TRENTON —A Lakewood rabbi accused of arranging forced divorces orchestrated the beating of a Brooklyn man and demanded $50,000 for his work, a convicted Jewish religious leader said on Wednesday.
In the ongoing federal conspiracy trial of Rabbi Mendel Epstein, David Wax detailed the roles of three of the four men accused of resorting to violence in exchange for large sums of cash to extract divorces from unwilling husbands.
Wax, the founder of a charitable organization that funneled millions of dollars to Israel, directly linked Epstein and two of the three other men on trial with him to the 2010 attack on Yisrael Bryskman, an Israeli national who was living in Brooklyn to avoid giving his wife a divorce according to Orthodox Jewish custom.
On the witness stand for the entire day on Wednesday, Wax said he and Epstein had phone discussions about forcing Bryskman to agree to the divorce -known as a get – at Wax’s Lakewood home.
He said Epstein wanted $50,000 from the family of Bryskman’s wife “to pay the people who were going to come.”
Showing jurors phone records of two Oct. 10, 2010, phone calls between Epstein and Wax, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Gripko asked Wax to explain why he made those calls.
“We were discussing the planning of what was going to happen,” Wax said.
The money didn’t arrive in time to pay Epstein, so he made arrangements to pay Epstein’s son, David “Ari” Epstein, a down payment of $15,000 the day before the attack, he said.
To bolster that testimony, Gripko showed jurors phone records of two calls between Wax and the younger Epstein the day before the attack – each less than a second long.
Shortly after those calls, the younger Epstein arrived at Wax’s home to collect the money, Wax said.
“My wife gave Ari $15,000,” he said. “I watched him count it.”
Epstein, a prominent rabbi who specializes in divorce proceedings, is on trial along with his son and rabbis Binyamin Stimler and Jay Goldstein, on conspiracy and kidnapping charges that grew out of a federal undercover sting. Prosecutors allege the elder Epstein ordered the beatings while others carried them out.
Wax admitted he lured Bryskman to his home to force him into giving his wife the get, but Wax insisted he didn’t expect it to be violent.
Bryskman testified on Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson in Trenton that his attackers blindfolded him, cuffed his hands behind his back and bound his legs before repeatedly beating and kicking him. The attack occurred late Oct. 16, 2010, and continued into the early morning hours of the following day.
Bryskman couldn’t identify anyone other than Wax as his attackers, but Wax on Wednesday said Ari Epstein and his unknown friend threw the first punches before he joined in.
At one point, Wax donned a white cowboy hat and pulled Bryskman’s head up by his hair to ask him how he liked the hat, Wax admitted.
He said Goldstein was present to write the official get document before everyone left.
Wax also testified that after the attack was over, he got into a cab with Bryskman and took him to an automated teller machine to withdraw the money. The cash – which Bryskman eventually did not retrieve – was to pay for the rug in Wax’s bedroom that Bryskman had bloodied during the attack, Wax said.
Wax said he attempted to have Bryskman’s father pay $100,000 in ransom but insisted the money was intended as child support for Bryskman’s wife.
In the four weeks that federal prosecutors have been calling witnesses, Wax, who has admitted to the kidnaping and brutal beating of one of those husbands, has provided the most potentially damaging testimony so far.
But defense attorneys, who started their cross-examination of Wax on Wednesday, contend he concocted these claims after his arrest on the kidnapping charge so that he could receive a reduced sentence. They insist he went in search of victims of forced gets after his arrest and falsely claimed that Rabbi Epstein was the mastermind of the beatings.
The defense attorneys are trying to portray Wax to the jury of eight men and eight women as a man deep in debt and desperate for money and who planned to keep the entire payment from Bryskman’s forced get and ransom.
Wax, who with his wife Judy Wax founded the Taryog Legacy Foundation, acknowledged the charitable organization was $8.4 million in debt at the time of Bryskman’s beating.
Henry Mazurek, Ari Epstein’s attorney, presented jurors with bank records showing hundreds of thousands of dollars transferred from the foundation’s bank account to Judy Wax’s personal bank account around that time. A large chunk of those funds was wired to a money-changing business in Israel shortly before Wax traveled there.
Wax’s account of the attack differed from Bryskman’s in several ways.
Wax said he walked into the room where the attack occurred ahead of Bryskman. Bryskman testified on Tuesday that Wax was behind him.
Wax said the cab stopped at a rest area on the Garden State Parkway to meet up with his wife but Bryskman testified that meet-up was at a Wawa convenience store in Lakewood.
Wax said he got out of the cab to make two calls to Bryskman’s father to demand the ransom money. Bryskman said there were more than two conversations and that Wax made the calls while he, Wax and Judy Wax were together in her vehicle.
Wax also was confused about the dates he was in Israel and in New Jersey before Bryskman’s attack and how that trip coincided with the calls he made to Rabbi Epstein.
The trial continues Thursday with the continuation of Wax’s cross-examination followed by testimony from Judy Wax.