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One night in the fall of 1986, a woman named Deena talked with Neustein. Soft-spoken, she'd been sheltered all her life. "Naïve," Neustein remembers. Her story began the way many did: abusive husband won't grant get.
Deena went on to explain that her friends had referred her to a man who was known to help women in her situation. "He told her that the abuse denial was very much entrenched in the community; that the beth din favored men; that women were losing children and not getting divorces and there was nothing she could do; that she would remain a woman in chains for the rest of her life; that she wouldn't get a divorce in any other way than through him," Neustein recalls.
Soon after speaking with the man, Deena had second thoughts. He'd guaranteed he could persuade her husband to grant the get, but he was charging her thousands of dollars and was suspiciously secretive about his methods. Eventually Deena learned from others that the man was rumored to use violence to coerce gets out of stubborn husbands. So she told the man she'd changed her mind. She hinted that she might report him to authorities. In response, he told her she was about to make a terrible mistake. If she didn't accept his services, he said, she would lose her children, she would never marry again, "no one would ever want her, and the community would align with the husband," Neustein reports.
Neustein wasn't familiar with the man, a to'ein named Mendel Epstein. She advised Deena to "stay strong," "keep fighting," and they'd figure out a solution. The two women spoke a few more times over the next couple of months. And then Neustein never heard from Deena again. To this day she doesn't know where Deena went, but she heard the woman may have left the city.
In the years that followed, Epstein became a common thread between many of Neustein's nighttime meetings in the bais medrash. Most stories followed a similar arc: a desperate woman turns to Epstein, decides not to follow through with his plan, faces extortion.
There were some exceptions. In 1997, for example, Neustein met with a woman named Libby. She came from a poor family, Libby said, but her husband was a wealthy, well-known member of the Orthodox community. He was also abusive: When she was six months pregnant, Libby told Neustein, he beat her until she miscarried. Desperate, Libby turned to Mendel Epstein. The rabbi offered one solution: He'd have her husband give her $10,000 if she left the country and promised to keep quiet.
Neustein advised her to reject the deal, and to bring the spousal abuse to light.
A few days later, Libby phoned Neustein from the airport and apologized. She had a one-way ticket to Israel. "I'm giving in," she said.
Over a decade and a half, Neustein estimates, two dozen women came to her in fear of Epstein.
Meanwhile, in a one-room office in Crown Heights, a family therapist named Monty Weinstein was hearing stories, too. Weinstein founded Father's Rights Metro, a nonprofit group that assisted men in custody disputes. Weinstein remembers the first time he heard Epstein's name: In the mid-1980s, an Orthodox Jew approached him with a farfetched tale about how he'd been jumped by thugs and beaten until he agreed to recite the get oath.
"I was skeptical," Weinstein says. "In fact, I didn't believe it. I knew this guy must be a kook."
Several weeks later, though, another man came in with the same story. Then another. Some told of beatings, others of threatening phone calls: Grant the get or you'll be accused of child abuse; grant the get or you'll never see your kids again; grant the get, or else. By the time Weinstein shuttered the nonprofit in 1995, he says, he'd encountered more than a dozen men who'd been assaulted or intimidated over a get.
Such acts of physical coercion go back to ancient times, when a Jewish man could legally be flogged until he relented. In the early 20th century in certain parts of Europe, Queens College professor Heilman says, a woman's father might hire neighborhood toughs to rough up a son-in-law who refused to grant a get.
But refusals persist, and so do beatings. If anything, an increasingly mobile society has amplified the temptation to resort to violence. In the past, a community might shun a recalcitrant husband. Nowadays the man can simply relocate. "It's a modern-day problem because now men can start over," says Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, director of Beth Din of America, a Manhattan-based rabbinical court that handles more cases than any beth din outside of Israel. "Before mobilization, he's stuck in his community, where there's a stigma."
Certain forms of coercion are unanimously accepted in divorce disputes. The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot uses a variety of social and economic pressures to persuade a man to grant a get. Jeremy Stern says he'll stage protests outside a recalcitrant husband's home or workplace and have lawyers look into civil litigation. He asks the man's synagogue to bar him from entry. In some instances, he has asked a husband's employer to fire him. If the man owns a business, he calls for a boycott.