Fraidy Reiss knew that she had no choice.
She was 19 years old, a match had been proposed, and she had to take it.
She knew herself to be undesirable. This was a realistic assessment.
Ms. Reiss will speak in Ridgewood this week about the organization she founded, Unchained At Last (see box). The group, which helps women who are the victims of forced marriage and of child marriage, came from her own experience in an extremely unhappy forced marriage.
Ms. Reiss, 43, grew up in Brooklyn as the second youngest of six children. Her parents had a “mixed marriage,” she said — her mother was a Karliner chasid and her father was Litvish. The marriage also was troubled, to understate; her father was violent and abusive, attacked his wife physically, harmed her seriously, and then divorced her. Then Ms. Reiss’s mother moved back home with her children; they were “extremely poor,” Ms. Reiss said.
Ms. Reiss began her education at a chasidic preschool, and then went to the Yeshiva of Brooklyn, which “was on the cusp of being chasidic at the time,” she said. “It was the most extreme of the non-chasidic schools.” It demanded that its students sign a pledge never to take the SATs or driver’s ed, she said; an unenforceable pledge that she broke — but that comes later.
Ms. Reiss graduated from high school in 1992. “You graduate, and then your family arranges your marriage,” she said. “That’s how it worked.” But she was starting at a great disadvantage. Divorce was uncommon, and it was hard on the children. “I didn’t know anyone else whose parents were divorced, and a lot of the girls in my class said that their parents wouldn’t allow them to be friends with me,” she said. “And I was not a good match, because it’s all based on family.
“There is a lot of pressure to marry young in general, but particularly there is pressure on someone like me, who was damaged goods. I had to say yes.
“I had friends from wealthy families, and I don’t know if they felt this way. We didn’t talk about it, but they might have felt more comfortable saying no to a match. There would be another one next week. For me, there wasn’t going to be another match.”
Also, she added, she had a younger sister, and that sister could not get married until she did. That was yet another pressure.
“The crazy thing is that there is never really a choice,” she said. “The notion that you have one is wrong. There is no choice. It was completely out of my control.”
Ms. Reiss was set up with a young man, whom she dated for six weeks — public dates only — and then married after a six-week engagement. She was willing to go along, and entirely missed something that would have been a danger signal to a more worldly person. “Twice, when we were out on dates, he got into fistfights with strangers on the street,” she said.
But it wasn’t until a week after their wedding “that I started being afraid,” she said. “That how long it took him to turn on me. He woke up late one morning for an appointment, and he just lost it. He punched his fist through the wall, and made a big hole, and I just sat there staring at the wall, and I thought, ‘Oh God, I am stuck.’ That was the moment that I realized it.”
But “11 months later, I had my first child” — she is the mother of two daughters — “and so even though I knew that this guy was violent, I also knew that there was no way out for me,” she said. But her (spoiler alert!) now ex-husband was unlike her father in that “he never beat me up,” Ms. Reiss said. “He would smash things and throw things and he would describe how he would kill me; he would drive really fast and then slam on the brakes. As time went by, he would say that he would kill me and also kill himself and the kids. He had a death wish himself. But I never had broken bones, like my mother did, so it didn’t seem at all to be the same thing.”
During that time, she had not yet heard the term domestic abuse, she said.
The family lived in Lakewood then, Ms. Reiss said. There was no place for her to go, no escape possible; the only shelter for abused women there was a Catholic one, “and I tried it and lasted there for five minutes, literally,” she said.
She did get out. “I did it by getting an education,” she said. “I was the first person in my family to go to college. It took me five years, and a lot of pushback from my family and my husband.” But she persevered, and eventually graduated from Rutgers as her college’s valedictorian. She planned eventually to go to law school, and majored in journalism, “but as it turned out I fell in love with journalism,” she said. After college, she got a job as a reporter at the Asbury Park Press, and she loved it.
As a reporter, Ms. Reiss, who began at the very bottom, going to small-town municipal hearings, learned that she loved investigative work, eventually moving from performing it as a journalist to becoming a full-time investigator. She worked for Kroll, which was then the world’s biggest investigative firm.
From there, she went on to found Unchained, which helps women escape from both forced marriages and child marriages. (There is a great deal of overlap between the two categories, although they are not the same.) She works with women from all ethnic groups and religious subcultures across the country, and that includes a surprising number of women from mainstream American life.
It is that work that Ms. Reiss will discuss in Ridgewood.
During her last year in college, Ms. Reiss moved away from the Jewish community. “It was then that I stopped wearing a head covering,” she said. “My family shunned me” — she no longer speaks to anyone in her birth family, or more accurately they no longer speak to her — “and it got even more dangerous for me at home. Every time my husband walked into shul, people there said ‘You are letting your wife walk around like a whore.’” That enraged him, and he took that rage out on her, she said.
“Once I had a job, I was able to file for divorce,” she said. She did not care about getting a religious divorce, a get, so the community was not able to pressure her as it could pressure other women. “Every time they threatened me — and they threatened to kidnap my kids — I went to the police. They weren’t used to that, so eventually they just decided to let me go.” Ms. Reiss was able to get full custody of her daughters.
Once she left the Orthodox world, Ms. Reiss put Jewish life behind her. “The first thing that I ate that wasn’t kosher was chicken pot pie, at a Ruby Tuesday’s,” she said. “It tasted so delicious! So I ordered it again, a few years later, and I was like, what? But it was very meaningful to me at the time.”
She also tried to wear jeans for the first time when she was 33, but it never took, she said. She finds denim too rough. Her older daughter took some time to be able to wear them; her younger daughter “put them on and never has taken them off,” her mother said. But Ms. Reiss finds that she still prefers to wear skirts. Pants just don’t feel right.
One of the lessons Ms. Reiss took away from her parents’ marriage and from her own is the desire to help other women. She has become an expert on forced and child marriages, and Unchained At Last provides a spectrum of services and resources to women who find themselves chained and want a way out.
Who: Fraidy Reiss of Unchained At Last
What: Will talk about forced and child marriages, as well as tell her own story and answer questions
When: On Sunday, May 6, from 10:15 to 11:45 am
Where: At Temple Israel and JCC, 475 Grove St., Ridgewood
How much: It’s free and open to the community; sponsored by the shul’s sisterhood and men’s club
And also: There will be a light breakfast
For more information: Go to www.synagogue.org or call (201) 444-9320.