|Years active||Mid 1980s to 2013|
The New York divorce coercion gang was a New York group that kidnapped, and in some cases tortured, Jewish men to force them to grant their wives gittin (religious divorces). Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation broke up the group after conducting a sting operation against the gang in October 2013. The sting resulted in the prosecution of four men, three of whom were convicted in late 2015.
To receive a religious divorce, a Jewish woman needs her husband's consent in the form of a get (Jewish divorce document). Without this consent, any future offspring of the wife would be considered mamzerim (illegitimate). If the circumstances truly warrant a divorce and the husband is unwilling, a dayan (rabbinic judge) has the prerogative of instituting community shunning measures to "coerce him until he agrees," with physical force reserved only for the rarest of cases.
It was in this grey area of halakha (Jewish law) that in the mid-1980s a rabbi from Brooklyn, New York, Mendel Epstein, began to advocate for women seeking religious divorces from their husbands. Dubbed The Prodfather by the press due to his boast of using a cattle prod against his victims, Epstein coerced these men to give the gets through the use of violence. In 1991, Father's Rights activist Monty Weinstein staged a protest with 25 people outside Epstein's home, with some carrying signs that read "Stop Mendel Epstein!" Weinstein had heard stories about Epstein's tactics for years, but nothing ever happened when he complained to the authorities. He said, "What bothered me is that the police and courts didn't care."
On October 23, 1996, while he was walking from the synagogue to his home in Borough Park, Brooklyn, Abraham Rubin was shoved into a van by three masked men, beaten and shocked with a stun-gun more than 30 times, including in his genitals, until he agreed to give his wife a get. After his 3-hour ordeal, he was left bruised, bloodied, handcuffed, blindfolded and half-naked at the entrance to a cemetery. In the following year, Rubin filed a civil racketeering lawsuit against Epstein and a conspirator, Martin Wolmark. However, charges against his attackers were dropped in 2000 by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes after Rubin "could not identify any of his assailants."
In October 2010, David Wax and his wife Judy were arrested for their part in the kidnapping and beating of Yisrael Bryskman, and Wax subsequently agreed to testify as a government witness, claiming Epstein was the head of the operation and that his son, David Epstein was present in the bedroom during the Bryskman beating. The Bryskman case was what led federal authorities in New Jersey to begin their investigation of Mendel Epstein for his role in the crime.
In the summer of 2013, a woman dialed Martin Wolmark, head of Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Rockland on West Carlton Road in Suffern, New York, and Epstein cohort. She told him a story about a husband who refused to give her a get. The woman, together with a man she identified as her brother, met with Wolmark on August 7, who proceeded to set up a conference call with Epstein. Epstein later said he needed $10,000 to approve the coercion at the beth din, and $60,000 for the "tough guys" who would use karate, rope, a screwdriver, and plastic bags over the men's heads to get them to cooperate. Epstein told the woman that he would not be present at the attack, planning instead to be out and about, and suggested that she do the same, explaining that being seen in public would provide them with an alibi. The man and woman, who turned out to be undercover Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, handed Epstein a check for $10,000, with the word "Consultation" written in the memo. On September 29, Epstein drove from New York across state lines to a warehouse in Edison, New Jersey to stake out the location and verify that it was appropriate to stage a kidnapping and beating there. Four days later, he drove to Suffern to meet with the female agent and Wolmark, who convened the beth din that, in exchange for the fee, would declare that the 'husband' is required to divorce his 'wife'. The rabbis, who were unaware that the agent was recording the meeting, openly discussed the plan to kidnap and assault the husband to force him to provide the get.
On October 9, 2013, Wolmark and eight other men gathered at the warehouse in Edison to prepare for the kidnapping. Suddenly, federal agents burst in and arrested the would-be kidnappers. Epstein was arrested separately in Brooklyn, and Wolmark's yeshiva in Suffern was raided. At a federal court hearing the following day in Trenton, New Jersey, U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman said, "The charge is kidnapping and extortion. Violent crime to get Jewish men to give divorces they wouldn't otherwise get. It's not really an exercise of religion. It's really about money and violent crime." Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Gribko confirmed, "They didn't do it out of religious conviction. They did it for money." On May 6, 2014, Wax pleaded guilty in federal court in New Jersey to conspiracy to commit kidnapping. He named the men arrested the previous October as his accomplices.
