NEW YORK — In 1995, Fraidy Reiss, then 19, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish girl from Brooklyn, NY, was married through a matchmaker to a man she hardly knew. Within a week of living together, he turned violent. Angry with himself for waking up late, he punched his fist through the wall and screamed profanities at her.
“I believed he was going to kill me. He would tell me in detail exactly how he was going to do it,” Reiss said as she sat on a green leather couch in her New Jersey home, while her two teenage daughters ran in and out of the room. “He used to joke and say, ‘I’m not a wife beater, I’m a house beater,’ as if that were OK.”
Reiss said it wasn’t until speaking with a therapist outside of her community years later, that she realized this was domestic violence. After their meeting, she defied everyone she knew by enrolling in classes at Rutgers University. She shed her conservative clothing, took her two daughters, and filed for divorce.
Today, nearly 20 years later, she’s dedicated her life to helping others follow in her path. She started Unchained at Last, a nonprofit organization that helps women from New York and New Jersey — across all cultures and backgrounds — leave arranged marriages.
The group has been operational for over a year, and has over 45 divorce cases pending. According to Reiss, 70 percent of the clients are from the Orthodox Jewish community.
‘Most Jewish women stay in abusive marriages because often times divorce is considered much too shameful’
“Most Jewish women stay in abusive marriages because often times divorce is considered much too shameful,” Reiss said.
New York City’s five boroughs and parts of New Jersey are home to the greatest concentration of Jewish people of any metropolitan area in the United States, according to a study by the UJA-Federation of New York. And, unlike a decade ago, this population is growing: Nearly half a million Jewish people live in Orthodox households, with significantly larger families, and somewhat lower incomes.
Like Reiss, many women in these Diaspora communities feel there is an expectation to be married by age 20, though they may feel it might not be right for them. For men, the average age is 23, according to Yitzhak Berger, lead professor of Hebrew Studies at the City University of New York’s Hunter College.
Berger said there is a significantly higher amount of young girls in the community than boys, with the pools getting larger every three to four years.
‘Because there are so many more girls, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure that they will be left standing’
“Because there are so many more girls, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure that they will be left standing,” Berger said.
In addition, Reiss said the women can also feel pressure by the matchmaker to not be the “picky girl,” they don’t want to deal with. Her ex-husband was her second match, and she already had the feeling of being a burden.
But Rachel Garfinkle, 29, a Jewish matchmaker who lived in Lakewood, New Jersey, the same town as Reiss lived after she got married, said she has never pressured a woman to marry, especially if she thought the potential groom was abusive.
“I will always tell someone, ‘If you don’t feel good about the match, talk it over with our rabbi or an advisor,’” Garfinkle said. “Most of my friends and siblings turned down the first match they were set up with.”
Aside from the struggles a woman might face when entering a marriage, there are also pressures when trying to leave it. By Jewish law, only men have the power to end a marriage by giving his wife a decree of divorce, known as a get.
If the man refuses to give his wife a religious divorce, she cannot marry again. This leaves her in a state of limbo, marking her as an agunah, or a “chained woman.” In Israel, a man can be thrown in jail for denying a get, but in the US, there is no such law.
Over the past five years, there were 450 cases of divorce refusals by men in the US and Canada, according to a 2011 study by the Mellman Group.
Knowing this, Reiss combatted the problem by getting a civil divorce, completely skipping religious courts, called the Beit Din. She is an Atheist now, but said many of her clients are not willing to part with their Jewish heritage.
Elana Sztokman, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, said the group’s top issue is fighting the agunah problem. Sztokman said she is surprised there aren’t more people taking the same route as Reiss.
‘Rabbis should be terrified, we are losing women. They should be spending every minute trying to find a solution to the agunah’
“Rabbis should be terrified, we are losing women,” she said. “They should be spending every minute trying to find a solution to the agunah.”
The organization feels the best solution would be to have the Beit Din courts introduce forms of annulment, where a woman can declare the union void based on an error in the creation of the marriage. Meaning, if she had she known he was violent or manipulative, she never would have married him.
In the future, Reiss hopes to turn her group into a national organization. In April, Unchained at Last got its first big break, with the successful divorce of their first client, a Pakistani woman from the Bronx.
Even though Reiss said she feels her life is complete without religion, severing ties with her entire family was not taken lightly.
“There are a lot of times that it’s just incredibly sad and painful for me that I’m so alone in this world,” Reiss said as she gazed around the room at the home she bought completely on her own. “But when it’s 90 degrees outside and my daughters can wear a pair of shorts and a tank top, they say, ‘Thank you Mommy.’”