A New Jersey rabbi who ran a ring that violently attempted to coerce Jewish men to grant their wives religious divorces has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Rabbi Mendel Epstein, 70, was sentenced Tuesday in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey, NJ.com reported. Epstein was one of nine people, two of them rabbis, convicted for their roles in the ring, which for a fee kidnapped and tortured recalcitrant husbands.
According to halacha, or Jewish law, a Jewish woman cannot remarry without receiving a Jewish divorce, or get, from her husband. The women who are trapped in such marriages are called agunot, or “chained women.”
The group’s members were busted in an FBI sting operation in 2013.
Epstein, a prominent rabbi in Lakewood, received the most jail time meted out thus far. Among the six already sentenced, the longest sentence so far has been four years in prison. On Monday, the other rabbi in the ring, Martin Wolmark of Monsey, New York, was sentenced to 38 months.
During the sentencing hearing, prosecutors claimed the rabbi’s team would use brutal methods, including martial arts beatings, handcuffs and electric cattle prods, to torture men into granting divorces.
The kidnap team brought surgical blades, a screwdriver and rope to a staged kidnapping in 2013, according to Eptein’s indictment.
Prosecutors said he was recorded telling undercover FBI agents — posing as a brother and sister trying to force the sister’s husband to grant the ritual divorce — that the operation would cost at least $50,000.
In a 10-minute speech to the judge, Epstein said he was “embarrassed and ashamed” at what he said in those conversations, and insisted he had been motivated not by money but by compassion for the women he represented.
Defense lawyer Robert Stahl called Epstein a “champion of women’s rights.” Epstein wrote the 1989 book “A Woman’s Guide to the Get Process.”
The problem of recalcitrant husbands in the Jewish faith is dealt with in a few ways but can be complicated in the US, said Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America. In Israel, he said, husbands who refuse to grant divorces can be imprisoned. Because that can’t happen in the United States, communities sometimes exert social pressure on the husband.
AP contributed to this report.