A New Jersey rabbi and his wife surrendered to the FBI on Monday on charges that they abducted an Israeli man, beat him and threatened to bury him alive if he didn't give his wife a religious divorce.
The case against David Wax and his wife in U.S. federal court marks a strange twist in a chain of events that started with a divorce dispute in Israel's Rabbinical Court over the victim's refusal to give his wife a "get," an Orthodox Jewish divorce document permitting a wife to remarry.
It also entangles a prominent religious figure and publisher of Jewish texts, described as a "pillar of the community" of Lakewood, N.J., a large Orthodox enclave and center of Jewish learning.
David Wax, 49, and Judy Wax, 47, made a brief appearance in federal court Monday before being released on $500,000 bond each. A grand jury will decide whether to indict them on kidnapping charges, which could result in a life sentence if they are convicted.
"We're confident that when all the facts are made public, he'll be cleared of these charges and his good and honorable name will be restored," Mitchell Ansell, David Wax's attorney, told The Associated Press.
Absent from U.S. court documents is the name of the victim, Yisrael Briskman, who apparently fled Israel after refusing to grant a divorce. But his name shows up in a 2008 public notice from the High Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem, placed in religious publications in Israel and abroad announcing a ruling against Briskman in the divorce case.
The notice forbids community members from doing business with Briskman, allowing him to study in a Jewish seminary or giving him a place to stay. Under the headline "Wanted," it calls upon the public to notify the court of Briskman's whereabouts.
"It is not permitted to extend to him a kindness or favor in any form," the notice reads.
Two years later, according to the FBI complaint, Briskman was lured to the Wax's Lakewood home on Oct. 16, 2010, to discuss opportunities for Briskman to work on a book the rabbi was writing about the Talmud, a central Jewish text. Once in the home, two men allegedly pounced on Briskman from behind before handcuffing, blindfolding and robbing him.
The complaint says the blindfold was adjusted so Briskman could see a cowboy hat-clad David Wax as he started kicking him in the ribs. Wax allegedly told Briskman he'd be buried alive in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains if he didn't relent to the divorce, and hauled a dark body bag into the room.
"For you to get used to the size," the complaint quotes Wax as saying.
David Wax is also charged with making a phone threat to Briskman's father in Israel, telling him he would be killed in Israel if he didn't pay Briskman's wife $100,000.
"For you there's a special gift. It's called a bullet," Wax allegedly said in an international phone call recorded by Briskman's father.
A conviction on that charge could mean an additional sentence of up to five years.
Court documents show that Briskman was escorted by taxi to a Lakewood ATM and told to withdraw $800. When the transaction was unsuccessful, Briskman was driven back to Brooklyn, where he was staying. Soon after, he reported the incident and local police started investigating. The FBI became involved.
Attorneys for both defendants said they would plead not guilty if indicted on the federal charges.
"He has no history of any type of criminal behaviors or violent behaviors. He's the father of eight children," said Ansell, David Wax's attorney.
David and Judy Wax were led handcuffed into court Monday dressed in the same traditional attire as the dozen or so supporters who filled the courtroom: crisp white shirts and black yarmulkes for the men and long, dark skirts for the women. As U.S. Magistrate Judge Douglas Arpert started the proceeding, some of the Wax supporters could be seen directing their focus to small Hebrew prayer books.
Outside the courtroom, huddled supporters spoke in a mix of English and Hebrew, but declined to comment publicly. Judy Wax is a dual American-Israeli citizen, but David Wax has only a U.S. passport. Both were forced to surrender all travel documents before being released.
Under Israeli law, religious officials have full authority over personal status. That gives Israel's rabbinate control over Jewish marriages and divorces. Without a proper rabbinical divorce, Jewish men and women cannot remarry.
Briskman's former wife may also have been in the area during the alleged abduction. An FBI review of travel records revealed that she flew from Israel to Newark Liberty International Airport the day before the incident, and flew back three days later.
The relationship between the Wax family and Briskman's former wife remains unclear, and the FBI declined to elaborate. Ansell said his client did know Briskman's wife but would not say how, while Judy Wax's attorney, Steven Secare, raised doubts there was any connection.
"There's no real indication that my client knew anybody," Secare said.
Briskman's current whereabouts and marital status are also unclear, although court documents list him as residing in the United States and refer to the woman as his former wife.