A rabbi and another member of the ultra-Orthodox Satmar community in Orange County were charged yesterday for allegedly conspiring to kidnap, torture and then kill a woman's husband after he refused to grant her a religious divorce. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called the plot "chilling" and said, "Over a period of months, the Complaint alleges, they met repeatedly to plan the kidnapping and to pay more than $55,000 to an individual they believed would carry it out."
On Tuesday, investigators arrested Rabbi Aharon Goldberg, 55, and Shimen Liebowitz, 25, in Central Valley, New York, where they were allegedly meeting to plan the kidnapping and murder. Goldberg is based in Israel but is prominent in the ultra-Orthodox community of Kiryas Joel, NY, which in 2011 was reported to be the most impoverished town in America—and, earlier this year, became the focus of an FBI investigation into child abuse. Liebowitz resides in Kiryas Joel.
Prosecutors say the pair recruited a third man, also an ultra-Orthodox Jew, to help them force a husband to give his wife a divorce. The U.S. Attorney's office explains, "According to Jewish religious law as observed in certain communities, in order to effect a divorce, a husband must provide his wife with a document known as a 'get.' A woman whose husband will not consent to a divorce is known as an 'agunah.' In the absence of the husband’s issuing a get, an agunah may be released from her marriage only through the husband’s death."
However, the man (identified only as "the CS" by prosecutors) contacted the FBI about his early July meeting with the pair, and over the summer, the plan allegedly escalated from kidnapping to murder. From a press release:
During the meeting, which was recorded, the CS feigned interest in participating in the kidnapping. He, Goldberg, and Liebowitz discussed how such a kidnapping might be carried out, including the possibility of luring the Intended Victim to Pennsylvania in order to kidnap him, torture him, and force him to give the get. The CS, Goldberg, and Liebowitz also discussed the possibility of kidnapping the Intended Victim in Ukraine, where the Intended Victim planned to travel in late September to celebrate the Jewish New Year. Goldberg and Liebowitz agreed to advance the CS $25,000 to assist in efforts to plan the kidnapping. According to the CS, within days of this initial meeting, an envelope containing approximately $25,000 cash was delivered to the CS.
On or about August 9, 2016, the CS met with Liebowitz and Goldberg in Kiryas Joel, New York. During this meeting, the CS, Goldberg, and Liebowitz discussed additional details of the kidnapping plan, including logistics and the cost associated with a plan to kidnap the Intended Victim overseas. This conversation was also recorded.
On August 12, 2016, the CS again met with Liebowitz and Goldberg, at which time they provided the CS with an additional payment of over $20,000 for use in making arrangements for the kidnapping. In this meeting, which was also recorded, the CS, Goldberg and Liebowitz further discussed their plan to kidnap the Intended Victim in the United States and to obtain the get from him in this country.
Subsequent to the August 12, 2016, meeting, the CS had additional conversations with Goldberg, in which Goldberg discussed his desire not merely to kidnap the Intended Victim, but also to kill him.
On August 25, 2016, the CS met Liebowitz in Central Valley, New York. During the meeting, Liebowitz paid the CS an additional sum of about $12,000 to carry out the kidnapping. Also during the meeting, the CS spoke by phone with Goldberg, who was still in Israel, about the kidnapping plan, which the CS and Goldberg referred to in code as a “wedding,” as well as Goldberg’s desire that the CS kill the Intended Victim. This conversation was also recorded.
Last week, the CS had another conversation with Liebowitz in which Liebowitz "indicated his understanding that the Intended Victim would be murdered as part of the plan.
Resorting to violence is nothing new for ultra-Orthodox rabbis who are enlisted to help women get divorces: Three years ago, the head of a Monsey yeshiva and many others were accused of beating and using cattle prods on their victims. One victim said, "he forced it (the get) on me. They busted my fingers, busted my ribs. They kept me handcuffed. These gets aren’t kosher. They force it. It destroyed me."
A rabbi in NJ admitted he kidnapped and tortured an ultra-Orthodox man who wouldn't give his wife a divorce—he apparently handcuffed, beat and threatened to bury the man alive if he didn't agree to the get. Newsweek looked at how divorce in the ultra-Orthodox community is "brutal, degrading and endless," with the founder of a non-profit that helps women escape arranged or forced marriages explaining, "Being an agunah is such a painful and shameful existence. You remain trapped as a single person in a community where there is nothing more shameful than being single."
Goldberg and Liebowitz were charged with one count each of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and one count each of conspiracy to commit murder for hire.