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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Fraidy Reiss: Among Orthodox Jewish women, child custody fears form barrier to freedom

Fraidy Reiss

Where I come from, girls are married off as teenagers to men they barely know and are expected to spend their lives caring for their husband and children. They are required to cover their hair and nearly every inch of their skin, and to remain behind a curtain at parties and religious events.

Where I come from, if a woman wants to feel her hair blow in the wind or wear jeans or attend college, the courts have the authority to take her children away from her.

Where I come from, you might be surprised to learn, is the United States. Specifically, New York and then New Jersey, in the Orthodox Jewish community.

Recently, two women have brought national attention to the fact that Orthodox Jewish women who leave that insular community risk losing custody of their children: Deborah Feldman of New York, whose memoir about her escape from the Satmar Hasidic sect hit the New York Times best-seller list, and Perry Reich of New Jersey, whose custody battle — which includes accusations from her husband that she sometimes wears pants — earned her an appearance last month on the "Dr. Phil" television show.

My story is similar to theirs. When I was 19, my family arranged for me to marry a man who turned out to be violent. With no education and no job, and a family that refused to help me, I was stuck. By age 20, I was a trapped, abused, stay-at-home mother.

Ten years later, still trapped and unhappy, I finally took what became one of my first steps away from Orthodox Judaism: I stopped wearing a head covering.

The consequences were swift and severe. My family cut off contact with me; one of my five siblings kept in touch long enough to inform me the others were contemplating sitting shiva for me, or mourning as if I had died.

Also, perhaps most shockingly, several rabbis informed me I should say goodbye to my children because I was going to lose custody of them during my looming divorce proceeding.

They were not bluffing. Numerous family attorneys unaffiliated with any religion advised me to stop publicly flouting Orthodox laws and customs.

As the attorneys noted, and as illustrated by Feldman’s and Reich’s experiences, judges look at religion as one factor in a custody dispute and generally view stability to be in children’s best interests. They have been known to award custody to the parent who will continue to raise the children in the same religion as before the family breakup.

Where I come from — that means here in the United States, in 2012 — women fear, legitimately, that they might lose their children if they lose their religion.

Feldman and I each managed to settle and avoid divorce trials, and each of us retained custody of our children. Others have not been as lucky. Reich, for example, remains mired in her custody battle.

Fear in the religious community, therefore, persists. I recently started a nonprofit organization, Unchained At Last, to help women leave arranged marriages, and the most common inquiry I receive is from Orthodox Jewish women who want to leave the religion and are willing to accept ostracism from their family and friends, but are terrified that a judge might remove their children.

For many, their situation seems especially hopeless because they, like Reich, felt pressured to allow an Orthodox Jewish court, a bet din, arbitrate their divorce. The bet dins’ binding decisions and agreements routinely include a provision that the children will be raised within Orthodox Judaism. Secular courts generally enforce those decisions and agreements, even if a mother later realizes she does not want to raise her children in a religion where men bless God every morning for not making them a non-Jew, a slave or a woman.

Where I come from — the United States — the First Amendment is supposed to empower people to choose whether and how to practice religion, without interference from secular courts. What went wrong?

Fraidy Reiss of Westfield is the founder/executive director of Unchained At Last.

Fraidy Reiss • Star-Ledger


  1. Sick of all this garbageApril 15, 2012 at 8:50 AM

    Garbage !! Her husband had a very good job when they got married he was very successful in the construction industry.
    At the time they were married he was driving a leased maxima at that time it was considered a very nice car.
    Fraidy is one of the angriest person I gave ever met
    Do you know the torture she put her husband through
    When she refused to go to the mikvah?!
    Do you know the hatred she put into her kids for judiasim ?!she should kiss her husbands feet for marrying her , she still could not get anyone to marry her. She is a horrible person I can't believe this website, you start printing such trash that you make yourself look like a total hate monger.
    Oh and her compassion? How could she be so nasty to her mother who suffered so much in her life ? This woman is bad bad .

  2. She looks like a tranny, and not even a nice one

  3. You should see the rest of her body thin like she has aneorexia

  4. I smell a jealous rat, those 2 women that were successful monetarily, at least 1 of them, are not something that will happen every so often.
    And In the United F@#$#@% States in 2012, one needs to have the looks to promote an agenda, you my dear I'm afraid don't have it.

  5. Yawn yawn... another looser trying to make some money. Been there seen it .. old hat.

  6. Know her for twenty yearsApril 15, 2012 at 7:46 PM

    She has no story !!! Trust me I know her this animal refused to accept a get from her husband why what did she gain?i thought she is preaching respect , oh but to treat frum Person like that oh that's ok .
    Ask anyone from yob she is a horrible person

  7. but one thing i could tell u is she right about the problem in jewdiasim

  8. Hey lovely Gentlemen, you have no idea how severely this information will blow up in the face of the Hareidi Orthodox. So far ONLY 3 women have had the courage to come out in the open with their problems. There are however thousands locked in this archaic interpretation of marriage based on religion. The stupidity of mikvah and bedikah cloths are only the beginning of the disgusting practice. Women are treated like $hit, Shaving their head, allowing men to walk ahead, sitting in the back of the bus, in the Orthodox world women are for making babies, and nothing else. This craziness should be outlawed in 2012 Judaism, Islam, Catholoism, etc. is outdated.

    1. how well written and cant wait for then i would love to hook up with such a women and just leave togther i think this is crazy what we r going threw
      its 2012 and things should change if u know of anysuck women i would love ot hear from them thanks