2 rabbis among arrests in an FBI sting
TRENTON Two Orthodox rabbis and eight other men were arrested in an FBI sting in New Jersey and New York on charges they plotted to kidnap and torture a man to force him to grant a religious divorce.
Rabbis Mendel Epstein and Martin Wolmark charged Jewish women and their families thousands of dollars to obtain religious divorces, known as gets, from unwilling husbands, the FBI said.
"They didn't do it out of religious conviction," Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Gribko told a judge Thursday in a federal court hearing for the men. "They did it for money."
Marc Agnifilo, a lawyer for Wolmark, said it could be a case in which religious law collides with federal statutes.
"It's a very complex case. The government says it's all about money, but I don't think that's quite right," Agnifilo said after the hearing, calling coercion and even violence to get husbands to grant religious divorces "an old tradition."
The rabbis and the other men were arrested as a result of an undercover operation that began in August when two FBI agents, one posing as a woman seeking a divorce, contacted the rabbis.
The FBI said the price was more than $50,000, and a prosecutor said at Thursday's hearing that the organization involved in the alleged plot had been involved in up to 20 kidnappings.
No pleas were entered Thursday. Magistrate Douglas Arpert ordered all 10 held in federal custody at least until hearings next week.
The investigation took place in Ocean and Middlesex Counties in New Jersey and Rockland County in New York, and ended with arrests overnight Wednesday.
Four of the rabbis' associates were described as enforcers, or "tough guys," as Epstein called the men who helped coerce reluctant husbands.
The undercover agents met with Epstein at his Ocean County home in August, during which the rabbi spoke about "kidnapping, beating, and torturing husbands in order to force a divorce," an FBI complaint 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 is quoted as saying during the conversation, which was videotaped.
Epstein is also quoted saying he wanted to use a cattle prod to torture the reluctant husband. "If it can get a bull that weighs five tons to move . . . you put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute, the guy will know," he said, according to the complaint.