The two rabbis offered an unusual service to Jewish women who could not get their husbands to agree to a divorce, according to the FBI. For a fee, they would convene a rabbinical court and authorize the use of violence to get a recalcitrant husband to agree to a divorce.
But that was not all, according to court papers unsealed Thursday morning. They were also willing to employ hired muscle, two men known as Ariel and Yaakov, to actually kidnap the man and torture him, until he pledged to divorce his wife, according a criminal complaint in Federal District Court in Newark.
Two men whom the authorities describe as rabbis – Martin Wolmark and Mendel Epstein – as well as a third man, Ariel Potash, have been charged in a kidnapping conspiracy according to court papers. In connection to the case, FBI agents carried out raids in South Brooklyn and Monsey, N.Y., in Rockland County on Wednesday evening.
In some Orthodox Jewish communities, a divorce is granted only once a husband provides his wife with a document known as a get. And stories of the frustrations and obstacles that women face in their quest to obtain a get are commonplace. While a woman can sue in rabbinical court to try to secure a get, some husbands do not comply with the court’s edict.
That, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is where the rabbis came in. “You need special rabbis who are going to take this thing and see it through to the end,” Rabbi Wolmark said in a recorded telephone conversation with an undercover F.B.I. agent posing as a woman whose husband would not grant her a get.
During the telephone conversation, on Aug. 7, Rabbi Wolmark referred the undercover agent to Rabbi Epstein, whom he described as “a hired hand” who could help. The fee was high, according to the court papers: $10,000 to pay the rabbinical court to approve the kidnapping and an additional $50,000 or more to actually carry out the kidnapping.
In a subsequent meeting at Rabbi Epstein’s home in Ocean County, New Jersey, Rabbi Epstein explained what he planned to do. “Basically what we are going to be doing is kidnapping a guy for a couple of hours and beating him up and torturing him and then getting him to give the get,” according to a recorded conversation that is described in the criminal complaint. Rabbi Epstein, according to the court papers, mentioned that his “tough guys” utilized cattle prods and other torture techniques that were not likely to leave a mark.
Should the husband go to the police, Rabbi Epstein said, it was important that there were no obvious signs of injury. Without such physical evidence, Rabbi Epstein said, the police were unlikely to probe too deeply into the affairs of the Orthodox Jewish community, which can appear impenetrable to outsiders.
“Basically the reaction of the police is, if the guy does not have a mark on him then, uh, is there some Jewish crazy affair here, they don’t want to get involved,” Rabbi Epstein explained, according to the criminal complaint.
The court papers, which outline the undercover FBI sting operation, do not describe instances in which the defendants actually carried out such kidnappings. But the authorities said that the evidence in the case includes a recorded conversation in which Rabbi Epstein “claimed that his organization kidnapped one recalcitrant husband approximately every year and a half.”