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Sometimes the measures work. Stern recalls one man who gave the get after 20 weeks of protest outside his house. Another relented as he faced a third stint in jail for contempt of court. But of the 50 cases Stern sees each year, about half are rolled over from the year prior. Some have dragged on for six, seven, 11 years. (A husband's stubbornness should not be underestimated. In Israel, where beth din rulings are legally binding, a husband can be incarcerated for refusing to grant a get. One such man, Yehia Abraham, spent 32 years in prison rather than agree to the divorce. Abraham died behind bars in 1994.)
"You can coerce," says Heilman. "The question is: What coercion can you use?"
In the 12th century, in his Jewish law codex Mishneh Torah, the scholar Maimonides described the justification for physical coercion: "If the law mandates that a person grant his wife a divorce, and he refuses, a Jewish court, in any time or place, may beat him until he says, 'I am willing' and writes the writ of divorce. . . . It is only that his evil inclination has overpowered him. So if he is beaten so that his evil inclination is weakened, and he says, 'I am willing,' he has willingly divorced."
Most rabbis these days believe it's unacceptable to beat a husband in pursuit of a get. Weissmann and Stern say a get procedure isn't legitimate under Jewish law if it violates secular penal codes.
"On one side, you are allowed to coerce a recalcitrant husband who refuses to give a get," Heilman explains. "On the other side, you are required to abide by the law of the land, and assault is not part of the law."
Amy Neustein often met with law enforcement officials to provide background on investigations that involved the Orthodox community. She first dropped Epstein's name in December 1986, when an investigator from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York visited her house to discuss possible financial fraud among rabbis. Though she had only the anecdotal stories she'd heard from troubled women, she suspected Epstein was a "rogue" running an extortion racket. (The Voice contacted spokesmen at the U.S. Attorney's Offices for the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, all of whom declined to confirm or deny whether their agencies have any files on Mendel Epstein.)
Monty Weinstein, too, voiced his concerns. Through the late 1980s and early '90s, he says, he described what he had heard about Epstein in letters to the Kings County District Attorney's Office and to various Brooklyn judges. In 1991, he staged a protest outside Epstein's Midwood home. He recalls that about 25 people showed up, some holding "Stop Mendel Epstein" signs.
Most say that by the mid-'90s, Epstein's kidnapping ring had become an open secret. "The whole community knew this," says Stern. "If someone wanted someone beaten up, Epstein would be the guy."
After years of operating with seeming impunity, Epstein himself wasn't exactly secretive about his unconventional methods. In an interview for the 2011 documentary Women Unchained, the rabbi told of a desperate wife who came to him after her husband took off with their child. "She heard I have an ability to do things outside the normal parameters, outside normal channels," he said.
By the logic Epstein presented, he was a righteous vigilante, defending helpless women who had nowhere else to turn.
"He took advantage of their vulnerability," says Stern, adding that Epstein's motivation was not about advancing women's rights, but about enlarging his own bank account. "A gun for hire," he says.
The marriage of Abraham Rubin and Chaya Mund didn't last long, but the couple's divorce was protracted and messy. They wed in 1986; in 1990, Mund moved to Montreal with their two children, according to court documents. Two years later, a civil court granted her a divorce. Rubin later claimed in court that he gave Mund a list of 30 rabbis he was willing to work with for the get hearing and she countered with her own list. (The Voice was unable to locate Mund to seek comment for this story.)
"That is one of the biggest fault lines in any acrimonious Jewish divorce case," says Shlomo Weissmann, speaking generally. "Some Jewish courts might have a reputation for being biased in favor of the men. Some might have a reputation for being biased in favor of the women. So the man and woman might disagree in terms of where to go."
Jewish law states that when the parties can't agree on a court, each side picks a rabbi, those two select a third, and the three form an ad hoc beth din. Rubin claimed Mund wouldn't agree to this process, and that he'd refused to grant the get until they could present their case to a beth din he deemed impartial. For four years, the stalemate persisted.
In April 1996, Rubin told a friend, Rabbi Elya Amsel, that a group of rabbis was convening a beth din to mediate his divorce proceedings. Mund had selected the rabbis and Rubin assumed the men would be biased. He refused to attend. According to an affidavit Amsel later filed in court, Amsel offered to go in Rubin's stead.