WESTFIELD, NJ – Fraidy Reiss grew up in Brooklyn, one of six children in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family. She attended a Jewish girls school where the focus was cooking, sewing and other domestic arts. After a few chaperoned dates, at 19 she entered a marriage arranged by a local matchmaker with a man several years her senior.
“I was the happiest bride,” said Reiss, now 39 and a Westfield resident.
The couple was married one week when her husband, in a fit of rage, punched his fist through a wall.
Though the marriage was abusive, Reiss was 27 before she could hatch an escape plan for herself and her two daughters. It took more than three years to eventually obtain a divorce and full custody of her children. Her parents and siblings have since shunned her.
Reiss has taken her experience and founded Unchained At Last, the only nonprofit organization in the country dedicated to helping women leave or avoid arranged or forced marriages and help them rebuild their lives. She runs the organization as a volunteer from her home in town.
Late last month, Gov. Chris Christie signed into law a bill spearheaded by Unchained that is particularly designed to help survivors of domestic violence.
Under the new law, crime victims are no longer required to pay for copies of their temporary restraining orders and police records, which can place a burden on the victim. In addition, a victim’s request for his or her records is no longer considered a matter of public record.
The bill’s primary sponsors included Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), among others.
Unchained will hold a fundraiser and celebration in honor of the bill's passage on Oct. 19 at a private home in Montclair. The event will include live music and a silent auction. Tickets are $75.
Reiss wants Americans to understand that the problems arising from some forced marriages are not confined to immigrant cultures or to women brought to the U.S. against their will.
“It’s so important for people to get out of that mindset, that it doesn’t happen here,” she said recently.
A woman seeking to leave a troubled arranged or forced marriage may face a series of hurdles. She may have limited education or little income to provide for her children and to hire a lawyer. She may have no family support, and she may not understand her rights under the legal system.
One of Unchained’s greatest challenges is reaching women who need help but do not have access to internet or television, Reiss said. Information about the organization is usually spread through word of mouth. Many clients come from ultra-Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, South Asian, Middle Eastern and African communities.
Reiss’s escape route came when she decided to attend college. Living in Lakewood, she stumbled upon Rutgers University during an internet search, and she applied. Her sister and husband told her not to attend.
“He said, ‘You’re not going.’ I said, ‘Well, actually, I am,” Reiss recalled.
She earned a degree in journalism from Rutgers, graduating as valedictorian, and took a job as a reporter with The Asbury Park Press.
Reiss still remembers the new experiences she and her girls had once they left the Orthodox community, such as buying blue jeans, watching movies and tasting non-kosher food.
Reiss currently works as a private investigator for a firm in Queens in addition to volunteering with Unchained. Her daughters are now 18 and 14 years old. The oldest will soon start her sophomore year in college.
Through volunteers, Unchained offers women in forced or arranged marriages pro bono legal assistance, social services such as career counseling, financial planning and psychotherapy, plus a mentoring program. The group also helps women transition from shelters to their own apartments.
Unchained has raised over $100,000 over the last year with help from donors such as the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New Jersey and the Good People Fund in Millburn.
Those in need of help can call Unchained at 908-913-0804. For more information, visit www.unchainedatlast.org.