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Rabbi divorce "gang" reveals perils, complexities of divorce in ultra-Orthodox world, insiders say

The FBI raided this Rockland County, N.Y. Yeshiva in an investigation of alleged violence against Orthodox Jewish husbands to force them to divorce their wives. CBS New York

(CBS) - It sounds utterly bizarre: a group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbis allegedly accepting tens of thousands of dollars to kidnap and torture Jewish mento force them to grant their wives a divorce.

But Benny Rogosnitzky, a New York cantor and a representative of the Frum Divorce organization, told CBS News' Crimesider that although he was disappointed when he heard that the FBI had raided a yeshiva in Rockland County, N.Y. and a rabbi's Brooklyn home late Wednesday, he was not shocked.

"There is a breakdown in the Orthodox community when it comes to divorce," he says. "The system lends itself to corruption."

According to the criminal complaint, Mendel Epstein, 68, and Martin Wolmark, 55, both Orthodox rabbis, ran a scheme where they accepted payment in exchange for using force to convince reluctant husbands to grant their wives a get, which is a document necessary for a religious divorce in the Orthodox Jewish community.

"Without a get you are still married in the eyes of the community," explains Rogosnitzky. Even if a civil court grants the divorce, a woman without a get is forbidden to date or re-marry within the religion.

The complaint alleges that two undercover FBI agents posed as a woman desperate for a divorce, and her brother, who were willing to pay for a kidnapping to coerce the woman's husband into consenting. It further alleges the pair contacted Rabbi Wolmark, who told them "you need to get [the husband] to New York where someone either can harass or nail him."

Wolmark put the two undercover agents in touch with Rabbi Epstein, who allegedly told them "basically what we are going to be doing is kidnapping a guy for a couple of hours and beating him and torturing him and then getting him to give the get," according to the complaint. He continued: "We take an electric cattle put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know."

Epstein allegedly quotes the undercover agents $10,000 to have the rabbinical court approve the kidnapping, and $50,000 to $60,000 for the "tough guys" who would conduct it.

Shulem Deen, the founder and editor of Unpious, an online journal of "voices on the Hasidic fringe," told Crimesider that all his life he's heard stories of families using physical force to convince a man to give his wife a get. In fact, he points to an early episode of The Sopranos where an Orthodox man hires two of Tony Soprano's associates to beat up his son-in-law so he will agree to divorcing the man's daughter.

Deen says what surprised him about this case was that rabbis were involved.

"For rabbis to be the ones orchestrating this, and coordinating the 'tough guys,' that to me was shocking," says Deen.

According to the criminal complaint, Epstein "claimed that his organization kidnapped one recalcitrant husband approximately every year or every other year."

The complaint goes on to describe how Epstein allegedly scouted out a warehouse in Middlesex County, N.J., where the kidnapped husband would be taken: "They don't need him for long, believe me," Epstein allegedly told the undercover agent. "They'll have him in the van, hooded, and it will happen."

Epstein also discussed the fact that they preferred not to leave marks on the husband's body, just in case the man went to the police: "...the reaction of the police is, if the guy does not have a mark on him...Then, uh, is there some crazy Jewish affair here, they don't get involved."

The other two defendants in the case, identified as Ariel Potash and "Yaakov," allegedly assisted Epstein in arranging the kidnapping. When asked by the female undercover agent about his role in the scheme, Potash allegedly said that he does "whatever the rabbis tell him."

Complete coverage of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis divorce scandal on Crimesider