(JTA) – A prominent Satmar Hasidic rabbi from Israel and one of his followers were arrested and charged with plotting to kidnap and kill a man who refused to give his wife a religious divorce.
Rabbi Aharon Goldberg, 55, and Shimen Liebowitz, 25, were charged Wednesday in Manhattan Federal Court, the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement, one day after their arrest by the FBI. They allegedly recruited an unnamed man and paid him more than $55,000 to murder the recalcitrant husband.
Though Goldberg is based in Israel, both men are said to be prominent members of the Kiryas Joel community in upstate New York.
The paid hitman contacted the FBI in early July to report that he had been recruited to kidnap the recalcitrant husband in order to torture him and force him to issue a “get,” a religious Jewish divorce, to his wife. The kidnapping would take place either in Pennsylvania or in Uman, Ukraine, where the husband was scheduled to travel to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. The hitman was advanced $25,000 in order to plan the kidnapping, according to the FBI.
Later meetings and conversations, in which the rabbi discussed the possibility of also killing the intended victim, identified as a taxi driver, were recorded. In a final conversation in September, the rabbi told the hitman he also wanted the husband killed.
“As if the plan to kidnap the victim and force him to divorce his wife in this alleged conspiracy wasn’t bad enough, the plotters allegedly decided halfway through the arrangement to go a step further and add murder to the list of their planned crimes,” FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William Sweeney Jr. said in the Justice Department statement issued Wednesday. “Our country protects freedom of religious beliefs and practices, but no one is allowed to plot a kidnapping and murder regardless of their motivation.”
Goldberg and Liebowitz are charged with one count each of conspiracy to commit kidnapping, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, and one count each of conspiracy to commit murder for hire, which carries a maximum prison term of 10 years.