Rabbis Accused in Plot to Kidnap, Torture Husbands to Pressure Divorces

An undercover agent posed as an unhappily married woman

Two Orthodox rabbis are accused of plotting kidnappings and beatings of Jewish men to pressure them into granting religious divorces to their wives.

The FBI said Thursday that agents arrested rabbis Mendel Epstein and Martin Wolmark in a sting operation, where an undercover agent posed as a woman who wanted out of her marriage. Orthodox rules allow only a man to initiate a divorce.

The men allegedly asked for tens of thousands of dollars to target husbands, and claimed they did jobs like this every 18 months in their community. 

The criminal complaint alleged the two rabbis boasted of a plan to use electric cattle prods, plastic bags over heads and other methods to persuade reluctant husbands. In the sting operation, the FBI said the pair earlier this month even helped scout a warehouse in Middlesex County to hold husbands hostage. 

The rabbis allegedly met in Rockland County in August to authorize the kidnapping-for-divorce-plot. They said they wanted $10,000 for the kidnapping and $50,000 to $60,000 to pay a "tough guy." 

In one exchange with an undercover posing as an unhappily married woman, Wolmark allegedly told her "you need special rabbis who are going to take this thing and see it through to the end."

"You need to get him to New York where someone can either harass him or nail him," he allegedly added.

The FBI said eight others have also been charged. 

FBI agents were seen overnight searching a Brooklyn home and an upstate yeshiva in connection with the investigation.   

The suspects appeared in federal court in Trenton Thursday on the federal charges. An attorney for one of the rabbis said prosecutors have overreached. 

"The government says that it's all about money. I don't think it's quite that clear," the attorney said. "These may be controversial but old religious traditions." 

In the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn where the sting took place, neighbor Deborah Feldman said the allegations were not a shock. Women who have felt trapped in bad marriages have long searched for ways out, she said.

"It was always known there was another option -- a risky option to be used in emergency situations," said Feldman, who grew up in the Hasidic community but left and wrote about it.

Neighbor Shlomo Carmen says community rabbis are judges and must be honorable. 

"It is forbidden for any judge to take money, it is considered bribes," said Carmen. 

The charges include plotting to kidnap, abduct, hold for ransom and threaten to "coerce a man to conduct a divorce."

-- Andrew Siff contributed to this report. 

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