Orthodox Woman's Journey From Teen Wife to Advocate

Fraidy Reiss Helps Desperate Women Exit Arranged Marriages

Unchained at Last: Fraidy Reiss at her home in New Jersey.
chloe smolkin and lindsay rothenberg
Unchained at Last: Fraidy Reiss at her home in New Jersey.

By Anne Cohen

Published February 10, 2013, issue of February 15, 2013.
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The judge asked her if she was withdrawing it of her own free will, Reiss recalled. Glancing at the lawyer next to her, Reiss lied through her teeth and said, “Yes, your honor.”

“There was no help for somebody like me,” she said. “I needed to help myself or I was going to end up dead.”

People tend to envision forced marriage as something that immigrants bring with them when they come to the United States. In fact, many of the cases Reiss sees involve second- and even third-generation American women. Class also is no bar to becoming a victim.

“Some of the South Asian women who have come to us have advanced degrees and developed networks,” said Kavitha Rajagopalan, secretary of the board of Unchained. In those cases, Unchained provides a less direct but still crucial service: a sense of validation and of emotional support for women whose families, fearing the shame of divorce, often pressure them to stay married.

This psychological pressure can be overwhelming. At one point, when Reiss herself was alone and still financially dependent on her husband, she asked her mother if she and her children could move in with her.

Her mother turned and silently walked out of the room.

Under traditional Jewish religious law, a wife cannot divorce her husband without obtaining a get, or religious bill of divorce, from him. But after a legal battle with her husband stretching longer than three years, Reiss was unwilling to be held hostage to his will. She divorced her husband civilly, without obtaining a get.

At the age of 27, even before her divorce, Reiss applied, and was accepted, to Rutgers University. There she stopped wearing a head covering, and her family shunned her. “I have one sister who kept in touch long enough to tell me that the others were considering sitting shiva for me as if I had actually died,” Reiss said. Out of all the people she knew in the first 30 years of her life, Reiss is in contact with one: that same sister, whom she calls once a year, on the anniversary of her nephew’s death. “Sometimes she picks up, sometimes she doesn’t,” Reiss said.

Reiss graduated Rutgers at age 32 and was the undergraduate commencement speaker for her class. She became a journalist for the Asbury Park Press before finding work as a private investigator — a job she still relies on for her living, even as she devotes increasing time to Unchained.

Ultimately, Reiss’s goal is for Unchained to grow into a national organization that could influence national policy. Rajagopalan, who is also a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, believes that Unchained will succeed largely because of the woman behind it. “Fraidy is unique,” she said. “She’s openly secular, feminist, humanist and boundlessly empathetic.”

Contact Anne Cohen at cohen@forward.com


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