Rules of Religious Divorce in Orthodox Jewish Community Led to Kidnapping

Three rabbis have been convicted on charges they kidnapped men and forced them to grant their wives a religious divorce.

By Michael Hill

In Orthodox Jewish life, for a wife to divorce her husband he has to grant her what’s called a “get.” No get, no divorce. The woman, under religious law, cannot re-marry, date or move on.

In some cases, the so-called “chained” wife will get some guys to threaten or physically attack the husband to get him to “voluntarily” give his wife what she wants.

Last year, on a podcast of “This American Life,” Rabbi Mendel Epstein of Lakewood was asked how did he pressure a husband to give his wife a “get” on a trip to Peru.

“Let’s just say it got a little physical,” he said.

Last week, a federal jury convicted Rabbi Epstein and two other rabbis of “conspiracy to commit kidnapping.” The Justice Department says it acted on complaints that Epstein was behind three violent “gets” including at a Lakewood house. In 2013, the FBI launched an undercover operation and the trial jury heard a recorded Epstein arranging to kidnap a husband and bring him to a Middlesex County warehouse in exchange for $60,000 to force a “get.”

All three Rabbis face life in prison.

“They plan to threaten him into giving a get,” said Aidan O’Connor.

Attorney Aidan O’Connor represents Rabbi Jay Goldstein of Brooklyn and plans to appeal. O’Connor says Goldstein had no role in any crime and was only at the warehouse to record the husband agreeing to the religious divorce:

“Rabbi Goldstein is a scribe. He’s what’s known in Hebrew as a ‘sofer.’ His job is to write what’s called the ‘get,’ the document. It’s written in a form of Hebrew and Aramaic in a very old-fashioned kind of calligraphy. So this is not, he’s not running around grabbing people and kidnapping them on a full-time basis,” O’Connor said.

The eight-week long federal trial in Trenton gave the public a rare glimpse into Orthodox Jewish life, specifically a wife seeking but a husband denying her a divorce and how force, sometimes violence, comes into play.

Kornitzer compares secular matrimonial law to Orthodox Jewish law and says that’s a common tactic for the husband holding out in a divorce. Can a Jewish tribunal — like arbitration — force him to give the get?

“No, that’s the biggest problem. The get has to be voluntarily given,” said Robert Kornitzer, matrimonial attorney.

And suppose he wants the divorce but she won’t accept or receive the get?

“A man has remedies through the Jewish tribunal. There’s ways around it that a man can always get his divorce. A woman doesn’t have those remedies,” he explained.

Kornitzer says a stuck wife is a chained wife and a small percentage will resort to hiring someone to physically and violently force what she wants. The Justice Department says it hopes this case sends a chilling message about the practice.

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