(NEW YORK) — The religious leaders may have thought they were doing God’s work — helping extract women from impossible situations — but to federal agents they were nothing but thugs.
According to a criminal complaint unsealed Thursday morning in New Jersey, four men, including at least two rabbis, have been arrested for pressuring Orthodox Jewish men into granting their unhappy wives religious divorces through violent means.
Rabbis Mendel Epstein and Martin Wolmark are due in federal court in Trenton, N.J., on conspiracy charges after they were recorded by undercover agents posing as a wife who wanted a divorce and her brother.
“Mendel Epstein talked about forcing compliance through the use of ‘tough guys’ who utilize electric cattle prods, karate, handcuffs and place plastic bags of the heads of husbands,” said FBI Special Agent Bruce Kamerman.
Epstein “claimed that his organization kidnapped one recalcitrant husband approximately every year or year and a half,” the complaint stated.
Epstein was quoted as telling the undercover applicants that the husband would be put in a van with his “tough guys.”
“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… And hopefully there won’t even be a mark on him,” according to the complaint.
To divorce in the Orthodox Jewish community a husband must provide his wife with a document known as a “get.” A woman whose husband will not consent is known as an agunah — agunot in plural.
The investigation revealed that for at least two decades agunot have been paying Epstein and Wolmark thousands of dollars to force their husbands to consent to a divorce, the complaint states. Two other men arrested, Ariel Potash and Fnu Lnu, known as “Yaakov,” court records said, “assisted the rabbis in obtaining a get from recalcitrant husbands by means of violence,” frequently by hiring armed thugs to kidnap the husbands and beat them until they agreed.
FBI agents raided the Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Suffern, N.Y., Wednesday night where they loaded equipment into several unmarked cars and left after midnight. Students were forced to wait in the yeshiva’s parking lot during the raid.
FBI agents were also at the Brooklyn home of Epstein, who claims to have been involved in more than 2,000 divorces and has advocated for “A Jewish Wife’s Rights.”
The arrests stem from a lengthy investigation that started more than two years ago in the ultra-Orthodox enclave in Lakewood, N.J. Agents repeatedly found themselves thwarted by the tough-to-crack insular community that views working with outside law enforcement as an offense punishable by excommunication.
The system of Jewish divorces is viewed by experts as ripe for abuse because of the complex religious laws that grant the power of divorce to men only. Women, sometimes abused or simply looking to start fresh, become desperate because they are unable to begin new lives as potential new husbands see them as still married and, therefore, untouchable.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
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