Third Circuit Upholds Rabbis’ Convictions in Divorce-Kidnap Case

PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Religious liberty did not grant three rabbis leeway to abduct Jewish husbands to force divorces from their wives, the Third Circuit ruled, upholding their kidnapping convictions.

The 38-page amended ruling released Monday rejected a number of challenges by the three rabbis, including that the underlying FBI sting operation constituted “outrageous government conduct” and that their religion gave them the right to kidnap uncooperative husbands in the pursuit of a gittin, or religious divorce.

Mendel Epstein, Binyamin Stimler, and Jay Goldstein were all convicted in 2015 of operating a ring of rabbis and “tough guys” to help multiple Orthodox Jewish women kidnap their husbands to obtain a get, or divorce contract.

The ring operated from 2009 through part of 2013, prosecutors said.

In the Jewish religion, a wife must obtain a get from the husband in order to divorce.

Divorce without a get leads to shunning and other social stigmas in the religious community. Aiding an aggrieved wife in this matter is considered a mitzvah, or good deed, in Orthodox Judaism.

In some of the cases, Epstein and the other rabbis in the ring had asked for as much as $60,000 as payment.

They would then use various methods—including beatings or torture involving cattle prods, according to court documents—to obtain a get, later standing before a rabbinical court and acting as eid, or witnesses to the get.

The rabbis would also convene a meeting before a rabbinical court and issue a psak kefiah, or contempt order, authorizing the use of force against the husbands.

Other rabbis in Orthodox Jewish communities in recent years, such as those in Brooklyn, have been found guilty of orchestrating similar kidnapping rings, and at least one case allegedly involved a murder plot. The issue was even was a plot line on the TV show “The Sopranos.”

After the FBI learned of the New Jersey kidnapping ring in 2013, it set up a sting operation.

During the operation, Epstein met with undercover FBI agents at a warehouse in Edison, N.J., and explained his methods.

Epstein, who resided in Brooklyn, told an undercover FBI agent that he and others would kidnap a recalcitrant husband, and then beat up and torture the man until he signed a get.

After one such psak kefiah order made to the undercover agent, the three rabbis were arrested while in disguise at the intended kidnapping location.

They were charged with kidnapping and conspiracy offenses. Other rabbis involved in the ring were charged, but several pleaded guilty or were acquitted, as was the case with Epstein’s son, who allegedly beat at least one of the kidnapped husbands.

Stimler, Goldstein, and Epstein were sentenced in 2015 to 39 months, 96 months, and 120 months in prison, respectively.

The three rabbis appealed, claiming their religious freedom had been violated and that the trial court had improperly instructed the jury.

Writing for a three-judge panel in the Third Circuit’s opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Roth wrote that religious liberty does not permit kidnapping.

“Respect for religious beliefs cannot … trump all other legitimate, and sometimes competing, government objectives,” she wrote. “This appeal asks us to clarify the balance between religious freedom and public safety. The balance here clearly lies on the side of public safety.”

The Third Circuit also held that the FBI sting operation was proper.

“Given that Epstein first suggested the use of violence, and that the defendants assembled the kidnapping team, chose a location, and acquired their own tools, we see no due process violation here,” Roth wrote.

In addition, the Philadelphia-based appeals court found that cellphone location evidence entered during the trial—used to verify the rabbis were present during the sting—and jury instructions were proper.

In an otherwise mostly concurring opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo wrote that the FBI overstepped its bounds in obtaining the rabbis’ cellphone location data without a warrant because the data originated at various cell towers.

“Collecting data at every radio signal—whether the origin or termination of a call, a call hand-off, a text message, or a data connection by an application—threatens an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy more than collecting data at the origination and termination of calls only,” he wrote.

Restrepo wrote, however, that he would not have suppressed the cellphone information, citing the good-faith exception to the warrant requirement.

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