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This much Abraham Rubin knew: He was lying, blindfolded and handcuffed, in the back of a van. He could feel it winding through the streets. He figured at least three men were in there with him, plus the driver. There was the one who'd stepped out of nowhere and punched him in the face as he walked down 56th Street in Brooklyn's Borough Park neighborhood just a few minutes earlier. And two, maybe three others who'd bull-rushed him and threw him into the van.
"We only want you to be a Jew," one of them said in Yiddish.
The van stopped. Rubin heard a door open and the men getting out. "The rabbi is coming," one said. Then the sound of two or more men climbing in beside him.
One asked Rubin in English to repeat what he was about to say.
"On the fourth day of the week, the 10th day of the month of Heshvan in the year 5757 in the creation of the world . . ."
It was the beginning of an oath, and the 31-year-old Rubin, a rabbi himself, knew the words that would follow.
He told the man that he would not repeat them.
That's when the punching began. A relentless onslaught of fists, pummeling his torso and face. Then came the stun gun, jolting Rubin's entire body, over and over. Rubin felt the men pull down his pants, felt the device applied to his genitals. Again and again.
Eventually, the words flowed from him.
". . . willingly consent, being under no duress, to release, discharge, and divorce you to be on your own, you, my wife . . .
". . . so that you are permitted and have authority over yourself to go and marry any man you desire . . .
". . . This shall be for you from me a bill of dismissal, a letter of release, and a document of absolution, in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel."
Three hours after snatching him off the street, at around 10 o'clock on the night of October 23, 1996, his abductors left Rubin, still blindfolded and handcuffed, at the entrance to a cemetery.
Six days a week, 13th Avenue, Borough Park's central commercial thoroughfare, bustles. The sidewalks are crammed, a steady stream of patrons flowing in and out of the many shops. The storefronts, bearing signs written in Hebrew script, are diverse — from shoes to books to fruits and vegetables. Pedestrian attire, on the other hand, is unvarying. The men wear long black coats and wide-brimmed black felt hats. Many carry a book tucked under an arm. The women, who favor long black skirts and running shoes, push strollers.
On Saturdays, 13th Avenue feels like an empty movie set. Even the Duane Reade is closed. Residents of Borough Park honor the Sabbath. According to a 2011 study by the United Jewish Appeal–Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, more than three-fourths of the neighborhood's population of 170,000 is Jewish. The district's city councilman, David Greenfield, has called Borough Park "the Jewish capital of the United States."
The first local synagogue opened its doors in 1904, about the time Jewish immigrants began building a community in the neighborhood. Waves of new families from Europe arrived following each World War. Through the second half of the 20th century, as Americans of all faiths uprooted for the suburbs, Borough Park's population turned increasingly Orthodox, a trend fueled by an influx of immigrants who practiced the ultra-conservative Haredi strain of Judaism. The UJA–Federation study reported that 80 percent of Borough Park Jews classified themselves as Orthodox. Only 2 percent classified themselves as Reform, the religion's most popular liberal denomination in the U.S. Among the respondents, 94 percent answered that their "closest friends are mostly Jewish."
In Borough Park, faith is deeply embedded into day-to-day life. Present in buildings: Affixed to the right side of nearly every doorframe is a mezuzah. Present in travel: Inside the B110 bus, which offers special express service between Borough Park and Williamsburg but doesn't accept MetroCards, a sign reads, "When boarding a crowded bus with standing passengers in the front, women should board the back door after paying the driver in the front." Present in disagreements: Community members rarely take their legal disputes to civil court, choosing instead to settle them through a Jewish rabbinical court, a beth din. An insular legal system governed by Jewish law, the beth din perhaps best embodies the community's self-sufficiency.
For the court's proceedings, litigants typically hire an advocate, known as a to'ein, to argue the case.
In Borough Park, few to'anim were as prominent as Mendel Epstein.
Epstein, now 68, was known to many in the Orthodox Jewish community as a devoted feminist. Stout and bald, with a bushy beard and a steely demeanor, he specialized in divorces. Over three decades he built a reputation for effectively representing women. Says one local rabbi, "He presented himself as a champion for the underdog."
The women who came to Epstein often had a singular problem: Their husbands refused to grant them a get, a document without which an Orthodox Jewish marriage cannot be dissolved. The rule can be traced to the biblical Book of Deuteronomy, and its sway remains stifling: Without a get, a woman who remarries is considered adulterous. Any children fathered by her new husband are illegitimate under Orthodox law and prohibited from marrying within the faith.