Four men were arrested Wednesday at a yeshiva in New York on suspicion of running an extortion ring that, in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars, pressured Orthodox men to grant religious divorces to their wives.
The FBI said that Rabbi Mendel Epstein, Rabbi Martin Wolmark, Rabbi Jacob Goldstein and a fourth man, Ariel Potash, were arrested on suspicion of “plotting to kidnap, abduct, hold for ransom and threaten to coerce a man to conduct a divorce,” ABC-TV of New York reported on Thursday.
Six other men have also been arrested in connection with the affair, but have not as yet been charged. Several other locations, including a home in Brooklyn, were searched in connection with the case.
The investigation took place in Ocean and Middlesex counties in New Jersey and in Rockland County in New York. Several defendants were arrested overnight in raids in both states, including in Brooklyn, the FBI said. They were scheduled to appear in federal court in Trenton late Thursday.
An undercover female operative was used to conduct the sting, the FBI said, who said that Epstein “talked about forcing compliance through the use of ‘tough guys’ who utilize electric cattle prods, karate, handcuffs… and place plastic bags on the heads of husbands.”
The rabbis reportedly admitted that they conducted such operations every few years, commanding fees of up to $100,000, and had been doing so for close to 20 years.
The undercover agents were a woman posing as a wife unable to get a divorce from her Orthodox Jewish husband, and her brother. They met with Epstein at his Ocean County home in August, during which the rabbi spoke about “kidnapping, beating and torturing husbands in order to force a divorce,” the complaint said.
“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,” Epstein is quoted as saying during the conversation, which was videotaped.
Epstein is also quoted as saying he wanted to use a cattle prod to torture the reluctant husband. “If it can get a bull that weighs 5 tons to move… you put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute, the guy will know,” he said, according to the complaint.
According to traditional Jewish law, only men can initiate divorce, which has led to the phenomenon of agunot — literally “chained women” — wives who are separated from their spouse but cannot receive a religious divorce, because the husband refuses for various reasons to provide a get, the official divorce document.
If a husband refuses to grant one, a wife has the right to sue in rabbinical court.
The court complaint said that a rabbinical court was held in Rockland County on October 2 as part of the FBI sting, attended by all four defendants, during which the use of violence was authorized against the woman’s husband.