NEW YORK — In Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, Mendel Epstein made a name for himself as the rabbi to see for women struggling to divorce their husbands. Among the Orthodox, a divorce requires the husband’s permission, known as a “get,” and tales abound of women whose husbands refuse to consent.
While it is common for rabbis to take drastic action, such as barring a defiant husband from synagogue life, Epstein, 68, took matters much further, according to the authorities.
For hefty fees, he orchestrated the kidnapping and torture of reluctant husbands, charging their wives as much as $10,000 for a decree permitting violence and $50,000 for hiring others to carry out the deed, according to federal charges.
Epstein, along with another rabbi, Martin Wolmark, who is the head of a yeshiva, as well as several men in what the authorities called the “kidnapping team,” appeared in US District Court in Trenton, N.J., after a sting operation in which an undercover federal agent posed as an Orthodox Jewish woman and solicited Epstein’s services.
Paul Fishman, the US attorney for New Jersey, said investigators have “uncovered evidence of at least as many as a couple of dozen” victims. Many are men from Brooklyn who were taken to New Jersey as part of the kidnappings.
In court, the lead prosecutor, R. Joseph Gribko, explained how abductions were carried out: “They beat them up, tied them up, shocked them with Tasers and stun guns until they got what they want.”
The Orthodox community in Brooklyn has grappled for years with challenges facing women who want to divorce their husbands. In 1996, for instance, the Central Rabbinical Congress in Williamsburg issued a statement denouncing the rogue men who subjected husbands to beatings, according to a news report.
Epstein was sued by a local rabbi, Abraham Rubin, who claimed a group of men shoved him into a van, hooded him, and applied electric shocks to his genitals in an effort to force him to provide a get to his wife. The lawsuit was dismissed.
How such violent practices, if proved, would have been able to persist for so long may be an indicator of the challenges law enforcement agencies face in trying to conduct investigations of insular religious or ethnic groups like the ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic communities.
Epstein seemed confident local authorities would not investigate too closely. In a recorded meeting with the female undercover FBI agent, Epstein explained that his preferred torture techniques — such as electric shocks — offered little physical evidence of abuse, according to the complaint. Without visible injuries, Epstein said, police were unlikely to inquire too deeply. “Basically the reaction of the police is, if the guy does not have a mark on him then, uh, is there some Jewish crazy affair here, they don’t want to get involved,” he explained, according to the criminal complaint.
Epstein made his living appearing before the rabbinical courts, known as beit din, where he advocated on behalf of a spouse seeking an exit. He took a special interest in the constraints wives faced, speaking about women’s rights in terms not often heard in his conservative community.
On Thursday, the 10 defendants, many of them bearded and some wearing skullcaps and white shirts, were denied bail after appearing in court in Trenton on the kidnapping conspiracy charges.
Juda J. Epstein, the lawyer for Epstein, declined to comment.
A neighbor, Rose Davis, who lives in the Kensington section of Brooklyn, described him as a well-known and respected figure. Davis said she was skeptical of the charges against him, and suggested they might be the concoctions of enemies he had made as an expert in divorce work: “There’s always a loser,” she said, referring to divorce cases.