorce rolls on till they consume the family's entire assets and force the sale of the home (they typically gave by court order to the wife originally, but then when her legal bills got too big after $500 an hour lawyer, her home is sold at Auction to pay lawyers). The Judge shares in the proceeds of course, under the table. Plus if the male parent doesn't agree, they bludgeon him (in NJ) with typically phoney NJ Domestic Violence Complaint, whereby the Judge kicks him out of his house (but orders him to keep paying) and orders him to not speak to his wife further (so the lawyers and judge can better steal the family's assets from the financially ignorant wife). THIS IS THE REALITY IN NJ AND NY COURTS, BUT ESPECIALLY IN NJ

    October 11, 2013 at 9:03 am |
  18. Lando

    Pretty fly for a rabbi.

    October 11, 2013 at 8:49 am |
  19. 1984

    I dont get it, was the "rabbi" schtooping these women?

    October 11, 2013 at 8:46 am |
    • Confused

      I agree. I'm not really clear on who is instigating the divorce. So, the wives go to the rabbi asking for a divorce, and they recommend using this technique? The wives were complaining of it costing too much to get a divorce? The start of the matter is a little fuzzy to me.

      Honestly, I didn't realize Jewish divorce was allowed. I'm respectful of Judaism, but clearly naive,

      October 11, 2013 at 9:08 am |
      • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

        As I heard on the news this morning, Jewish women are not allowed a divorce unless their husband agrees to it .. these women go to these Rabbis (and their enforcers) to "convince" the husbands to agree to the divorce.

        October 11, 2013 at 9:27 am |
        • rdn0819

          Understand that the vast vast majority of Jews who get divorced do it the same as everyone else. Don't try to make a mystery or mystic about Jews and divorce. You're describing a minority of Jewish people.

          October 12, 2013 at 11:50 am |
  20. Doc

    Some interesting...Some annoying...Many arrogant and ignorant comments...

    Again and again...people of different backgrounds and philosophies in life...continue to Judge the way of life.. Belief systems.. religions...(whatever you may call it)...by the PRACTICE or rather by the MALPRACTICE of a few!!...

    I dont find it fair to judge JUDISM by the actions of the man, wife or the rabbies!!...They did commit mistakes on a manly level...not religous or beleif!!...I dont believe it is right or allowed in Judism to attack the man to grant the wife (the get)...End of story.

    With love,
    A Semite Muslim 🙂

    October 11, 2013 at 8:43 am |
    • Nicholas

      Your spelling is a malpractice

      October 11, 2013 at 8:52 am |
      • Doc

        yeah...sorry about that....learning german after english takes its toll ...I am naitive speaker at either one...so it keeps confusing my small limited brain.. 🙂

        October 11, 2013 at 8:55 am |
      • Timothy

        Personally, I rather enjoy people of substance lacking that technical arrogance others find so necessary in communication. There is something more sincere, charming and refreshing. Rules are necessary but they are the thorn on the rose bush and I think it too bad there are those not able to see the flower because they are stuck in the thorn.

        October 11, 2013 at 9:16 am |
    • Randyb12

      I am not religious, but there is some wisdom in each religion...Jesus said "ye shall know them by their fruit". Religion is what it's people do and there is as much bad as there is good done by these rigid faiths. They all twist religious doctrine to their own means. It has always been this way and always will.

      October 11, 2013 at 9:11 am |
      • Doc

        Much truth in what you said...using religion to justify bad deeds is a human tendancy and fault...unavoidable one... But still I dont think its fair to blame a whole religion or its followers just because few could find a way to abuse its teachings.

        I would encourage you to study any religion, which may interest you, and make your own judgement on its content and belief system...not on how its followers act or look like...That is the right, scientific, unbiased approach..I think!

        October 11, 2013 at 2:31 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.