The patriarchal nature of Orthodox marriages can lead to particularly contentious divorces. With custody and alimony at stake, a man may be tempted to use his biblically granted leverage in negotiations: No get until his terms are met. Though the practice is frowned upon, it is so pervasive that there's a word for a woman whose husband refuses to grant a get: an agunah, which translates from Hebrew as "chained woman."

Most stories followed a similar arc: a desperate woman turns to Epstein, decides not to follow through with his plan, faces extortion.

"The get is often the last vestige of control that an abusive man has over his wife," says Rabbi Jeremy Stern, director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, a nonprofit advocacy group for chained women. "Agunot are among the most vulnerable members of the Jewish community."

The New York legislature tried to address the problem, passing a law in 1983 that forbids the state's courts to grant a divorce if the spouse who filed for it has not "taken all steps to remove all barriers to [the other's] remarriage." Another law, passed in 1992, allows courts to consider "barriers to marriage" when setting alimony and dividing property. "There are limitations to both get laws that make it so they do not resolve the agunot problem in New York state," says Stern, who encourages couples to sign a prenuptial agreement that legally requires a husband to pay his wife a fee for each day he holds out on a get. "The solution fundamentally lies in the hands of the rabbis and the Jewish community."

A beth din provides a forum for get mediation, but it does not guarantee that a woman will find a sympathetic ear. "In many cases the Jewish religious court is on the side of the husband," says Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish studies at Queens College. "Both sides don't have equal power. What can she do? She has no wiggle room. She's living in an environment and society where she has no control."

Epstein was an aggressive advocate, versed in scripture, a masterful orator before beth din judges. A fellow rabbi likens hashing out cases with Epstein to negotiating with a Wall Street lawyer. Says another, "He was the guy you went to to get the job done."

Larry Gordon, editor of the 5 Towns Jewish Times newspaper, recalls an evening outside a synagogue several months ago when he spoke with two men about Epstein. One man said he'd hired the rabbi to handle his daughter's divorce. The other man said Epstein had worked for his uncle's ex-wife and pursued a legal action that has barred the uncle from seeing his kids for the past 15 years. "The reason I hate him is the reason you use him for your daughter," Gordon remembers the second man saying.

Epstein publicly advocated for women's empowerment. In 1989 he published a book, A Woman's Guide to the Get Process, which advised wives on their religiously sanctioned options when seeking divorce. He wrote columns on the subject for the Jewish Press. Earlier this year, he codified his philosophy, unveiling "The Bill of Rights of a Jewish Wife" in the pages of the 5 Towns. One right states, "A wife must be treated with respect and not be abused. A woman in an abusive relationship has a right to seek a get." Another: "A husband is obligated to honor and respect his wife's parents." A third: "She is entitled to be supported by her husband."

He wrote it, the author explains in his introduction, "to clarify and strengthen the rights of the Jewish wife because I am disturbed by the number of women who find themselves in unbearably difficult situations."

The manifesto circulated through the Orthodox blogosphere, drawing praise and sparking long threads of debate. Epstein's position had long been accepted by those at the progressive end of the Orthodox Jewish spectrum. But Epstein himself is a Haredi Jew.

"It was a bold statement, because that's very rare to break ranks and step out of the mold that is the Orthodox Jewish community," says Gordon, who interviewed Epstein in August. "Sometimes the view of the elders is a bit archaic and needs some revision to stay in stride with the times. He presented himself as a man on the cutting edge who was willing to take that bold initiative."

More than one local rabbi says Epstein came across as a "knight in shining armor" to agunot in the most desperate situations.

"He says he is the undertaker of failed marriages," says Gordon. "The relationship dies; someone has to bury it."

Adds the newspaper editor: "It's dirty work. It's not pretty."

The women met with Amy Neustein in a synagogue after dark. Neustein's father, Rabbi Abraham Neustein, was a respected educator at the Jewish Center for Brighton Beach and he had a set of keys to the building. Neustein, then 27, had divorced her husband three years earlier, in 1983, and had moved back in with her parents so she could devote more time to the custody battle for her three-year-old daughter. A sociologist by trade, she helped out on her father's off-the-clock project.

Rabbi Neustein ran a sort of Underground Railroad for abused women in the community. It was a delicate matter. "If the women were caught challenging what their husbands had done to them," Amy Neustein says, "they would be subject to such terrible reproach in the Orthodox Jewish community that their chances of marrying again would be nil." So two or three times a week, Neustein's father drove the women to the Jewish Center's bais medrash, the prayer room where he taught, and they told her their stories: of domestic violence, of crumbling marriages, of get refusals.

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