TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) - Lakewood Rabbi Mendel Epstein is known for helping Orthodox Jewish couples through divorces, but federal prosecutors say he, his son and two other rabbis went too far.
Mendel Epstein is accused of employing a kidnap team to force unwilling Jewish husbands to divorce their wives. The defendants face charges including conspiracy to commit kidnapping and attempted kidnapping stemming from a staged kidnapping in 2013 and three other forced divorces.
When two undercover agents called posing as a brother and sister looking to obtain a divorce from the sister's unwilling husband, a New York rabbi told them that Mendel Epstein was a "hired hand'' who could be "very helpful'' to them.
NJ Rabbi Accused Of Employing Team To Force Jewish Husbands To Grant Wives Divorces
Epstein "is a hired hand,'' Rabbi Martin Wolmark is heard telling the agents in 2013. "Mendel Epstein's not a bad guy, he's a good guy. --- He'll be very helpful.''
Prosecutors played those recordings on Thursday, the second day of trial for Epstein and his three co-defendants: son David Epstein, Jay Goldstein and Binyamin Stimler.
"This is a matter of interpretation. The government wants you to believe that that means they're going to kidnap people as opposed to trying to harass them and scare them," attorney Aidan O'Connor, who represents Rabbi Jay Goldstein, told WCBS 880's Levon Putney.
O'Connor said Goldstein was not present when federal wiretaps caught Epstein with an undercover FBI agent.
"Can it hurt us? Yes. Can it be explained in context? I think also that's part of what we're trying to do here," O'Connor said of the wiretaps.
Jewish law allows for the shaming and even torture of men who refuse to grant divorces to their wives.
for more features.