UPDATE July 19, 2017:
The Washington Post reports the rabbis’ attorneys had been pressing an appeal.
On July 17, 2017, the appeals panel -- Judges Luis Felipe Restrepo, Jane Roth and Michael Chagares -- replied to the rabbis’ arguments. The higher court didn’t buy it. “The defendants fail to cite, nor can we identify, any cases in which any court has allowed RFRA to shield individuals in the commission of violent crimes,” Roth wrote for the panel.
April 6, 2016:
It's certainly not the first time that New York's been cursed by mob violence. But a current plague of beatdowns and intimidation is festering in a place you wouldn't expect: the orthodox Jewish community, a society that operates outside of the mainstream and lives by its own rules and laws.
One of those laws most controversial to outsiders? An orthodox woman can be granted a divorce only when her husband allows it. She has to convince him to sign a document called a "get" to release her from marital vows. A vindictive husband can use it to make life for his ex-wife miserable.
"Without a 'get,' she's a chained woman," said Robert Stahl, attorney for Rabbi Mendel Epstein. "She is not allowed in the orthodox community to date, to remarry. If she did, her children would be considered 'mamzers,' which means, basically, bastards."
Community pressure or a stern letter from a rabbi will usually get a husband to come around. When those tactics don't work, there are other solutions, and they come right out of the bloodiest books of the Old Testament.
It's called a "forced get," and it can range from simple scare tactics to heartless violence.
And there's one man who can arrange it all for you: Rabbi Mendel Epstein, a respected religious leader and advocate for women in Jewish courts. And he's more than happy to help a client whose sister has a deadbeat husband.
The good rabbi will provide another service, if you know what to ask for.
"You understand what we're talking about is some strategic planning, you know, using a nice word," Epstein says on a recording made by two undercover FBI agents.
"What Mendel Epstein did was when a husband refused to grant his wife a get, he would in some cases, for tens of thousands of dollars, have that man kidnapped and beaten up until he agreed to give his wife a get," said Joseph Gribko, lead prosecutor, U.S. Attorney's Office.
First comes a formal sit-down in Epstein's office. But when Epstein talks about getting the divorce signed, he sounds less like a rabbi and more like a mob boss.
His "get" process is simple.
"I don't want to use secular terms, but what we're doing is basically kidnapping the guy for a couple of hours, beating him up and torturing him and then getting you the get," Epstein says on a recording.
"Now understand, you're lying with a plastic bag around your head, a minute ago you were standing like a normal person. That's fright," Epstein says on the recording. "For 80 percent of the guys, it's over right there. Now you do what we tell you, or it's gonna get worse."
He knows the best way to avoid attracting any nosy cops is to avoid leaving any marks.
"Hopefully there won't be a mark on him," Epstein says. "And basically the reaction of the police is that the guy does not have a mark on him, they don't want to -- it's just some Jewish crazy affair here and they don't get involved."
He also knows how to get what he wants.
"You really want to know? Take an electric cattle prod," Epstein says. "If it can get a bull that weighs five tons to move, you put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know."
"That meeting is pretty shocking," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Wolfe. "You see what looks to be a nice old rabbi, he's sitting in his office, he looks very official, and yet the language that he's using, the things he's talking about is something you would expect to hear from somebody very different."
"And now he's lying on the floor, handcuffed and hooded," says Epstein. "And then he says, 'Oh yeah?' And then a guy zaps him and he goes nuts. And we can continue and we can work on other parts of your body, but you're not walking out of here."
But even with all his experience and careful planning, the alleged "Prodfather" doesn't know the woman and her brother are undercover FBI agents wearing body cameras.
Prosecutors claim Epstein has been getting away with it for years.
"Mendel Epstein believed that as long as things were kept within the community, there would not be any repercussions," said lead prosecutor Joseph Gribko. "When people went to the police the police would just wave it off and say it was some crazy Jewish affair."
"He knows that I'm now unfortunately I'm in my 40s and he knows how desperately I want children and he's depriving my mother of her grandchildren," said the female undercover FBI agent in the meeting with Epstein.
The two FBI agents are acting as brother and sister, trying to arrange a beatdown on the woman's husband.
"Drown him. I don't care what happens to him," the female undercover agent says on the recording.
"We've learned on different people how to do this," says Epstein. "The first shot if you land puts him out. Whether it's a kick to the stomach or a bat, you bat him out, he's down. Once he's down, he's handcuffed and hooded."
This kind of brutality doesn't come cheap.
"To start is $10,000," says Epstein. "The tough guys are probably gonna be in the range of fifty or sixty."
Rabbi Epstein instructs the sister and brother to have her husband show up at a remote warehouse in New Jersey for a real-estate deal he can't refuse.
The plan is to have three other rabbis there armed with divorce papers, and four thugs who'll make sure he signs them -- even if it's in his own blood.
To keep his hands clean, Rabbi Epstein will be miles away in Brooklyn with an ironclad alibi.
"I'm somewhere else. I'll be in a public place, because anything goes on I'm the first stop. So I've got to be with witnesses," says Epstein. "After this is done, they're going to call me up and say 'mazel tov' to me so I know that it's done."
But is all this just tough-guy talk, designed to inflate the rabbi's ego and reputation?
Consider Epstein's final, chilling bit of advice:
"He says he's getting a heart attack. Know what I do? Continue the ride and let him die. I'm very serious. Be prepared for that. My boys don't care," says Epstein.
Cameras are rolling, and the stage is now set for the sting late in the afternoon in Edison, New Jersey. The industrial park is isolated, quiet. The rabbi's gang arrives for last-minute arrangements, hooded, shrouded, spoiling for a fight.
"People dressed in black, people wearing masks, shadowboxing and getting ready and making actual preparations to grab the husband when he arrived and force him, by violence, to give a get," said Gribko.
The undercover FBI agent gets the sting started: "If the guy gets bloody, do it in here so I don't have to have carpets cleaned."
Now there's no turning back.
"All right. Lights out."
And with lights out, the FBI SWAT team is all-systems-go.
"They came in and they arrested everybody," said Wolfe.
The feds pull the net on eight orthodox henchmen, bagging the bad guys in beards, hoodies, even catching one thug in a monster mask.
Three rabbis armed with parchment, ink and quills.
And the muscle, armed with rope, hoods and fists.
All of the men are given lengthy jail time. And Rabbi Mendel Epstein is sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
"They were trying to say that this religious activity was protected by the First Amendment, and although there are exceptions for religious activities, effectuating violence on others is not one of them," said Wolfe.
At sentencing, Epstein tells the judge: "I guess I got caught up in my tough-guy image."
"Rabbi Epstein and his family are some of the most loyal, compassionate, smart, caring, community-minded individuals I have ever met," said attorney Robert Stahl. "He was coming from a position of what is good and what is right and what is noble and perhaps it went a little bit too far."
But prosecutors claim the rabbi earned his title as "The Prodfather."
"This was a big operation and it had been operating under the radar for years," said Sarah Wolfe. "Mendel Epstein had a reputation for this sort of thing. He was known in the community as the rabbi who did things 'the other way.'"