YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: A federal grand jury today indicted four Orthodox Jewish rabbis — one of them from Rockland — and one of their sons on charges of conspiring to kidnap and force Jewish men to grant their wives religious divorces.
The indictment charges all five with kidnapping conspiracy, along with various other kidnapping and attempted kidnapping offenses.
Federal authorities previously charged 56-year-old Rabbi Martin Wolmark (above, left), the head of Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Monsey, and three other rabbis in a federal complaint.
They are: Mendel Epstein (above, right), 68, a prominent ultra-Orthodox divorce mediator from Lakewood, Jay (Yaakov) Goldstein, 60, and 38-year-old Binyamin Stimler, both of Brooklyn.
Four other people — including Jay Goldstein’s sons, Avrohom Goldstein, 34, and Moshe Goldstein, 31, both of Brooklyn, N.Y. — have since pleaded guilty to extortion charges in connection with the case.
Mendel Epstein’s 39-year-old son, David, was previously charged with a 2009 kidnapping to compel a religious divorce, known as a “get,” in a complaint filed last week.
The FBI went undercover after “becoming aware of incidents in which David Epstein and Jay Goldstein allegedly were involved in the kidnapping and assaulting of Orthodox Jewish men in order to compel them to grant religious divorces,” U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said.
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.
According to an FBI complaint, at least one of the “get” gang members spoke of forcing compliance 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,” Mendel Epstein is quoted as saying during a conversation recorded by the FBI
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.”
Under Jewish law, a wife has the right to sue in rabbinical court if a husband refuses to grant her a “get.” In fact, as part of the sting, such a court (known as a “beth din”) was held in Rockland — where the FBI said the use of force was OK’d.
The sting had its roots in the 2011 case of a David and Judy Wax of Lakewood, who were accused of kidnapping an Israeli national in an attempt to force him to divorce his estranged wife in Israel.
Wolmark was the initial contact for an FBI agent posing as an unhappily married Orthodox woman. Her “brother” came along the next time, when both offered to pay for help, the government said.
He hooked them up with Epstein, the federal complaint says.
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.
During the recent investigation, Mendel Epstein and Wolmark were recorded discussing plans to kidnap and torture victims. In an in-person meeting with undercover agents at his home on Aug. 14, 2013, Mendel Epstein laid out the plans for a particular target, including trapping him in a van and assaulting him with the cattle prod, Fishman said.
According to the federal complaint, one of the undercover agents gave Epstein a purported $10,000 initial payment.
“Law enforcement tracked subsequent planning phone calls discussing tactics and payment, as well as a trip by Mendel Epstein and Jay Goldstein” to inspect a warehouse in Edison “where they planned to hold the victim,” Fishman said.
They also recorded the convening of a beth din at Wolmark’s Monsey office and a subsequent meeting at Mendel Epstein’s home, he said.
David Hellman, a personal trainer from Brooklyn, testified during his plea hearing in March that he and seven co-conspirators went to the warehouse on Oct. 9 of last year.
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 sister — actually, an undercover FBI agent.
There, Hellman 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 Epstein and Wolmark, into custody.
Fishman credited the FBI and thanked Lakewood (NJ) police for their assistance. Handling the case for the government is Assistant U.S. Attorneys R. Joseph Gribko and Sarah Wolfe of Fishman’s Trenton office.
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