Rabbis Mendel Epstein and Martin Wolmark charged Jewish women and their families thousands of dollars to obtain religious divorces, known as "gets," from recalcitrant husbands, the FBI said in a complaint released Thursday.
Two undercover agents contacted Wolmark and Epstein in August about seeking a divorce. According to the complaint, Epstein spoke about forcing compliance through "tough guys" who use electric cattle prods and even place plastic bags over the heads of husbands.
The FBI said the price was more than $50,000.
The investigation took place in Ocean and Middlesex counties in New Jersey and Rockland County in New York. Several defendants were arrested overnight in raids in both states, including in Brooklyn, the FBI said. They were scheduled to appear in federal court in Trenton late Thursday.
The two other defendants are Ariel Potash and a person identified as Yaakov. Their hometowns were not provided in the complaint.
The undercover agents were a woman posing as a wife unable to get a divorce from her Orthodox Jewish husband, and her brother.
They met with Epstein at his Ocean County home in August, during which the rabbi spoke about "kidnapping, beating and torturing husbands in order to force a divorce," the complaint said.
"Basically 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 the get," Epstein is quoted as saying during the conversation, which was videotaped.
Epstein is also quoted saying he wanted to use a cattle prod to torture the reluctant husband.
"If it can get a bull that weighs 5 tons to move ... you put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute, the guy will know," he said, according to the complaint.
He also said that his group did a kidnapping every year to year and a half, and that the cost is $10,000 for a rabbinical court to approve the action and $50,000 to $60,000 for "tough guys" to carry it out.
The undercover agents wired him $20,000, the complaint said.
Under Jewish law, a husband must provide his wife with a document known as a "get" to get a divorce. If a husband refuses to grant one, a wife has the right to sue in rabbinical court.
The court complaint said that a rabbinical court was held in Rockland County on Oct. 2 as part of the FBI sting, attended by all four defendants, during which the use of violence was authorized against the woman's husband.
When the woman asked Potash what his role was, he answered: "Whatever the rabbis tell me," the complaint said.
Associated Press writer Tom Hays in New York contributed to this report.
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