Dec 15, 2015

Lakewood rabbi sentenced to 10 years in prison for divorce kidnappings

MaryAnn Spoto
NJ Advance Media for 
December 15, 2015

TRENTON — A prominent Lakewood rabbi convicted of helping to arrange the kidnapping of Orthodox Jewish men who refused to grant their wives religious divorces was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Tuesday.

The sentence for Rabbi Mendel Epstein, 70, is less than what the federal government had requested for a man prosecutors said was the head of a well-organized operation that kidnapped and beat men. But it also was more than what his defense attorney argued was deserving of a man who devoted his life to good deeds and charitable acts.

The sentence was one, though, that U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson said was necessary to deter others in the Orthodox Jewish community from continuing what federal prosecutors called "paid vigilantism."

"No one is permitted to commit acts of violence against another," Wolfson said during the three-hour sentencing proceeding in Trenton. "It is not the law of our society and what we live under."

During the hearing, much was made about the conversations undercover FBI agents secretly recorded with Epstein in 2013 in setting up a sting operation in which Epstein bragged about using a cattle prod and other violent means to force recalcitrant husbands to agree to the religious divorces, known as gets.

In those conversations, which were played for a jury during Epstein's trial earlier this year, Epstein provides the undercover agents with details of how the husband – who turned out to be fictitious – would be taken to a warehouse in Edison where he would be kidnapped and beaten until he agreed to the get.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Gribko said that in those secretly taped conversations, Epstein boasted about having a reputation as a "tough" guy who could effectuate gets.

"He did this regularly. He did this for money," Gribko said. "He understood exactly how out of hand this could get."

In a 10-minute address to the judge, Epstein said he was "embarrassed and ashamed" at what he said in those conversations.

"Over the years, I guess, I got caught up in my tough guy image," he said. "Truthfully, it helped me -- the reputation -- convince many of these reprobates to do the right thing."

He recalled going to the docks in Red Hook in Brooklyn where he confronted one of the stubborn husbands who worked there to convince him without using coercion to grant a divorce. In another case, he recalled going to a club full of belly dancers where he knew he'd find another recalcitrant husband.

"I had a reputation (that) this is the rabbi who goes and gets into all crazy places and he doesn't give up He gets you the get," he said.

But he also objected strongly to the government's portrayal of him as a person motivated by money to help the so-called "chained" wives. He said he was driven to help them out of a compassion for the women, who couldn't remarry without the get, and their children, who would have been considered illegitimate.

Wolfson noted that Epstein demanded $60,000 from the undercover agent in the 2013 sting and that only a small portion of that payment went to the "muscle men" who were there to rough up the fictitious husband.

Epstein's attorney, Robert Stahl, said an appeal of the conviction is forthcoming.

"While we're heartened that the judge listened carefully to what we argued, we're disappointed the sentence was for 10 years," he said after court. "We believe there serious issues for the Court of Appeals to examine in this very unique case."

Stahl had argued that Epstein's sentence should be less than that for the traditional kidnapping cases before judges, which usually involve murder, terrorism or child abduction.

Wolfson said she didn't see a difference. She also said that although Epstein may have been motivated by his desire to help women, his methods were not legal.

"You may start with the motive of hoping the chained women...but the means certainly don't justify the ends," she said.

During the trial, Gribko and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Wolfe elicited testimony about five kidnappings to which they claimed Epstein was tied. The father of nine, grandfather of 45 and great-grandfather of five was convicted in April of conspiracy to commit kidnapping.

Sitting in the audience Tuesday was Menachem Teitelbaum, a Brooklyn man who testified during the he and his roommate were beaten for hours in their apartment in 2011 Teitelbaum told jurors that his attackers yelled to his roommate, Usher Chaimowitz, orders to give his wife a divorce.

"They were calling out all the time 'give a get. Give a divorce to your wife,'" Teitelbaum testified at the time.

Epstein's wife and several of his children were in attendance and cried as he and one of his daughters addressed the judge. Epstein wiped away tears as that daughter, Dina Gongola, asked Wolfson for a light sentence for her father, particularly in light of his health problems, which includes diabetes, high blood pressure, severe sleep apnea and coronary artery disease. She asked Wolfson to consider his lifetime of good deeds and not his one "major mistake."

"Please, please, your honor. Have mercy," she begged through tears. "Please judge him as a whole human being."

The family left court without commenting and whisked Epstein away in an SUV that was waiting in front of the federal courthouse. Up the block, he got into a minivan with other family members.

Wolfson allowed Epstein to report to prison on March 1.

MaryAnn Spoto may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MaryAnnSpoto. Find on Facebook.

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