In Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, Mendel Epstein made a name for himself as the rabbi to see for women struggling to divorce their husbands. Among the Orthodox, a divorce requires the husband’s permission, known as a “get,” and tales abound of women whose husbands refuse to consent.
While it’s common for rabbis to take action against defiant husbands, such as barring them from synagogue life, Rabbi Epstein, 68, took matters much further, according to the authorities.
For hefty fees, he orchestrated the kidnapping and torture of reluctant husbands, charging their wives as much as $10,000 for a rabbinical decree permitting violence and $50,000 to hire others to carry out the deed, according to federal charges unsealed on Thursday morning.
Rabbi Epstein, along with another rabbi, Martin Wolmark, who is the head of a yeshiva, as well as several men in what the authorities called the “kidnap team,” appeared in Federal District Court in Trenton after a sting operation in which an undercover federal agent posed as an Orthodox Jewish woman soliciting Rabbi Epstein’s services.
Paul Fishman, the United States attorney for New Jersey, said in an interview that investigators have “uncovered evidence” of about a couple dozen victims. Many are men from Brooklyn who were taken to New Jersey as part of the kidnappings.
In court, the lead prosecutor in the case, R. Joseph Gribko, explained how the abductions were carried out. “They beat them up, tied them up, shocked them with Tasers and stun guns until they got what they want,” Mr. Gribko, an assistant United States attorney, said.
Mr. Gribko said the defendants had been motivated by money, not faith. While the case might surprise some New Yorkers, accounts of such kidnappings have percolated through the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn for years. In 1996, for instance, a rabbinic council in Williamsburg issued a statement denouncing the rogue men who subjected husbands to such beatings, according to a news report.
Rabbi Epstein was sued in the late 1990s by another Brooklyn rabbi, Abraham Rubin, who claimed that a group of men shoved him into a van as he left synagogue, hooded him, and applied electric shocks to his genitals in an effort to force him to provide a get to his wife. The lawsuit was dismissed.
According to newspaper accounts from the late 90s, other men, too, have come forward with similar tales of curbside abductions and mistreatment.
How such violent practices, if proved, would have been able to persist for so long may be an indicator of the challenges that local law enforcement agencies face in trying conduct investigations of insular religious groups including the ultra-Orthodox.
Rabbi Epstein seemed confident that local authorities wouldn’t investigate too closely. In a recorded meeting with the female undercover F.B.I. agent, Rabbi Epstein explained that his preferred torture techniques, like electric shocks, offered little physical evidence of abuse, according to the complaint. Without obvious visible injuries, Rabbi Epstein said, the police were unlikely to inquire too deeply if any victims came forward.
“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.
Rabbi Epstein made his living appearing before the rabbinical courts, known as beit din, where he advocated on behalf of a spouse seeking an exit, another rabbi said. He took a special interest in the constraints that wives faced, speaking about the rights of women in terms not often heard in his deeply conservative community.
When two undercover F.B.I. agents — one posing as a woman seeking a divorce, the other as her brother — asked a rabbi for help, the rabbi explained how Rabbi Epstein might be able to assist them.
“You need special rabbis who are going to take this thing and see it through to the end,” Rabbi Martin Wolmark, a respected figure who presides over a yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y., said in a recorded telephone call on Aug. 7. He described Rabbi Epstein as “a hired hand” who could help, according to the criminal complaint in the case.
When the undercover agents met with Rabbi Epstein a week later, he said that he was confident he could secure a get once his “tough guys” had made their threats.
“I guarantee you that if you’re in the van, you’d give a get to your wife,” he said to the male undercover agent posing as the brother. “You probably love your wife, but you’d give a get when they finish with you.”
The undercover female F.B.I. agent told Rabbi Epstein that she wanted to divorce her husband, described as a businessman in South America, who refused to grant her request. Rabbi Epstein urged her to lure the man to New Jersey, which she pledged to do.
Next Rabbi Epstein and Rabbi Wolmark convened their own rabbinical court, complete with legalisms and formalities, to issue a religious edict “authorizing the use of violence to obtain a forced get,” according to court records. The undercover agent offered testimony before the two rabbis, who were joined by other religious figures.
Told that the husband was arriving in New Jersey, eight of Rabbi Epstein’s associates met at a New Jersey warehouse to finalize the kidnapping plan, according to court documents. At that point F.B.I. agents moved in to arrest the group. The agents seized masks, ropes, scalpels and feather quills and ink bottles used for recording the get they anticipated.
On Thursday, the 10 defendants were denied bail after appearing in court in Trenton on the kidnapping conspiracy charges.
Juda J. Epstein, the lawyer for Rabbi Epstein, declined to comment.
A neighbor, Rose Davis, who lives opposite his home in the Kensington section of Brooklyn described him as a respected figure. Ms. Davis said she was skeptical of the charges, and suggested they might be the concoctions of enemies he had made as an expert in divorce work: “There’s always a loser,” she said, referring to divorce cases.
Jon Hurdle and Alex Vadukul contributed reporting. Susan Beachy and Jack Begg contributed research.
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