TRENTON — In a bizarre case involving threats of kidnapping, beatings and physical torture — including the use of an electric cattle prod— two rabbis were charged in New Jersey Wednesday in a scheme to force men to grant their wives religious divorces.
Two others were also charged in the case, which grew out of an undercover sting operation involving a female FBI agent who posed as a member of the Orthodox community seeking a divorce.
As many as six others may also be charged, officials said.
According to the FBI, all were arrested last night after a meeting at an undisclosed warehouse in Middlesex County, as the group gathered to launch the kidnapping plan. Most of the still unnamed defendants had been recruited as the muscle of the operation, sources said.
Initially charged were Rabbis Mendel Epstein, 68, and Martin Wolmark, 55, Ariel Potash, 40, and a fourth individual only identified as “Yaakov.” All four are due to appear in U.S. District Court in Trenton later today.
According to a criminal complaint unsealed this morning, the four are accused of charging families thousands of dollars to get recalcitrant husbands to agree to divorces, frequently through means of violence.
Under Jewish law, a woman may not sue for divorce in a rabbinical court unless her husband agrees to provide his wife with a document known as a “get.”
While a divorce may only be initiated by the husband, a wife has the right to sue for divorce in rabbinical court, known as a “beth din,” which may order the husband to issue the get. If he refuses, he may be subjected to various penalties to pressure him to consenting to the divorce. Without a "get," a woman can end up in limbo for years, unable to remarry.
According to the complaint, the four men— for a price— were willing to provide “convincing” by any means possible.
In one recorded meeting, Epstein spoke about kidnapping, beating and torturing husbands to in order to force a divorce, according to the complaint.
“Ya know, this is an expensive thing to do,” he said on a surveillance recording. “It’s not simply…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.”
One of his tools of persuasion, he said, was an electric cattle prod.
“If it can get a bull that weights five tons to move…You put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know,” Epstein said, in one of the conversations with the undercover agent.
Epstein is a well-known in the Orthodox community as a divorce mediator. One tape, though, he admitted to committing similar kidnappings at least once a year.
“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, and they don’t get involved,” he said, according to the complaint.
The cost was not cheap. The complaint said $10,000 went to pay for the rabbis on the rabbinical court, to approve the kidnapping. They charged an additional $50,000 to $60,000 to pay for the “tough guys” who would do the rough stuff.
According to the court filing, Wolmark and Epstein were first contacted by the undercover agent in August, and met with her and another undercover agent who posed as her brother, at Epstein’s home in Ocean County. Records show Epstein has homes in Lakewood and Brooklyn.
She told them she was desperate for a divorce because her purported husband refused to have children.
Potash’s role in the plan, according to the complaint, was to act as the “shliah,” the person appointed to serve as the wive’s agent to accept the “get.”
Last month, several of those charged drove to the warehouse in Middlesex County to determine if it was suitable for the kidnapping. In a graphic conversation, Epstein talked about the use not only of cattle prods, but handcuffs and other measures to be taken by hired enforcers after a reluctant husband was forced into a van and physically worked over.
“I guarantee you that if you’re in the van, you’d give a ‘get” to your wife,” he told the undercover agent posing as the woman’s brother.. “You probably love your wife, but you’d give a get when they finish with you.”
The agent posing as the brother agreed to wire $20,000 as an initial deposit to Epstein. The rabbi told him it would not take long to do the job.
“They don’t need him for long, believe me. They’ll have him in the van, hooded, and it will happen,” he said.
The arrests were accompanied by a series of searches executed by the FBI in Lakewood, Monsey, Brooklyn and elsewhere, including Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in the Monsey section of Ramapo, N.Y.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in Newark has no immediate comment.