Rabbi gets 10 years for arranging divorces with beatings

Mendel
Rabbi Mendel Epstein appeared Tuesday.

An Orthodox rabbi from Lakewood, N.J., has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for orchestrating a conspiracy to extort religious divorces from unwilling husbands using beatings, stun guns, and an electric cattle prod.

Rabbi Mendel Epstein, 70, appeared Tuesday for sentencing before U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson in Trenton. In April, Epstein, dubbed "the Prodfather" by some in the media, was convicted by a jury of conspiracy related to the kidnappings and assaults on recalcitrant husbands.

The assaults were carried out from 2009 through 2013 in New Jersey and other locations, such as Brooklyn, N.Y., according to an indictment that details three attacks in New Jersey and Brooklyn in which husbands were kidnapped, tied up, and beaten. In one attack, the husband was assaulted with a stun gun.

"Over the years, I guess, I got caught up in my tough-guy image," Epstein told the judge Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. "Truthfully, it helped me - the reputation - convince many of these reprobates to do the right thing."

The AP reported that Epstein - the author of A Woman's Guide to the Get Process - said he was helping women out of a sense of compassion because they couldn't remarry without a get, a religious divorce document. But Wolfson noted that only a small part of the $60,000 he demanded from one planned attack went to the men brought along for muscle.

Among those who spoke at Tuesday's lengthy hearing was the rabbi's daughter, the AP reported.

"Please, please, your honor. Have mercy," Dina Gongola begged the judge. "Please judge him as a whole human being."

Epstein remains free on bail. The judge ordered that he turn himself in March 1.

Epstein was among 10 defendants arrested in October 2013 after planning an assault with a woman and her brother, who told the rabbi the husband would not sign a get. Without a religious divorce, Orthodox women are not permitted to remarry within the religion.

Epstein later learned the wife and her brother were undercover FBI agents secretly recording their conversations. According to court records, Epstein advised the female agent it would be expensive - at least $60,000 - to obtain the get using physical means, including torture.

"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," the rabbi said during an Aug. 13, 2013, recorded phone conversation.

During a meeting the next day, the rabbi was recorded again telling the undercover agent that "tough guys" used cattle prods, karate, handcuffs, and plastic bags over the heads of husbands to obtain gets, according to the indictment.

"You probably love your wife, but you'd give a get when they finish with you," the rabbi said, noting it was preferred to leave no physical marks so if the victims complained to authorities, police would dismiss it as "some Jewish crazy affair." He described using a cattle prod.

"If you 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," the rabbi said in the recording.

The plan, according to the indictment, was to apprehend the husband at a Middlesex County warehouse, where he would be kidnapped, a bag placed over his head, and assaulted within a short time.

Epstein, who would not be present during the attack, said he would have an alibi for the kidnapping night, and suggested the wife also be seen in public so she, too, would have an alibi. He advised there would be four "tough guys" to carry out the assault, two witnesses, and another person to obtain the get, according to the indictment.

On Oct. 9, 2013, the "kidnap team" included eight people wearing ski masks, Halloween masks, and bandannas who traveled from New York to New Jersey to meet at the warehouse, the indictment said. They discussed grabbing, dragging, and tying up the husband. Among the materials authorities found with the team, according to the indictment, were rope, surgical blades, a screwdriver, and plastic bags.

Among those arrested for showing up at the warehouse was Rabbi Binyamin Stimler, 40, of Brooklyn. Stimler was sentenced Tuesday, receiving 39 months in prison for his part. Seven other codefendants have been sentenced as well. Another defendant is scheduled for sentencing Wednesday.

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