Fraidy Reiss was married at the age of 19 to a man she despised. Outwardly, she had a choice. The ultra-Orthodox matchmaker she went to gave her two men to choose from. She went on a couple of dates. She desired neither. But as a girl perilously close to 20 in the Hasidic community of Brooklyn, she finally agreed to marry one.
A week into the marriage, Reiss’s husband woke up late and, in a blind rage, punched a hole in the bedroom wall. It was the beginning of nearly 15 years of living with a man whose constant physical threats against her — though he never actually beat her — came to dominate Reiss’s daily life.
Today, Reiss sits in a crowded coffee shop at New York’s Port Authority and reflects on the huge distance she has traveled in the past 18 years, from that marriage to her current role as head of a not-for-profit group that helps women — Jewish and non-Jewish — get out of forced marriages.
“It’s hugely cathartic,” she said. “When I can give somebody the support that I didn’t have, every time that’s healing.”
It was in 2011, after her ultimately successful struggle to leave her marriage, get a college degree and work as a journalist and, later, as a private investigator, that Reiss resolved to help women going through what she had experienced.
Unchained at Last, the not-for-profit organization she founded that year, seeks to support women from all cultures or religions who want to leave a forced marriage. Acting as a sort of social services middleman, the organization connects women with pro bono divorce lawyers, social workers, counselors and psychotherapists — all volunteers. Reiss and her board members — each from a different community in which arranged marriage is common — also put women in touch with mentors from a similar background, to help advise them on how to navigate these difficult waters.
Reiss says that her organizations helps women from Jewish and Muslim families, and from South Asian and African cultures.