Nearly any Orthodox woman who has struggled with the process of obtaining a halachic divorce from an uncooperative or vindictive husband in the New York area has heard the name Mendel Epstein.
The 68-year old rabbi, who appears to have homes in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Lakewood, N.J., has been closely involved in the world of agunot, or “chained women,” for some three decades, serving as a toen, the halachic equivalent of a lawyer.
In an interview with the Five Towns Jewish Times last summer, Rabbi Epstein said he was “disturbed by the number of women who find themselves in unbearably difficult situations” in divorce proceedings. He proposed a “bill of rights” for Jewish wives that includes, “A woman in an abusive relationship has a right to seek a get.”
But according to the FBI, which rounded up Rabbi Epstein and nine other men in an alleged interstate abduction ring last week and raided several homes and a Monsey yeshiva, his methods of persuading husbands to come around ran afoul of the law, if not halacha, and could land him and his associates in federal prison.
“I always knew he is a vigilante operating in system similar to the Wild West,” said Rivka Haut, a longtime activist on behalf of agunot who has known the rabbi for years, but said she had no direct knowledge of any abductions.
However, she said that women in such situations frequently asked her advice about pursuing such extreme measures. Haut, a co-founder of the advocacy group Agunah, Inc., says she has always counseled people to steer clear of violence or illegal schemes.
“Most of these women had to leave the marriage not because they want to go live with someone else, but because they married someone with serious problems,” Haut said. “Usually, they are desperate to be halachically released.”
According to the FBI, there are plenty of area women desperate enough to go through with illegal means.
The complaint by New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman, which was obtained by The Jewish Week,
says Rabbi Epstein boasted to undercover agents that he carried out batei din, or rabbinical courts, to authorize the use of force, followed by abductions and coerced divorces on a regular basis “every year … year and a half” for an unspecified time period.
Fishman told The New York Times that two dozen husbands in divorce cases have been identified who may have been abducted from New York and taken to New Jersey to be roughed up by the defendants.
A message left at Rabbi Epstein’s Brooklyn home was not returned as of Tuesday afternoon. A number listed for Mendel Epstein in Lakewood appeared to be connected to a fax machine. Attempts to identify a lawyer representing him were unsuccessful.
The Asbury Park Press, citing an unnamed source, reported on Oct. 11 that the investigation was directly related to a similar ongoing case involving an Orthodox couple from Lakewood, David and Judy Wax, who were charged in 2011 with abducting an Israeli man to force him to grant a get. That case is still pending. More arrests related to both cases will be forthcoming, the source told Asbury Park Press.
The FBI investigation originated in August and spanned until Oct. 7, when agents, including two posing as an agunah and her brother apprehended the defendants in a warehouse in Middlesex County, N.J. The fake scheme involved luring a supposed husband from New York City.
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