Lakewood, New Jersey rabbis face prison in kidnapping conspiracy conviction

Published by carolyn on Wed, 2017-07-19 23:19

Rabbi Mendel Epstein, left, arrives for his trial at federal court in Trenton, N.J., on Feb. 18, 2015. (Mel Evans/AP)

By Carolyn Yeager

RABBI MENDEL EPSTEIN, ALONG WITH RABBIS JAY GOLDSTEIN AND BINYAMIN STIMLER, this week lost their appeal in which they argued they were engaged in their religious practice when they plotted to kidnap and torture their Jewish client's husband. From the Washington Post's July 19 story:

The holy man’s words were blunt, the subtlety and pretext all peeled off. “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 you the get,” Rabbi Mendel Epstein told his two visitors.

“We take an electric cattle prod,” the bearded man continued later in the conversation on Aug. 14, 2013, according to court documents. “If it can get a bull that weighs five tons to move … You put it on certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know.”

Epstein believed the guest across the desk from him in his home office in Lakewood, N.J., was desperate, an Orthodox Jewish woman trapped in an unloving marriage because her husband refused to grant her a get, a religious document in the Jewish faith granting the dissolution of a marriage. Without it she’d be agunahor chained to the union, unable to remarry. But now, with her brother, she was seeking guidance from Epstein on another, less talked-about option. There were situations when a group of rabbis and “tough guys” could force a husband to sign a get, the rabbi explained.

The woman, who was actually an undercover agent from the FBI, gave Epstein a check for $10,000 at that meeting. Epstein and the other two rabbis were caught up in a government sting within a month, indicted on federal charges in May 2014, and a year later convicted.

The rabbis appealed on the grounds that they were carrying out their religious duty to help a Jewish religious woman get a divorce.

When a husband refuses his wife a 'get', however, she can appeal to a rabbinical court of three rabbis, known as a beth din. This body can then issue contempt orders — psak kefiah — against the husband to force his hand. In the Orthodox faith, assisting an agunah to secure her get is considered a mitzvah, a good deed.

“A husband who engages in such behavior in violation of a rabbinic decree that he provide a get for his wife is an evil person,” Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, a rabbinical scholar, wrote in a February 2015 declaration to the court in support of the three rabbis. “He effectively prevents a religious wife from ever remarrying under Jewish Law. The names of husbands in the United States who persist in refusing to authorize a get notwithstanding rabbinic decrees that they do so are published every week in the Jewish Press so that the reading public will hold them in disrepute.”

In 12th century Code of Jewish Law, it states “When a man whom the law requires to be compelled to divorce his wife does not, the court should have him beaten until he consents, at which time they should have a get written.”

But this is the 21st Century, plus Epstein told the undercover agents he needed $10,000 for the beth din order, plus $50,000 to $60,000 for the “tough guys” needed for the beating and torture. Epstein also told them he performed this service every year to year and a half.

In his recorded meeting with the agents, Epstein stated he hoped the threat of violence would be enough to force a husband’s hand. “We prefer not to leave a mark,” he told the agents, explaining that if the husband does go to the police, traces of harm are an obvious problem. “Basically the reaction of police is, if the guy does not have a mark on him, then, ‘Uh, is there some Jewish crazy stuff here?’ They don’t get involved.”


On Oct. 9, 2013, Goldstein, Binyamin Stimler and six other men piled out of two dark vans at the warehouse [in Middlesex County]. Inside, “they discussed how they planned to grab the Husband, pull him down, tie him up, and take his phone,” the complaint states. When law enforcement raided the area, they found the men with “rope, surgical blades, a screwdriver, plastic bags, and items used to ceremonially record the get.” Some of the men were wearing masks and bandannas over their faces. One wore a garbage bag over this clothes, another a Metallica T-shirt.

The three rabbis, Epstein, Goldstein and Stimler were convicted by a jury ot conspiracy to commit kidnapping; sentenced to 120 months (10 years), 96 months and 39 months respectively. Let's hope they have to serve a large part of their sentences, at least. This case nicely represents the enforcement of limits on religious practice that conflicts with state and federal law, and community norms in a Gentile society.

“Respect for religious beliefs cannot … trump all other legitimate, and sometimes competing, government objectives,” the court wrote. “This appeal asks us to clarify the balance between religious freedom and public safety. The balance here clearly lies on the side of public safety.”