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Unchained at Last

Fraidy Reiss wins Berrie award for her advocacy against forced and child marriage

In Massachusetts women dress in bridal gowns at chain-ins as they advocate for an end to child marriage. Last June, Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill outlawing it in New Jersey; it’s still legal in Massachusetts.
In Massachusetts women dress in bridal gowns at chain-ins as they advocate for an end to child marriage. Last June, Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill outlawing it in New Jersey; it’s still legal in Massachusetts.

Maybe it’s possible to know how a baby will react to adversity as she grows up. Maybe there’s some way to know who will give in, who will give up, who will adjust, who will stop caring, who will be able to make incremental changes.

Or who will fight back, who will escape, who will be impassioned and enraged by injustice and will fight for others as she did for herself. And black humor might also be part of that fight, and it might surface in surprising ways.

It’s hard to know who will turn out in what way — and hard to accept the fact that some people, many people, will be tested in that terrible way — but it is easy to know that you are in the presence of a fighter. You can see it. You can feel it. The presence of the will to justice can fill a room.

Fraidy Reiss is such a person.

She is the founder and director of Unchained at Last, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that helps people — mainly but not exclusively girls and women, as she will explain — escape from forced marriages. The groups also advocate the abolishment of child marriage, a fight that must be pursued on the state level.

Earlier this month, Ms. Reiss won the 2019 Russ Berrie Making a Difference award for her work.

It was the work toward which her entire life has directed her.

At Ramapo College in Mahwah a few weeks ago, Fraidy Reiss, the founder and director of Unchained at Last, holds the Russ Berrie Making a Difference award. She’s flanked by Ramapo’s president, Peter P. Mercer, and Angelica Berrie, president of the Russell Berrie Foundation.

Ms. Reiss, 44, was born into “an ultra-Orthodox community in Kensington, in Brooklyn, right outside Borough Park, where the families that can’t afford Borough Park live,” she said. Her family was extremely poor. And it was mixed — her father’s family was Litvish and her mother’s were Karliner chasidim. (And yes, that was a little dark joke.)

And her father was unstable and physically abusive. And that was not at all a joke.

The community’s not at all monolithic, she said, but in her part of it, “everyone’s marriage was arranged in their teens or early 20s; in the worst-case scenario you’d be 22 and still single. Some of the people I knew married as early as 14.

“It was horrific. In high school” — the Yeshiva of Brooklyn — “in tenth grade, at 15, girls could get engaged and they’d drop out, and we’d have a big party for them.”

In her world, young women would be introduced to their potential husbands and had very little choice but to accept them, although that of course varied by family and by the family’s situation and prospects. “I came from a very poor family. My parents were divorced” — eventually her father’s abuse was too much, and her mother took her children back to her own parents’ house — “and that was very unusual. There was a girl at school whose parents wouldn’t let her talk to me because of it.”

So although other young women had at least some choice, “it was ‘You marry this guy or be single for the rest of your life.’”

But first the guy had to be found.

“I was not a catch at all. Your marriage prospects are contingent on your family. You want parents who are married, and ideally no one in your family should have cancer or mental illness or have died in a car accident.” What? A car accident isn’t genetic or inheritable, so even by that sad logic, why? “Because God is punishing your family,” Ms. Reiss explained. “Any tragedy is a mark against you.

“So I could marry only into a family with its own problems.”

Ms. Reiss speaks in Westfield.

There are some ways around that problem, she added. “My older brother married a girl from a very poor family but she graduated at the top of her class at the Yeshiva of Brooklyn, and she also was an excellent cook and baker and seamstress, so it was likely that she would make a really good wife and mother. She was a little more of a catch than I was.”

And her sister-in-law did marry her brother, who like Ms. Reiss was from a poor family with divorced parents. Being a catch is relative.

There wasn’t much hope for Ms. Reiss, though. “I was a loudmouth,” she said. It was not a desirable trait.

Ms. Reiss was matched to a young man she did not know, they had a few dates, always in public, and of course she agreed to the proposal. There were little danger signals — he got into fistfights with strangers in the street — but nothing that put her off. He never hit her, then or later. He would punch walls, he would drive erratically and dangerously, he would threaten, he would demean and belittle and insult and terrorize, but he never hit her.

Two months after she was married — and a week after her husband punched his fist through a wall and she realized that she’d made a very big mistake — she was pregnant. “It was a hellish pregnancy,” she said. “I was 20, and I had morning sickness, but it wasn’t just morning. It was all the time.

“My doctor tried everything. At a certain point I had to be hospitalized for dehydration. When I got out, the discharge papers showed that I weighed 82 pounds. I could barely walk, and I just kept vomiting. I couldn’t get to the bathroom, so when my husband would leave to go to work I would vomit over the side of the bed. If we wanted to get out of the house, he would have to carry me to the car.”

Clearly this was no one’s fault. It had nothing to do with the community she lived in, or her relationship to it. But it taught her something vital.

