Attackers delivered beatings, death threats to force a divorce, victim testifies in Lakewood rabbi trial
Rabbi Mendel Epstein arrives at the federal courthouse in Trenton for his trial on kidnapping an conspiracy charges. (Associated Press)
TRENTON —A Brooklyn man testifying Tuesday in the trial of a Lakewood rabbi accused of orchestrating forced divorces said he was ambushed and beaten until he agreed to divorce his wife.
The daylong testimony of Yisrael Meir Bryskman in federal court in
Trenton did not connect Rabbi Mendel Epstein or his three codefendants
to the 2010 attack but it set the stage for prosecutors' main witness
who could provide more potentially damning evidence in the trial.
Bryskman, a 40-year-old Israeli national who fled his state to avoid warrants for his arrest for refusing to grant a divorce, described for jurors how he was beaten over several hours at the Lakewood home of David Wax, a man he thought was going to give him a job.
Wax, who is scheduled to testify on Wednesday, is the prosecution' main witness linking Epstein, his son and two other rabbis to the beatings.
But defense attorneys contend that Wax, who faces life in prison for Bryskman's kidnapping, concocted the allegations against Epstein, his son David "Ari" Epstein and rabbis Binyamin Stimler and Jay Goldstein to receive a reduced sentence.
Epstein, a prominent rabbi who specializes in divorce proceedings, is on trial along with his son and rabbis Stimler and Goldstein, on conspiracy and kidnapping charges that grew out of a federal undercover sting. They allege the elder Epstein ordered the beatings while others carried them out. Bryskman is the second beating victim to testify in the trial, now in its fourth week.
Bryskman, a tall thin man with light brown hair under his black yarmulke, is the second victim to testify. He sat calmly as he testified before U.S. District Judge Wolfson about the events that started late Oct. 16, 2010, and went into the early morning hours of the following day.
He told of how he searched out Wax, who ran a religious publishing operation from his home, for a job. He said he met with Wax for more than 10 hours on two separate occasions before Wax suggested the third meeting where they were supposed to discuss details about employment.
Bryskman said that he was attacked from behind as he walked into Wax's bedroom, which also served as his office.
A single punch to the face knocked him to the floor before an unknown number of men, including Wax, blindfolded him, handcuffed his hands behind his back and bound his ankles.
While he lay face down on the floor, they beat and kicked him, he said.
"The first punch landed on my face," Wax told assistant U.S. attorney Sarah Wolfe. "It felt like some kind of boxing glove."
Soon after the beating started, the men ordered him to repeat the Hebrew words they were barking, he said. Those "special words," he said, were saying that he agreed to give his wife a religious divorce, known as a get in the Orthodox Jewish religion.
The beatings did not end with that declaration, he said.
At one point, someone tried to pour a liquid into his mouth then doused his head with it, Bryskman told the jury of eight men and eight women.
Another time, Wax, wearing a white cowboy hat, pulled his head up by his hair and asked him "how do you like my cowboy hat?" Bryskman said.
He said some type of chemical was sprayed in his face, causing a burning sensation.
Eventually, Wax brought Bryskman, to the front steps of the house, uncuffed him and got into a cab with him. The cab took the two men to an automated teller machine where Wax ordered a bruised and bloodied Bryskman to withdraw money to reimburse him for the carpet he stained with his blood, Bryskman said. Bryskman said he was so scared he couldn't remember his personal identification number to access his account.
After that ride, the cab took them to a local Wawa convenience store where they met up with Wax's wife, Judy, who was in her sport utility vehicle, Bryskman said.
They agreed to take Bryskman to his cousin's home in Brooklyn, but on the ride, Wax tried to extort money from Bryskman's father in Israel by calling him and threatening to kill Bryskman, he said.
He said that before dropping him off at his cousin's house, Wax ordered him not to call police. Bryskman said he initially complied, but then decided to report the incident the following day.
"I did not want to report it to the police because I was threatened," he said. "I was afraid."
Defense attorneys contend their clients had nothing to do with the beatings and that Wax devised the allegations against them to get a more favorable sentence.
In their cross-examinations of Bryskman, defense attorneys Robert Stahl, who represents Rabbi Epstein, and Henry Mazurek, who represents the younger Epstein, grilled Bryskman about leaving Israel in 2007 to avoid being arrested for refusing to grant his wife a get.
Bryskman said he initially went to Canada but then moved to Brooklyn to be with family. He said he bounced around living with family and friends to prevent members of his wife's family, who he said had threatened him in the past, from finding him.
Goldstein's attorney, Aiden O'Connor, asked why his client would have incentive to force a get. Bryskman acknowledged he was trying to get permission from a special rabbinical court in Brooklyn - on which Goldstein sat - to be allowed to remarry without giving his wife a get.
Follow her on Twitter @MaryAnnSpoto.
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