U.S. Rabbi Accused of Using Brutality to Obtain Ritual Divorces Heads to Trial

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FBI agents remove evidence from Rabbi Mendel Epstein's Brooklyn residence, October 10, 2013.Credit: AP

AP - When a Jewish woman wanted a divorce from an unwilling husband, federal prosecutors say Mendel Epstein was the rabbi who, for the right price, could gather a kidnap team to make it happen.

Prosecutors allege the Orthodox rabbi's team would use brutal methods, including martial arts beatings, handcuffs and electric cattle prods, to torture the man into granting the divorce.

Prosecutors say he was recorded telling undercover FBI agents - posing as a brother and sister trying to force the sister's husband to grant the ritual Jewish divorce known as a "get" - that the operation would cost at least $50,000.

The kidnap team brought surgical blades, a screwdriver and rope to a staged kidnapping in 2013, according to the indictment. Epstein, who was indicted last May along with his son and three other Orthodox rabbis, told the undercover agents he arranged similar kidnappings every year or year and a half, the indictment said.

Epstein's trial on attempted kidnapping charges starts Tuesday in federal court in New Jersey. Several co-defendants have pleaded guilty in the case; others will go on trial with Epstein.

The charges against Epstein reveal how far some Jewish women are forced to go to obtain a get, which Jewish law says the woman needs to remarry or even date another man.

Defense lawyer Robert Stahl called Epstein a "champion of women's rights." Epstein wrote the 1989 book "A Woman's Guide to the Get Process." Epstein is free on bail.

"Without having the get ... I have no prospects of getting remarried. I cannot date men. I have no future of having more children," said Rivky Stein, a 25-year-old Brooklyn woman who says she is trying to obtain a get from her husband but isn't involved in the Epstein case. "It just literally locks you in."

The problem of recalcitrant husbands in the Jewish faith is dealt with in a few ways but can be complicated in the U.S., said Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America.

In Israel, he said, husbands who refuse to grant divorces can be imprisoned. Because that can't happen in the United States, communities sometimes exert social pressure on the husband.

"It's embarrassing to the individual and to the community," he said, noting that he doesn't condone the violence alleged in the Epstein case. "It's not such a thing we're proud of."

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