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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Bad Rabbi: Tales of Extortion and Torture Depict a Divorce Broker's Brutal Grip on the Orthodox Community

This much Abraham Rubin knew: He was lying, blindfolded and handcuffed, in the back of a van. He could feel it winding through the streets. He figured at least three men were in there with him, plus the driver. There was the one who'd stepped out of nowhere and punched him in the face as he walked down 56th Street in Brooklyn's Borough Park neighborhood just a few minutes earlier. And two, maybe three others who'd bull-rushed him and threw him into the van.

"We only want you to be a Jew," one of them said in Yiddish.

The van stopped. Rubin heard a door open and the men getting out. "The rabbi is coming," one said. Then the sound of two or more men climbing in beside him.
One asked Rubin in English to repeat what he was about to say.

"On the fourth day of the week, the 10th day of the month of Heshvan in the year 5757 in the creation of the world . . ."

It was the beginning of an oath, and the 31-year-old Rubin, a rabbi himself, knew the words that would follow.

He told the man that he would not repeat them.

That's when the punching began. A relentless onslaught of fists, pummeling his torso and face. Then came the stun gun, jolting Rubin's entire body, over and over. Rubin felt the men pull down his pants, felt the device applied to his genitals. Again and again.

Eventually, the words flowed from him.

". . . willingly consent, being under no duress, to release, discharge, and divorce you to be on your own, you, my wife . . .

". . . so that you are permitted and have authority over yourself to go and marry any man you desire . . .

". . . This shall be for you from me a bill of dismissal, a letter of release, and a document of absolution, in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel."

Three hours after snatching him off the street, at around 10 o'clock on the night of October 23, 1996, his abductors left Rubin, still blindfolded and handcuffed, at the entrance to a cemetery.

Six days a week, 13th Avenue, Borough Park's central commercial thoroughfare, bustles. The sidewalks are crammed, a steady stream of patrons flowing in and out of the many shops. The storefronts, bearing signs written in Hebrew script, are diverse — from shoes to books to fruits and vegetables. Pedestrian attire, on the other hand, is unvarying. The men wear long black coats and wide-brimmed black felt hats. Many carry a book tucked under an arm. The women, who favor long black skirts and running shoes, push strollers.

On Saturdays, 13th Avenue feels like an empty movie set. Even the Duane Reade is closed. Residents of Borough Park honor the Sabbath. According to a 2011 study by the United Jewish Appeal–Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, more than three-fourths of the neighborhood's population of 170,000 is Jewish. The district's city councilman, David Greenfield, has called Borough Park "the Jewish capital of the United States."

The first local synagogue opened its doors in 1904, about the time Jewish immigrants began building a community in the neighborhood. Waves of new families from Europe arrived following each World War. 

Through the second half of the 20th century, as Americans of all faiths uprooted for the suburbs, Borough Park's population turned increasingly Orthodox, a trend fueled by an influx of immigrants who practiced the ultra-conservative Haredi strain of Judaism. The UJA–Federation study reported that 80 percent of Borough Park Jews classified themselves as Orthodox.

Only 2 percent classified themselves as Reform, the religion's most popular liberal denomination in the U.S. Among the respondents, 94 percent answered that their "closest friends are mostly Jewish."

In Borough Park, faith is deeply embedded into day-to-day life. Present in buildings: Affixed to the right side of nearly every doorframe is a mezuzah. Present in travel: Inside the B110 bus, which offers special express service between Borough Park and Williamsburg but doesn't accept MetroCards, a sign reads, "When boarding a crowded bus with standing passengers in the front, women should board the back door after paying the driver in the front." Present in disagreements: Community members rarely take their legal disputes to civil court, choosing instead to settle them through a Jewish rabbinical court, a beth din. An insular legal system governed by Jewish law, the beth din perhaps best embodies the community's self-sufficiency.

For the court's proceedings, litigants typically hire an advocate, known as a to'ein, to argue the case.

In Borough Park, few to'anim were as prominent as Mendel Epstein.

Epstein, now 68, was known to many in the Orthodox Jewish community as a devoted feminist. Stout and bald, with a bushy beard and a steely demeanor, he specialized in divorces. Over three decades he built a reputation for effectively representing women. Says one local rabbi, "He presented himself as a champion for the underdog."

The women who came to Epstein often had a singular problem: Their husbands refused to grant them a get, a document without which an Orthodox Jewish marriage cannot be dissolved. The rule can be traced to the biblical Book of Deuteronomy, and its sway remains stifling: Without a get, a woman who remarries is considered adulterous. Any children fathered by her new husband are illegitimate under Orthodox law and prohibited from marrying within the faith.

