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Helping wives when religious tradition is a ‘trap’
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Helping wives when religious tradition is a ‘trap’

As far as Fraidy Reiss knows, there isn’t another organization like Unchained At Last.

Inspired by her own advocacy on behalf of agunot — “chained” Jewish wives unable to obtain divorces from recalcitrant husbands — and other women who face daunting difficulties extracting themselves from bad marriages, the organization helps women from different religions throw off the shackles of community stigma.

She started it last year, together with a small group of friends from various religious backgrounds. It has been an uphill effort relying on the skills of unpaid supporters, but momentum is growing, she told NJ Jewish News.

Carving out a new path is what Reiss has been doing for the past 10 years. That struggle has taken the mother of two, now 37, from homebound Orthodox wife living in Lakewood’s Orthodox community to her life now as an independent single woman and college graduate with a career as an investigator, living in a house in Westfield that she bought for herself.

Reiss acknowledges her ex-husband for his ongoing financial support, but she also describes how hard she has worked to create her autonomy. It’s the kind of freedom she is trying to help other women achieve.

An essay she wrote for The Star-Ledger April 15, reprinted in other publications, raised her public profile and evoked a torrent of e-mails and on-line comments. While most are supportive, many are outright vituperative.

Talking over pastries at a Westfield restaurant soon after that, the slender, strikingly elegant Reiss said she has more or less ignored all the comments. “I don’t need to see what they say. I’ve been dealing with stuff like that for years,” she said. She was surprised, however, to hear about the many expressions of support that had come in.

That article has also brought more attention to Unchained At Last. The organization, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, offers emotional support and some legal help for women who find themselves “trapped in arranged marriages” they are desperate to escape. She is hoping eventually to have enough funding to help pay court costs for divorce proceedings for those who need it.

The most common inquiry she receives “is from Orthodox Jewish women who want to leave the religion and are willing to accept ostracism from their family and friends, but are terrified that a judge might remove their children,” she wrote in her essay.

Undeterred

Already 15 women — most of them Jewish — have sought the help of the group. The process is confidential. Reiss mentioned a “heartrending” case of an ill woman with a child, cut off from her family and trying to find a way out of a bad marriage — with no assistance from her family or community.

Reiss knows how that can feel. She lost the support of her mother and five siblings even before her divorce, when she decided to stop wearing the wig prescribed by Orthodox tradition. One sister did contact her — to tell her the family was sitting shiva for her.

The estrangement from the family was so complete that when, soon after splitting from her husband, she went into the hospital to have a lump removed from her breast, she asked if she could name her 12-year-old daughter as next of kin, because, she said, “there was absolutely no one else I could turn to.”

She had married at 19, to the second man presented to her. “I came from a broken home and we had no money,” she said. “Who else was going to look at me?” She described the marriage as bitterly unhappy, but, without any higher education or job training, she felt unable to break away. She said she enrolled in Rutgers University simply to equip herself to earn her own living.

She didn’t expect her reaction. She loved college, and did very well. “I was so voracious for information, I read everything I could get my hands on,” she said.

Reiss also loved the exposure to a world outside the insular Lakewood Orthodox community. One of her first on-campus friends was a Palestinian woman. “We were always told that they hate Jews,” Reiss recalled. “She didn’t hate Jews; she just hated what had happened to her own people. I thought if what I was told about that was so wrong, what else had I been taught that was wrong?”

Reiss became a journalist, writing for the Asbury Park Press, and eventually got a civil divorce.

Though her own mother had suffered as an aguna, trapped in legal limbo owing to Jewish law, which requires the husband to grant a get, or certificate of divorce, she was horrified by her daughter’s rebellion. But Reiss insists that neither her mother’s reaction nor the threat of social isolation brought on by her actions deterred her from rebelling.

She went one step further and actually refused to accept a get from her own husband. (There is a way around it — if a man can get 100 rabbis to sign on to his effort — but she said she wanted to make a gesture to show how onerous the system can be, and that women can have power if they risk exercising it.)

As she explained in her essay, she retained custody of her children.

Without the get, she cannot remarry in accordance with Jewish law. Clearly, she acknowledged, her path isn’t the way for women wanting to leave marriages and still maintain observance of the religious tradition. But, with no interest in having a religious marriage ever again, Reiss said she didn’t care if she was disqualified from one.

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