Film in Works About Brooklyn Rabbi Who Coerced Divorces


(JTA) — A Brooklyn rabbi who used questionable methods to coerce Orthodox men to give their wives religious divorces will be the subject of a forthcoming movie.

Novelist and journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner will write the screenplay for an upcoming film called “The Get,” based on Matt Shaer’s 2014 article in GQ about Mendel Epstein and charges that he kidnapped, beat and even zapped men with cattle prods. Rabbi Epstein, 75, is scheduled to be released from jail in 2024, according to public records.

Brodesser-Akner, The New York Times journalist and author of the best-selling novel “Fleishman Is In Trouble,” said the subject matter “is extremely close to my heart.”

“My family is ultra-Orthodox,” she told Variety, “and I’ve seen women close to me whose lives and plans have been derailed by the arcane and dangerous law that men possess the singular power to end a marriage, a state of affairs that tests some of their most abusive tendencies.”

Rabbi Epstein was determined to get recalcitrant husbands to grant a Jewish divorce, or a “get,” to their estranged wives — known as agunot, or chained women. Shaer reported that Epstein kidnapped, beat and even used cattle prods on their testicles as persuaders. He wound up in jail.

“Out of all the stories I’ve written in the past decade, the GQ feature on Mendel Epstein was one of my favorites,” Shaer said in a statement reported by Variety. “That’s partly because of the world in which it is set — a world most Americans are unfamiliar with — and partly because the themes are so fascinating and resonate.

“When it comes to a figure like Epstein, where should we draw the line between criminal and hero? And who, exactly, gets to make the distinction — the secular criminal justice system or the families that count themselves in Epstein’s debt?”

In 2012, Rabbi Epstein, who appeared to have homes in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Lakewood, N.J., told the Five Towns Jewish Times that he was “disturbed by the number of women who find themselves in unbearably difficult situations” in divorce proceedings. He proposed a “bill of rights” for Jewish wives that includes, “A woman in an abusive relationship has a right to seek a get.”

The next year, however, the FBI  rounded up Rabbi Epstein and nine other men in an alleged interstate abduction ring and raided several homes and a Monsey yeshiva. The charges included that he agreed to accept $60,000 to orchestrate a kidnapping in 2013 on behalf of a woman and her brother who turned out to be undercover FBI agents.

A 10-year prison term was imposed in 2015. In 2017, a federal appeals court Friday affirmed the convictions for Rabbi Epstein and two other rabbis.