The patriarchal nature of Orthodox marriages can lead to particularly contentious divorces. With custody and alimony at stake, a man may be tempted to use his biblically granted leverage in negotiations: No get until his terms are met. Though the practice is frowned upon, it is so pervasive that there's a word for a woman whose husband refuses to grant a get: an agunah, which translates from Hebrew as "chained woman."

"The get is often the last vestige of control that an abusive man has over his wife," says Rabbi Jeremy Stern, director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, a nonprofit advocacy group for chained women. "Agunot are among the most vulnerable members of the Jewish community."

The New York legislature tried to address the problem, passing a law in 1983 that forbids the state's courts to grant a divorce if the spouse who filed for it has not "taken all steps to remove all barriers to [the other's] remarriage." Another law, passed in 1992, allows courts to consider "barriers to marriage" when setting alimony and dividing property. 

"There are limitations to both get laws that make it so they do not resolve the agunot problem in New York state," says Stern, who encourages couples to sign a prenuptial agreement that legally requires a husband to pay his wife a fee for each day he holds out on a get. "The solution fundamentally lies in the hands of the rabbis and the Jewish community."

A beth din provides a forum for get mediation, but it does not guarantee that a woman will find a sympathetic ear. "In many cases the Jewish religious court is on the side of the husband," says Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish studies at Queens College. "Both sides don't have equal power. What can she do? She has no wiggle room. She's living in an environment and society where she has no control."

Epstein was an aggressive advocate, versed in scripture, a masterful orator before beth din judges. A fellow rabbi likens hashing out cases with Epstein to negotiating with a Wall Street lawyer. Says another, "He was the guy you went to to get the job done."

Larry Gordon, editor of the 5 Towns Jewish Times newspaper, recalls an evening outside a synagogue several months ago when he spoke with two men about Epstein. One man said he'd hired the rabbi to handle his daughter's divorce. The other man said Epstein had worked for his uncle's ex-wife and pursued a legal action that has barred the uncle from seeing his kids for the past 15 years. "The reason I hate him is the reason you use him for your daughter," Gordon remembers the second man saying.

Epstein publicly advocated for women's empowerment. In 1989 he published a book, A Woman's Guide to the Get Process, which advised wives on their religiously sanctioned options when seeking divorce. He wrote columns on the subject for the Jewish Press. Earlier this year, he codified his philosophy, unveiling "The Bill of Rights of a Jewish Wife" in the pages of the 5 Towns. One right states, "A wife must be treated with respect and not be abused. A woman in an abusive relationship has a right to seek a get." Another: "A husband is obligated to honor and respect his wife's parents." A third: "She is entitled to be supported by her husband."

He wrote it, the author explains in his introduction, "to clarify and strengthen the rights of the Jewish wife because I am disturbed by the number of women who find themselves in unbearably difficult situations."

The manifesto circulated through the Orthodox blogosphere, drawing praise and sparking long threads of debate. Epstein's position had long been accepted by those at the progressive end of the Orthodox Jewish spectrum. But Epstein himself is a Haredi Jew.

"It was a bold statement, because that's very rare to break ranks and step out of the mold that is the Orthodox Jewish community," says Gordon, who interviewed Epstein in August. "Sometimes the view of the elders is a bit archaic and needs some revision to stay in stride with the times. He presented himself as a man on the cutting edge who was willing to take that bold initiative."

More than one local rabbi says Epstein came across as a "knight in shining armor" to agunot in the most desperate situations.

"He says he is the undertaker of failed marriages," says Gordon. "The relationship dies; someone has to bury it."

Adds the newspaper editor: "It's dirty work. It's not pretty."

The women met with Amy Neustein in a synagogue after dark. Neustein's father, Rabbi Abraham Neustein, was a respected educator at the Jewish Center for Brighton Beach and he had a set of keys to the building. Neustein, then 27, had divorced her husband three years earlier, in 1983, and had moved back in with her parents so she could devote more time to the custody battle for her three-year-old daughter. A sociologist by trade, she helped out on her father's off-the-clock project.

Rabbi Neustein ran a sort of Underground Railroad for abused women in the community. It was a delicate matter. "If the women were caught challenging what their husbands had done to them," Amy Neustein says, "they would be subject to such terrible reproach in the Orthodox Jewish community that their chances of marrying again would be nil." So two or three times a week, Neustein's father drove the women to the Jewish Center's bais medrash, the prayer room where he taught, and they told her their stories: of domestic violence, of crumbling marriages, of get refusals.

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