TRENTON, N.J. (RNS) 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 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.
Sources say the investigation was sparked by a similar case in 2011, when David Wax, a 49-year-old rabbi and Talmudic scholar from Lakewood, N.J., and his wife, Judy, were charged with kidnapping and severely beating an Israeli man who had refused to give his wife a divorce. That case has been repeatedly adjourned for months.
According to the FBI, most of those being charged were arrested Wednesday night (Oct. 9), after a meeting at an undisclosed warehouse in Middlesex County, as the group gathered to launch the kidnapping plan.
Initially charged were Rabbis Mendel Epstein, 68, and Martin Wolmark, 55, Ariel Potash, 40, and a fourth individual only identified as “Yaakov.”
According to a criminal complaint unsealed Thursday (Oct. 10), the four are accused of charging families thousands of dollars to get recalcitrant husbands to agree to divorces, frequently by violent means.
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. The court may order the husband to issue the get but if he refuses, he may be subjected to various penalties to pressure him to consent 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 were willing to provide “convincing” by any means possible, for a steep price.
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 well known in the Orthodox community as a divorce mediator. On one tape, though, he admitted to committing similar kidnappings at least once a year.
The complaint said the accused charged $10,000 for 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 physical beatings.
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.
She told them she was desperate for a divorce because her purported husband refused to have children.
Walmark, according to the complaint, connected her with Epstein.
“You need to get him to New York where someone either can harass him or nail him. Plain and simple,” he said on a recorded phone call with the agent.
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 of cattle prods, handcuffs and other measures the hired enforcers might use on the reluctant husband.
“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.
Sources said the investigation grew out of the still pending 2011 case of David Wax.
According to court filings in that case, the alleged victim took a bus on Oct. 16, 2010 from New York to Lakewood, believing he was going to work with David Wax on Talmudic books the rabbi was writing. When he arrived at the rabbi’s home around midnight, he said two unidentified men pummeled him, handcuffed him, blindfolded him and bound his legs and arms, placing him face-down on the bedroom floor.
The complaint in the case said Wax demanded the victim grant his wife a “get” and not seek custody of his children. He then allegedly pulled out a dark-colored body bag and placed it over the victim.
“Get used to the size,” he said, according to the complaint, telling his captive that if he didn’t comply, he’d be buried in the Pocono Mountains.
Video by Andre Malok/courtesy The Star-Ledger