Her OB/GYN — “the same one who did my virginity test,” she said — did a regular fetal ultrasound, discovered that Ms. Reiss’s kidney had swollen hugely, and sent her to a specialist. “We’ll have to remove your kidney,” the specialist told her. “Right away.” She was galvanized into going for a second opinion, and the second doctor told her that her kidney was fine, although there was a great deal of fluid in it. She’d be fine. The baby was fine.

In fact, her daughter was fine. She was born at 8.5 ounces. But “because the pregnancy was so hellish, I rebelled,” Ms. Reiss said. She asked her gynecologist for birth control, and got it. “My husband dragged me to the rabbi, and he said ‘You can’t do that.’ I had never heard the terms reproductive rights or bodily autonomy, but I said to him ‘This is my body, not yours.’ And the rabbi said that I could use birth control for a year. And I said that I would use it for a year and then another year and then after that.

“I have no idea what gave me the courage to do that.”

Still, three years later she had another baby. “When my older daughter was two I sent her to a play group,” Ms. Reiss said. “There were about 15 or 20 2-year-olds in the group, and she was the only one without a younger sibling. I was on tehillim lists. People were praying for me. There was a lot of pressure. So I caved.”

At least one thing was better, though, she said. “The pregnancy was a lot easier.”

Looking back, she said, “I know that I grew up without any reproductive rights, I was forced to have a child, I was told I couldn’t use birth control, I had to fight for my own rights.” She does not want that to happen to anyone else.

So there she was, trapped in a loveless marriage to an abusive husband and with every expectation that she would continue to bear his children. And to make it worse, “I had no financial rights,” Ms. Reiss said. “I would be allowed to get a job only if my husband approved it, and I could have my own money and bank account only if he allowed it. And the third part of this trifecta from hell is the limited rights to divorce.” (According to Jewish law, only men can give divorces. Women cannot do that. They are at their husbands’ mercy.)

(It also seems important to say here that despite the circumstances of their birth, Ms. Reiss and her daughters love each other and respect each other. Loveless marriages do not necessarily produce unloved children. Here, it clearly did not.)

Ms. Reiss felt trapped. “There was no way out, no way for me to feed myself and my kids. The best I could hope for was to become an agunah,” a chained woman, someone tied to a man whom she does not want and who does not want her. “A pariah,” she said.

“I constantly hoped to die,” she said. “I thought that I was trapped there forever. And I was so young.”

And then things changed.

No, to be accurate, and then Ms. Reiss made things change.

She, her husband, and their children had moved from Brooklyn to Lakewood in 2001. “At 27, I finally decided to get the hell out, before he killed me or my daughters,” she said.

She did it incrementally.

The thing that helped her, the rope, the lifeline, the engine, the heart, the soul, the exit that gave her a new life, was education, she said. She started at community college and then, at 32, she graduated from Rutgers. It was during that time that she left her marriage formally, and she also left the community she grew up in. In fact, she left the entire Jewish community. She stopped wearing a sheitel, stopped keeping kosher, stopped talking to her family. (Really, they stopped talking to her.)

She majored in journalism and got a job at the Asbury Park Press. “I didn’t get much of a salary, but I had enough so that I could change the locks on the house and get a divorce,” she said. “That’s why they’re so afraid to let women get an education.”

She and her husband had never been rich, but her husband worked in construction, and they’d become more comfortable than she’d been as a child. They owned a house. “So I was able to sell the house, and I bought my own tiny little house, a little Cape Cod. I call it the Palais de Triumphe, the world’s smallest palace.

“I was the first woman in my family to buy her own house.”

The memory of her own struggles and her fierce desire to protect other people from the pain she had endured led Ms. Reiss to create Unchained at Last in 2011. Even its name reflects Ms. Reiss’s background; understanding that forced marriages and child marriages happen in a wide range of cultures and subcultures, often but not always in insular religious communities, Unchained at Last gladly worked with everyone. Ms. Reiss has learned a lot about other cultures. But the word unchained comes directly from the Jewish tradition. An unchained woman is no longer an agunah; she is bound helplessly to no one but is free to make her own choices.

“We do both direct services and advocacy,” Ms. Reiss said. “Our biggest focus is for ending forced marriage at any age. We help women and girls and others escape from forced marriages, whether it is a marriage that is being planned or if it’s already happened. We provide social services and emotional support to help people get out of traumatic situations and to start their lives.”

These services include not only psychological support but physical things, objects, even funding, as well. Whatever forced marriage survivors need to start new lives, Unchained at Last gives them.

All the services that Unchained at Last provides are free, Ms. Reiss added. She’s developed skills not only as a reporter and then as an investigator — a useful skill given her field — she’s also become an extraordinary fundraiser.

Some of the people to whom Unchained at Last’s services are given might be surprising, until you think it through carefully. Although by far most of the people forced to marry are girls and women, sometimes LGBT people also are forced into marriage, most often by their parents. “That turns it into a trauma for generations of people whose lives have been torn apart,” she said.

Her group’s work focuses on the United States, “but sometimes parents take their children overseas to marry them,” she said. “And there also are people who are trafficked here to be married.” Unchained at Last works with those people.

