NY Rabbis Arrested in Divorce “Get” Extortion, Torture Sting

[Update 3/11/2014: According to Reuters, a New York personal trainer has plead guilty to being part of a New Jersey ring that used violence to coerce Jewish husbands to agree to grant their wives religious divorces, federal prosecutors said on Thursday.

David Hellman, 31, was one of 10 men, including two Orthodox Jewish rabbis, arrested last fall in the alleged scheme in which they hired themselves out to unhappy wives who wanted their husbands kidnapped and beaten until they agreed to divorce, the prosecutors in New Jersey said.]


Under the rules of Orthodox Judaism and certain other sects within the Jewish faith, getting a divorce is a two-fold process. There is the standard civil divorce process, which requires filing for divorce in family court the same as any other couple. And then there is a special form of divorce called a “get,” which under Jewish law must be in place for a couple to be considered divorced and able to remarry within their faith.

Based on a passage in Deuteronomy 24, a get is a written document granted by a husband to his wife that states, “You are hereby permitted to all men.” In other words, the get simply means that the wife is no longer a married woman, and the laws of adultery no longer apply. The get also returns to the wife the legal rights that a husband holds in regard to his wife in a Jewish marriage. A wife can request her husband grant her a get, but ultimately, he is the one who decides to give it.

Which leads to a very unfortunate news story making headlines today concerning two Orthodox rabbis in New York accused of using this ancient form of religious divorce to carry out a modern day extortion and torture plot. According to the NBC News, rabbis Mendel Epstein and Martin Wolmark are accused of plotting kidnappings and beatings of Jewish men to pressure them into granting religious divorces to their wives.

The FBI arrested the pair as part of a sting operation in which an undercover agent posed as a woman who wanted out of her marriage. The rabbis allegedly met the woman in Rockland County in August to authorize a kidnapping-for-divorce-plot. According to reports, they said they wanted $10,000 for the kidnapping and $50,000 to $60,000 to pay a “tough guy.”

In a recorded exchange with an undercover agent, one of the men allegedly told her “I guarantee that if you’re in the van, you’d give a get to your wife. We take an electric cattle prod . . . you put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know.” Epstein also reportedly said his gang “convinced” husbands to grant the get by putting plastic bags over their heads.

The suspects appeared in federal court in Trenton on Thursday to face federal charges. At least eight additional arrests have been made in connection to the plot.

The subject of the Jewish “get” and the hardship many women endure in obtaining the document from a husband who refuses to grant one was the subject of the recent documentary, Women Unchained, narrated by Mayim Bialik. The film shows that just like getting a pre-nuptial agreement before a civil marriage, Orthodox couples can request their rabbi to put in place halakhic prenuptials which essentially make the man “pre-agree” that if a get is requested at any point, he will give it. In an ironic twist, one of the rabbis arrested actually appears in the film.

Why is the get so important? By going through the civil divorce process only, the couple may be divorced under “the law of the land,” but still be considered to be very much married under Jewish law, with all the consequences which follow from that status. It is religiously forbidden for either spouse to remarry without a get and doing so is considered adultery according to Jewish law, and children conceived in it mamzerim, or born from a forbidden relationship.

We will keep you updated as to what happens in this case. Do you have any experience with obtaining or granting a get? Was the process more or less difficult than civil divorce?