The trial of the main defendants commenced on February 18, 2015 at the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey in Trenton. On April 21, they appeared before District Judge Freda L. Wolfson, whereupon Mendel Epstein was convicted of conspiracy to commit kidnapping, while accomplices Jay Goldstein and Binyamin Stimler were additionally convicted of attempted kidnapping. Sholom Shuchat, who had pleaded guilty in June to travelling in interstate commerce to commit violence, was sentenced on November 19 to time served and two years of supervised release, with the first six months being house arrest. Wolmark, who had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce to commit extortion, was sentenced to more than 3 years in prison, 2 years of supervised release and a $50,000 fine. Epstein and Stimler were sentenced to 10 years and 3 years respectively. Wolfson said during the proceeding that "No one is permitted to commit acts of violence against another," and that the sentence was necessary to deter others in the Orthodox Jewish community from engaging in similar paid vigilantism. One day later, Goldstein was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment. Six other co-defendants also pleaded guilty before trial, and were sentenced to up to 4 years. On January 12, 2016, David Wax was sentenced by Wolfson to 7 years imprisonment.
Epstein launched a number of defense arguments to the court ranging from warrant issues to jury questions, but the heart of the appeal focused on the propriety of their actions under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, saying the FBI sting interfered with their practice of religion. He also argued that the victims, by entering into an Orthodox Jewish marriage, were essentially agreeing to the use of force outlined in Jewish law. The higher court did not accept these arguments.
Rabbinical judge David Eidensohn of Monsey, New York said, "I'm shocked that people who call themselves rabbis would get involved in coercion." According to Eidensohn, if a woman obtains a get in such a manner and remarries, "Her marriage is not legal and she would be considered living in sin. If she has children, the children are considered born out of wedlock, and that's considered a disgrace in the community." Eidensohn stated that the organizing of protests against men who refused to give their wives a get, such as done by the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, is too coercive. He accused Hershel Schachter, a founder of that group, of misquoting Maimonides in favor of beating husbands.
Judy Heicklin, president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, said
It's not bad enough that these women are abused by their husbands. Then they turn to authority figures who are demanding bribes to solve what should be a fundamental human rights issue. It's heartbreaking, the women who are caught in this horrible situation. And it's a shame. It's a stain on our entire community... We think the halakha is so profound and divinely inspired that solutions can and should be found within halakha... I certainly understand the impetus for those kinds of solutions and why people are so frustrated with the lack of progress that people are reaching out for those solutions out of frustration."
Samuel Heilman, professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Queens College said, "Using force, that's the way it used to be done centuries ago. Most Jews don't operate like that anymore, but in this community... it's a sort of fundamentalist view."
Moshe David Tendler, rabbi and professor of medical ethics at Yeshiva University said, "The idea that a beth din can issue an order for coercion is baloney, a hoax." While conceding that he had "been with [Epstein] on matters," Tendler nevertheless considered him "unreliable."
Mordechai Willig, a leader of the Beth Din of America court of the centrist Rabbinical Council of America, emphasised that rabbis can never do anything illegal, because if one rabbi does something inappropriate, "everyone whose first name is Rabbi is sullied."
Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the executive director of Agudath Israel of America, stated that Wolmark's court didn't hear what defense might be offered by the husband who was allegedly refusing to grant the get. Zweibel, who referred to Wolmark as a "well-respected figure in the Jewish community", "an expert in Jewish law" and a "rabbi of caliber" at the time of Wolmark's arrest, later said
There is a considerable body of opinion that you can only take steps consistent with the law of the land... Some would question the validity of a get that was procured in those circumstances.... On the surface of the allegations, this particular scenario was beyond the realm of anything the Halacha might countenance. It seems as if the role of one of the rabbis was to determine whether the circumstances justified a beth din ruling that you could force the guy. It clearly was done in a way that leaves a lot to be desired. The whole case was a sham. The rabbi didn't go on more than a woman's crying and signing a check. It's very troubling...The idea that some have put forward that women should have the same ability to initiate the divorce process, just as a man can divorce a woman against her will – it's clearly contrary to halakha."