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FBI arrests N.Y. rabbis in Jewish divorce-gang probe

Students stand outside Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Monsey, N.Y., a school the FBI raided late Wednesday night in connection with an investigation into a gang that pressured men into giving their wives religious divorces. (Photo: Peter Carr, The Westchester County, N.Y., Journal News)MONSEY, N.Y. — Two rabbis and two other men are accused in an FBI sting carried out in New Jersey and New York of plotting to kidnap and torture a man to force him to grant a religious divorce.
— The head of a Jewish religious school and two other rabbis were among at least four men taken into custody in a sweeping investigation into a gang that allegedly used kidnapping, cattle prods and karate to coerce Orthodox Jewish men to grant their wives religious divorces.
The charges allege that the group plotted to kidnap and torture a man they thought was the recalcitrant husband of an an ultra Orthodox woman, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Thursday. The woman was actually an undercover FBI agent posing as a member of the community.
Among those arrested was Rabbi Martin Wolmark, the dean of Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Monsey, which was one of the locations raided by the FBI late Wednesday.
Also charged was Rabbi Mendel Epstein, a prominent ultra-Orthodox divorce mediator in Brooklyn who this summer published a "Bill of Rights of a Jewish Wife." The others were a man identified as "Yaakov" and Ariel Potash.
All four are expected to appear in U.S. District Court in Trenton, N.J., on Thursday.
The gang allegedly charged families of women trying to obtain religious divorces, known as 'gets', tens of thousands of dollars to pressure their husbands using methods that included violence.
The get is essential for the woman. Those who are unable to obtain them are known as 'agunot,' or chained women, because they cannot remarry until they obtain a get.
Epstein suggested his preferred method involved a cattle prod, and according to the complaint, was recorded telling the undercover agent: "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."
According to the complaint, the group would charge $10,000 for the rabbis on a 'beit din', or rabbinical court, to approve a kidnapping and $50,000 to $60,000 to hire the thugs who would do the actual violence.
The arrests were reportedly made in Middlesex County in New Jersey as part of the sting operation. The undercover agents had recommended a warehouse there that would be suitable for the kidnapping and torture.
The sting began in early August when the FBI agent and another agent posing as the woman's brother contacted Wolmark and told him they were desperate to obtain a get for her. According to the complaint, he described what would happen, said it would be costly and put them in touch with Epstein.
Epstein then met the two agents a week later at his home in Ocean County, N.J., where he told them, "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," he told them, according to a recording described in the complaint.
He told them he would use "tough guys" who resorted to cattle prods, karate, handcuffs and even placing a plastic bag over the man's head.
"I guarantee that if you're in the van, you'd give a get to your wife," he told them. "You probably love your wife, but you'd give a get when they finish with you… Hopefully there wouldn't even be a mark on him."
The woman chuckled and said, "You can leave a mark," but Epstein responded that they didn't want to because otherwise police would take any ensuing complaint more seriously. Without a mark, the police were more likely to chalk it up to some "Jewish crazy affair," Epstein suggested.
He claimed to have done such a kidnapping about once every year or year and a half and said he had gone as far as South America for such a job.
They undercover agents arranged with Wolmark and Epstein to have a bet din convened in Rockland County on Oct. 2 for the purpose of having the kidnapping authorized. At the bet din, "Yaakov" took notes as the undercover agent described why she needed her marriage to end. The notes would be incorporated in the "psak din," or decree that would be issued supporting the methods to force the get.
Potash showed up and was identified as the "shaliach" — the agent who would accept the get from the husband — since she would not be present. He told her he does "whatever the rabbis tell him" but that she had no reason to know who he was.
"I'll make it even more clear. If you see me, two months … down the street, you don't know me, I don't know you," he reportedly said.
Two other young men then signed a document that they were witnesses to Potash being the agent, though they kept their last names off the document.
Afterwards, Epstein told her the plan to force the get was a good one and warned her "you should be out in public" at the time they do it, so there would be witnesses she wasn't involved.
Later that day, after the psak din was issued, the second undercover agent wired Epstein $20,000, according to the complaint.
It's not the first time Epstein and Wolmark have been accused of being involved in such a kidnapping plot.
In 1997, Rabbi Abraham Rubin filed a civil racketeering lawsuit accusing Epstein, Wolmark and other rabbis of being involved in his kidnapping and beating on Oct. 23, 1996, in Brooklyn as he walked from synagogue to his home in Borough Park, Newsday reported at the time. He alleged that three masked men shoved him into a van, handcuffed and beat him because he refused to grant his wife a get.
Rubin claimed he was shocked more than 30 times with a stun gun, including to his genitals. He said he was put in a car then dumped outside a Brooklyn cemetery, the newspaper reported. The disposition of that lawsuit was not immediately available.
At 9 p.m. Wednesday the FBI told Ramapo police to follow them to the yeshiva in Monsey. Agents could be seen leaving the building later in the night. Yeshiva students were not allowed in the building late into the night.
The school was back in session Thursday morning.
Contributing: Journal News reporter Lee Higgins

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