BEYOND BERGEN: Three Orthodox Jewish rabbis were convicted today for their roled in a scheme to kidnap and torture a Jewish man into granting his wife a religious divorce.
Mendel Epstein, 69, of Lakewood ( above, left ), Jay “Yaakov” Goldstein, 60, and 39-year-old Binyamin Stimler, both of Brooklyn, were each found gulty of conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
Goldstein and Stimler also were convicted of attempted kidnapping following three days of deliberation after an eight-week trial in U.S. District Court in Trenton.
Epstein’s son, 40-year-old David “Ari” Epstein of Lakewood, was found not guilty of three counts.
Federal prosecutors said eight men went to a warehouse in Edison on Oct. 9, 2013 with the intent of forcing a married man into a “get” — a divorce document that, under Jewish law, must be presented by a husband to his wife in order to divorce her.
Some wore Halloween masks and another a Metallica T-shirt, while carrying rope, flashlights, surgical blades, a screwdriver, and plastic bags, authorities said.
The group met at the warehouse with a man they thought was the woman’s brother — actually, an undercover FBI agent.
There, one defendant admitted, they “discussed a plan and prepared to confine, restrain and threaten the victim.”
When the undercover agent left — purportedly to fetch the reluctant husband — agents moved in and arrested the group.
Soon after, they took the rabbi Epstein — a prominent ultra-Orthodox divorce mediator in Brooklyn — and Martin Wolmark ( above, right ), the head of Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Monsey, into custody in connection with the torture-for-hire scheme.
FBI agents staged the sting after learning of a pair of previous incidents.
One occurred in Lakewood in December 2009 and involved an Orthodox Jewish man who was assaulted, placed in a van, tied up, beaten and shocked with a stun-gun until he agreed to give his wife a get.
In another, on Aug. 22, 2011, another Orthodox Jewish man and his roommate were assaulted, tied up, and beaten in Brooklyn until the man agreed to give his wife a get.
Two FBI agents posed as a wife seeking a get from her relucant husband and her brother. They recorded several phone calls and face-to-face meetings with Mendel Epstein, with him arranging to have his cohorts kidnap the husband for $60,000.
Federal authorities said the unholy crew didn’t operate out of religious conviction to free women from dead marriages but for the money. Defense attorneys have countered that such “pressure” is part of tradition and that federal and religious laws have collided.
Wolmark was the initial contact for the FBI agent posing as the unhappily married woman.
During the conversation, which was recorded by investigators, Wolmark told the agents that there were two ways to go about obtaining a get from such a recalcitrant husband.
One was to “nail him.”
Doing so would become expensive, he warned. He then hooked up her and her “brother” with Epstein, the government said.
On Oct. 2, 2013, Wolmark convened a “beth din” (rabbinical court) with Mendel Epstein and defendant Jay Goldstein in his office in Suffern to “determine whether there were grounds under Jewish law to coerce the husband into giving the get,” U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said.
The female agent also attended and recorded the meeting, he said.
Epstein “discussed openly the plan to kidnap and assault the purported husband in order to obtain the get,” Fishman said.
According to an FBI complaint, there was talk of using electric cattle prods and plastic bags put over reluctant husbands’ heads. Each job paid $50,000 to $60,000, with most of it going to the “tough guys” — or enforcers, the FBI 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 a conversation recorded by the bureau.
As for the cattle prod, Epstein was quoted saying: “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.”
On Oct. 9, 2013, the kidnapping crew set out for Edison.
Federal prosecutors in New Jersey and New York have said that they believe group members were involved in as many as 20 such shakedowns before the sting.
Fishman credited FBI special agents and the Lakewood police for the investigation leading to the verdicts, secured by Assistant U.S. Attorneys R. Joseph Gribko and Sarah M. Wolfe of his Trenton office.
Sentencing for the trio was scheduled for July 15.
Nine others have entered guilty pleas — including Wolmark, who pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to conspiring to travel in interstate commerce to commit extortion. His sentencing is set for May 18.
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