NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Three rabbis and seven other men allegedly conspired to kidnap and use cattle prods, among other methods, to force Orthodox Jewish men into divorcing their wives, authorities said.
Among those charged Thursday were rabbis Mendel Epstein, 68, and Martin Wolmark, 55, as well as Ariel Potash and a fourth individual known as “Yaakov.” The 10 suspects were arraigned in federal court in Trenton, N.J.
The arrests were announced after the FBI raided several locations overnight, including Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Suffern, a home in Brooklyn and at least one other location in New Jersey.
Epstein and Wolmark allegedly charged wives and their families thousands of dollars to obtain a religious divorce from recalcitrant husbands by means of kidnapping and violence, according to the criminal complaint.
Potash and Yaakov are accused of assisting the rabbis in obtaining the divorces, authorities said.
“The charge is kidnapping and extortion. Violent crime to get Jewish men to give divorces they wouldn’t otherwise get. It’s not really an exercise of religion. It’s really about money and violent crime,” U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said.
Sources also said the alleged scheme has been going on for as long as 20 years, WCBS 880′s Alex Silverman reported.
In court, prosecutors said there had been 20 or more kidnappings, CBS 2′s John Slattery reported. Some defendants had admitted to taking part in beatings, prosecutors said.
All 10 men are being held without bail and are considered flight risks.
According to Jewish law, in order to be granted a religious divorce a husband must provide his wife with a document known as a get, the complaint said.
Federal agents called the techniques, that were employed during the alleged beatings, unspeakable, CBS 2′s Lou Young reported.
“It’s something that’s unspeakable and something that we will try to stop at every corner,” FBI Agent In Charge Aaron Ford said.
EXTRA: Read The Full Complaint
Only a husband can initiate divorce by issuing the get, but a wife has the right to sue for divorce in rabbinical court, according to the complaint.
“Without a get you are still married in the eyes of the community,” Benny Rogosnitzky, a New York cantor and a representative of the Frum Divorce organization, told CBS News’ Crimesider. Even if a civil court grants the divorce, a woman without a get is forbidden to date or remarry within the religion.
According to the criminal complaint, an undercover FBI agent posed as an Orthodox Jewish wife who was seeking a divorce from her unwilling husband. A second undercover agent posed as her brother.
In August, the undercover agents called Wolmark saying they were “desperate for a religious divorce and were willing to pay a large sum of money to obtain a divorce,” the complaint said.
“There are a couple of ways to do that,” Wolmark allegedly said in a recorded phone conversation. “You have to, we have to, convene a special beth din and see if there are grounds to, to, to coerce him on the get.”
Wolmark said the process “could be very costly” and requires “special rabbis who are going to take this thing and see it through the end,” the complaint said.
“In other words, you need to get him to New York where someone either can harass him or nail him. Plain and simple,” he said, according to the complaint.
Wolmark then linked up the undercovers with Epstein, who met him at his house in New Jersey about a week later, the papers said.
During the meeting, Epstein talked about “kidnapping, beating and torturing husbands in order to force a divorce,” court papers said.
“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,” Epstein allegedly said. “I guarantee you that if you’re in the van, you’d give a get to your wife. You probably love your wife, but you’d give a get when they finish with you.”
He said they would use “tough guys” who utilize “electric cattle prods, karate, handcuffs and place plastic bags over the heads of husbands,” the complaint said.
“We take an electric cattle prod,” Epstein said, according to the complaint. “If it can get a bull that weighs five tons to move, you put in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know.”
Epstein said he commits approximately one kidnapping every year to year and half, authorities said.
He said it would cost $10,000 to pay for the rabbis on the rabbinical court to approve the kidnapping and an additional $50,000 to $60,000 to pay for the “tough guys,” authorities said.
Epstein told the undercovers that Wolmark officiates during the kidnapping and forced get and that his son was one of the so-called “tough guys” who “uses his karate skills” on the victims, court papers said.
They allegedly arranged to meet in Rockland County in October to begin the process of authorizing the use of violence to obtain a forced get, authorities said.
In subsequent conversations, the undercover agent posing as the brother suggested he could lure the female undercover’s husband to New Jersey, the complaint said.
The undercover agent eventually proposed that the husband be brought to a warehouse in Middlesex County, where Yaakov and Epstein were later seen by FBI surveillance teams scoping out the location, prosecutors said.
On Oct. 2, the undercover female agent met with Wolmark, Epstein, Potash and Yaakov to get approval for the use of force, authorities said.
Potash said that he “does whatever the rabbis tell him” and would serve as the person appointed to accept the get from the husband, court papers said. During the meeting, Epstein told Yaakov to write everything down, court papers said.
After the meeting, Epstein confirmed the plan and the use of force to obtain the get was authorized. One of the undercover agents then wire-transferred $20,000 to Epstein, authorities said.
Kidnapping, torture — all the things that they are being accused of are illegal acts,” Blu Greenberg, who founded the Jewish Orthodox Feminine Alliance, told Slattery. “They’re unlawful. And the ends don’t ever justify the means.”
But she said some wives go to extreme measures.
“They’re vulnerable,” she said. “They’re very vulnerable.”
An attorney for Rabbi Wolmark said that the government is overreaching.
“These are maybe controversial but very old religious traditions. I suppose some defendants are in this for money; I can’t think it’s the case for Rabbi Wolmark,” Attorney Mark Agnifilo said.
The ten people arrested in connection with the plot are due in federal court in Trenton next week for bail hearings.
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