Fraidy Reiss started her fight very much alone. Six years ago, the mother of two, trapped in a desperately unhappy marriage, got a civil divorce, though it meant alienation from her Orthodox Jewish community and from her family.
But Reiss is no longer fighting alone. She is the leader of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit she established in 2011. It was, she said, the first and is still the only organization in the country providing free legal and social services to help women of all religions avoid or get out of abusive forced or arranged marriages. It has helped around 80 girls and women.
And now Unchained is part of a coalition striving to protect women from domestic violence. A law the organization’s leaders helped write was passed by the New Jersey Legislature on Nov. 1, and efforts are under way to get a similar law passed in New York. It has also been taking part in a six-city tour promoting efforts to protect women from violence and forced marriage.
On Tuesday morning, Dec. 9, Reiss will describe her personal journey and her current mission at a breakfast event at Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson sponsored by its Adult Education and Ezra committees and Red Bank Hadassah.
Reiss grew up in a hasidic family in Brooklyn. She got married at 19 to the second man presented to her mother by matchmakers, and settled in Lakewood. “I came from a broken home, and we had no money,” she said. “Who else was going to look at me?”
Her father had left the family but refused to give her mother a divorce, leaving her an aguna, “a chained woman,” unable under Jewish law to marry anyone else. Despite her own predicament, she was totally unsympathetic when, from the start, her daughter’s marriage proved miserable.
Reiss had two daughters and tried to make a go of things, but, she said, her husband’s temper made her fear for her and her children’s safety. Without any higher education or job training, or support from anyone around her, she felt trapped. Finally, determined to expand her options, she enrolled in Rutgers University.
“I was so voracious for information, I read everything I could get my hands on,” she said.
Reiss loved the exposure to the 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?”
By then, her mother and most of her siblings had turned their backs on her. “When I stopped wearing a sheitl [wig], I was told they considered sitting shiva for me,” Reiss recalled.
She qualified as a journalist, got a job writing for Asbury Park Press, and finally — after a three-year battle — managed to get a civil divorce while retaining custody of her children. She moved to Westfield, bought her own house, and became a private investigator.
Her daughters, Reiss said, will have careers and the freedom to marry if and whom they please. That’s the kind of freedom she is trying to help other women obtain too.
Unchained has been working with Pomegranate Tree Group and the Tahirih Justice Center, to address violence in women’s lives, including forced marriage, gender-based prejudice, and patriarchy.
According to a study conducted in 2011 by the center, nearly 3,000 suspected cases of forced marriage were identified in the United States in the previous two years, involving people from 56 countries. The study explored the difference between arranged marriages that participants enter into freely and those involving a lack of real choice. Given the problems with definitions, the respondents — law enforcement officers, legal service providers, and social workers — said the number was probably far higher.