A Hasidic rabbi and his young accomplice plotted to liberate a so-called chained woman in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, by kidnapping and murdering her husband, according to a criminal complaint filed Wednesday. The men allegedly paid a confidential informant $55,000 to kill the man, who wouldn’t grant his wife a religious divorce.
Sects of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who live by their own set of religious laws, dot the tristate area. In these Hasidic communities, women can only divorce if their husbands grant them a get, or religious divorce. Those whose spouses refuse are known as agunot, or chained women, and their only recourse is to ask a rabbinic court known as a beth din to pressure the husbands into letting them go.
But while rabbinic courts might resort to creative strategies to try to pressure a man to give a get, the plan allegedly hatched by Rabbi Aharon Goldberg, 55, and Shimen Liebowitz, 25, is nothing if not unorthodox.
The two men contacted their hired gun in early July to ask about arranging a kidnapping to coerce a Williamsburg man into giving his wife such a get, according to the criminal complaint. They discussed a payment of $25,000 and the possibilities of kidnapping the man in Pennsylvania or Ukraine, where many Haredi Jews make pilgrimages to the graves of their rebbes.
Unbeknownst to the two men, the intended kidnapper recorded their conversations with his own intentions: going to the police.
He got both the payment for the job and an FBI escort to his next meeting, on Aug. 9. This second, FBI-sanctioned recording allegedly caught the men discussing a kidnapping plot in Ukraine not Pennsylvania.
Liebowitz lives in the insular new world Satmar shtetl of Kiryas Joel in Orange County, New York, where the meeting took place. Goldberg lives in the largely haredi Israeli city of Bnei Brak, but also has close ties to Kiryas Joel. Another large community of Satmars lives alongside hipsters in Williamsburg, including the alleged intended victim.
Three days later, they met again. In this meeting, which the informant recorded on his own, the plan supposedly changed to kidnapping in the United States, and the men allegedly gave him an additional $20,000 for planning.
But when Goldberg and the confidential informant were in Israel together, the plan took a darker turn, according to the criminal complaint.
The kidnapping was upgraded to murder.
On Aug. 24, the confidential source demanded more money up front from Liebowitz. The men arranged to meet at the Woodbury Commons Mall the next day, where Liebowitz handed over $12,000 in cash, according to the complaint. The confidential informant also called Goldberg, then in Israel, from his cellphone.
The men spoke in Hebrew—which Liebowitz does not speak—about the “wedding in America,” understood by the FBI as confirming that the kidnapping with the intent of coercing a get would take place in the U.S.
“Yes, the wedding is in America, but we’ve also spoken about…chesed shel emet,” the confidential source allegedly said, using a Hebrew term that refers to caring for the dead.
He was allegedly met with a brief silence.
“Yes, yes, yes, this is between you and me…” Goldberg responded, according to the complaint.
“Oh, but Shimen doesn’t know anything?” the source asked.
“This is my order,” Goldberg allegedly said. “Don’t involve anyone else…nothing has happened, but this is my agreement, no other rabbi will agree to what I’ve agreed on.”
But when the confidential source and Liebowitz reunited at Woodbury Commons a week later, the younger man appeared to know exactly what the rabbi allegedly had planned.
“I can tell you in the back of my mind, it looks like his parents will be happy when this happens,” Liebowitz allegedly said.
“If he’s fucking dead? OK,” the source replied, according to the complaint.
The confidential source then asked what would happen when the Satmar community figured out one of their own was missing and dead.
Liebowitz said he would carry on as if he knew nothing, according to the complaint. If anything, the blame would fall to Goldberg, and then to the chained wife’s family, he allegedly said.
But their plans were cut short by the Department of Justice.
Goldberg and Liebowitz were arrested in Central Valley on Tuesday. They were meeting to plot the kidnapping and murder, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York said in a press release.
But residents of the insular Satmar community in Williamsburg told this reporter that they knew nothing about the alleged plot in their midst on Thursday morning, two days after the men were arrested.
“No... No... No...” replied one man in response to a series of questions about the case, refusing to stop to talk to this reporter.
A woman outside the Satmar Meats shop on Middleton Street said the accusations this reporter repeated to her “doesn’t make sense,” and that she’d never heard of the two men accused.
“Maybe someone made up a story,” she said.
“Nobody kills nobody,” another man told this reporter.
Another resident offered some light about why her neighbors might have not heard about the alleged crime.
“I don’t watch the news and I don’t read newspapers,” one woman told The Daily Beast. “I hope it’s not true, what should I tell you?”
This story has been updated.