Although forced marriage harms more people than child marriage does, it is easier to come up with a legislative fix to that problem, so Unchained at Last has been working on it. “In the United States, 248,000 children were legally married between 2000 and 2010,” she said; she’s defining those marriages as having “one or both parties under the age of 18.

“You don’t become a legal adult in any state before you turn 18, and that’s important because you can’t initiate a divorce or run away from home, because if the police catch you they will take you back home. Domestic violence shelters can’t take you, so they will send you away or they will call the police and the police will take you back home.

“You can’t marry legally before you are 18,” she continued. Either a parent or the judge must consent to it; in many states, if a parents wants to have the child get married, “the parental consent form can be signed even if the child is crying. The clerk has no choice.”

Sometimes consent must come from the judge, who meets with the child, generally in the presence of the adult, and asks if the child wants to be married. “In every single case I’ve heard of, the child has lied to the judge,” Ms. Reiss said. “Because they’re thinking about what would happen to them when they got back home.

“Children are completely disempowered throughout this whole thing.”

Only two states do not allow anyone under 18 to get married. The first of those states is Delaware, and the other — ta da! — is New Jersey. Governor Phil Murphy signed that into law last June, after a lot of hard work from Fraidy Reiss and Unchained at Last. She takes many approaches — she lobbies and studies and proposes legal changes. She also leads rallies and demonstrations. The chain-ins she’s organized feature women, often in wedding gowns, some with their mouths taped; the symbolism of those groups of women is startling.

Fraidy Reiss and other protestors tape their mouths and bind their hands in solidarity with the chained women who are rendered voiceless. Here they demonstrate in Newark.

As Ms. Reiss’s organization started to become more visible — she’s been the subject of stories in the New York Times, NPR, and the BBC, among many other outlets — she’s started to get attention from foundations and their donors as well. She’s built a board for Unchained, and its members are philanthropic and know other philanthropists.

That’s how she came to the attention of the board of the Russ Berrie Making a Difference award.

Angelica Berrie of Englewood is a philanthropist; the Making a Difference award is given in the name of her late husband, Russ Berrie. (He was and she still is active in the local Jewish community.)

“Fraidy’s personal story is key to how we talk about her issue,” Ms. Berrie said. “The award is about making a difference based on your personal motivation. Who you are, what you are, how you give all are tied together. Everyone comes from a different place.

“Hers is a unique point of view.”

And it’s a surprising one. “We haven’t had anybody in that field, working on that issue, in the 23 years that we’ve been giving that award.”

She focused on ending child marriages. “There are 48 states where it’s legal!” she said. “We think of that as happening in Arab countries, where children are betrothed. We think of Jerry Lee Lewis, marrying his 13-year-old cousin. It’s not something that you think of as happening here.

“Now that we have an awareness of the issue, we have to do whatever we can in those 48 states. It’s a great compelling need, and awareness is the first step.

“The Bible says that we have to take care of the most vulnerable among us, the widows and the orphans,” she added. “These girls and women are among the most vulnerable. And we think that we’re so civilized!”

The Making a Difference award is presented at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah. The board gave 10 awards this year. They come with money, because the winners all are people doing hard and important work. The awards are meant to honor them, and also to enable them to continue their work with even greater vigor.

Of the 10 awards given at Ramapo this year, seven came with a gift of $7,500, two with $25,000, and the last with $50,000.

Fraidy Reiss had no idea which award she’d be getting. “They let you know that you won, but until you show up, you don’t know what you’ve won.

“The morning of the awards I had just come back from a trip to Nevada. We are working on legislation there. I had a layover in Dallas, and I ate something there that was not good for me. I was violently ill. But I had this award.

“My assumption was that I had won one of the $7,500 prizes, so would anyone notice if I weren’t there? But I thought about it, and I realized that it’s not right to do that.

“So I went, and I put on a red dress because I thought that it would give me some color, and it was a really big crowd, and I am like ‘I hope that they call my name soon.’ I really didn’t feel good. And they got through the first seven people, the $7,500 awards, and they don’t call me.

“And then they don’t call me for the first $25,000, and they start calling the second name, and I push my chair back, getting ready to get up for it, and then they call someone else.

“And I look at my friend, and and I say ‘Was this a mistake, or did I just win $50,000?’ I thought it was a mistake. But I go on stage, and they show a video they shot — and even their shooting the video didn’t tip me off — so I go on stage, and someone says ‘Why don’t you stand next to me?’ And I say, ‘If you don’t mind, I will sit.

“And by the way, if anyone is listening, don’t eat the Oriental chicken salad at the airport in Dallas. But if you’re going to do it, try to go to an awards ceremony the next day and win a lot of money.”

Ms. Reiss knows that she and Unchained at Last won’t waste that money.

Angelica Berrie knows that too. She also knows that Fraidy Reiss’s power comes in part from her story, and that being able to tell it liberates and propels her, and that she can use it for good.

“Being a woman means having to fight for your rights every single step of the way,” Ms. Berrie said. “That’s why these stories are important.

“Fierce, fearless girls who become politically involved, who grow into leaders, who defend what is fair — those are the coming-of-age stories we need. From childhood and adolescence, we need stories that give us back our voices. Those stories will help us take our power back.”

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