Photo Credit:
Nathan Lewin

The 2009, 2010, and 2011 incidents were charged in separate counts of the federal indictment returned in Trenton as kidnappings – which carry possible sentences of life imprisonment.

There was also substantial evidence from FBI agents about the “sting” that was hatched by the FBI in March 2012. A female “certified undercover agent” who had been trained at a specialized school in Quantico, Virginia, was assigned to act as “a wife who was trying to obtain a get or a divorce from her husband.” Another undercover agent was assigned to act as her brother, and the FBI created a fictitious husband who was living in Argentina and had refused to give his wife a get.

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The purpose of an FBI sting is to lure individuals who might commit a crime to do so in a manner that can easily be proved in court. Meetings with possible perpetrators are orally and visually recorded for presentation at a criminal trial.

The FBI’s undercover agents went about their business by first contacting the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) and asking for its assistance on behalf of the make-believe agunah. She sent an e-mail to ORA and followed up with several telephone calls. Believing her story, an ORA representative sent her to the Beth Din of America. The undercover agents then skillfully enacted the plight of a victimized agunah to responsible personnel at the Beth Din of America which, at their request, sent three summonses (hazmanas) to the fictitious husband at a fictitious address in Florida. (The agent testified that it was really a “post office mailbox.”) When the husband failed to reply (because, as the agent acknowledged on the witness stand, he “did not exist”), the agents persuaded the Beth Din of America to issue a seruv, signed by its chief rabbinical authority.

In order to accomplish this objective and persuade the Beth Din of America to issue the seruv, the agents fabricated a fictitious e-mail from the nonexistent husband to the purported brother acknowledging receipt of the hazmanas. Copies of the Beth Din of America’s warning and the seruv signed by the rabbinical authority were introduced in evidence. (Would the FBI treat so cavalierly and mislead an equivalent Christian or Muslim religious authority in order to advance a sting?)

With the seruv in hand and with very effective dramatic portrayals of a weeping desperate agunah, the FBI undercover agents contacted the rabbis whom they lured into commission of what the Department of Justice viewed as criminal conduct – i.e., an attempt to commit kidnappings of the kind that had been committed against recalcitrant husbands in 2009, 2010, and 2011.

The sting succeeded famously. On the night of October 9, 2013, eight Orthodox men were arrested at a warehouse in Edison, New Jersey. The prosecutors alleged they had come there to violently force the non-existent Argentinian husband to give a get.

Facing a trial on charges that carry possible life-imprisonment sentences, six of the eight men arrested on the scene pleaded guilty to lesser offenses, as did one rabbi. Two of those who were found at the warehouse – the scribe (sofer) who had come to write the get once it was authorized and a prospective witness who came to sign the get (my client) – refused to plead guilty and went to trial in Trenton.

The prosecution objected to defense efforts to give the jury a full picture of the plight of agunot that had motivated the defendants to take extreme measures to assist the female undercover agent to remarry. “Chained” women who were, and are today, in desperate circumstances offered to testify for the defense, but the prosecution’s objection, sustained by the trial judge, precluded such testimony.

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Nathan Lewin, a former president of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Council, has argued 28 cases in the Supreme Court of the United States and is an adjunct lecturer at Columbia Law School where he teaches “Religious Minorities in Supreme Court Litigation.”