PHILADELPHIA — A federal appeals court Friday upheld the convictions of three Orthodox rabbis for their roles in a ring that used brutal tactics to force unwilling Jewish men to divorce their wives.
A three-judge panel of the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed arguments by the rabbis that the convictions should be overturned on a number of grounds, including the right to religious freedom.
Rabbis Mendel Epstein, Jay Goldstein and Binyamin Stimler were convicted in 2015 on charges of conspiracy to commit kidnapping. Epstein, 70, lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, while Goldstein, 61, and Stimler, 41, are from Brooklyn.
Epstein, who was accused of being the ringleader, was sentenced to 10 years. Goldstein got an eight-year term, and Stimler a three-year sentence.
The attacks were carried out from 2009 to 2013 in New Jersey, New York City and other locations. Prosecutors said the group used brutal methods and tools, including handcuffs and electric cattle prods, to torture the men into granting the religious divorces, known as “gets,” which their wives were seeking.
Jewish law mandates that the get be presented by a husband to a wife to make a divorce official.
During his sentencing in December 2015, Epstein told District Judge Freda Wolfson that he got caught up in his tough guy image, which he said helped him persuade men to give their wives the religious divorces. Epstein said he was helping the women out of a sense of compassion because they couldn’t remarry without it.
Epstein’s attorney, Peter Goldberger, argued before the appeals court in January that Wolfson erred during the trial by not allowing evidence that explained the rabbi’s religious beliefs. The attorneys also argued that federal authorities didn’t get a warrant to obtain private cellphone records and that the evidence against Stimler wasn’t enough to justify a conviction.
The appeals court judges dismissed those claims.