Breaking the chains of religious tradition

Shackled by an arranged marriage and religious customs, a New Jersey woman finds her freedom and tries to help others, … Continued

Shackled by an arranged marriage and religious customs, a New Jersey woman finds her freedom and tries to help others, too. But she’s not a Muslim — she’s an Orthodox Jew. By Fraidy Reiss.

(RNS) 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.

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 the 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 a beit din (an Orthodox Jewish court) arbitrate their divorce.

The beit din’s 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 is the founder/executive director of Unchained At Last. She lives in Westfield, N.J. A version of this commentary first appeared in The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)

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  • SODDI

    Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a built-in hatred of women in their religions.

    Run for your lives.

  • WmarkW

    Anatevka still exists in America.

    People talk about how wonderful diversity and mutli-culturalism are, but when it get down to implementation, Western values beats every other societal system hands down, because it’s premised on the marketplace of ideas. The scientific method, capitalism and democratic-republican government are all tools by which ideas are tested against evidence and experience. Anyone used to them will never want to live another way.

  • TellTheTruthNow

    This story is sad but true. It is unfortunate that in this modern era one must take flight from religious zealotry. This woman’s story is one of many in the Ultra-Orthodox world. Like radicals in any religion, the Ultra-Orthodox hide behind their rhetoric, never telling the truth about life in this incredibly insular sect. This story first appeared in The Star Ledger. The comments posted there were, in a word, venomous to say the least. This woman was called a liar and crazy by people who clearly support or who are Ultra-Orthodox themselves. It is time that the truth came out. The simple truth is: that girls are separated from boys at the age of three, they are systematically taught in schools to serve their husbands, to become good wives. Their books are censored, they are taught revisionist history and science is not taught unless it conforms to the ideology. They are discouraged from going to college. In more radical sects, some are not permitted to drive, some do not even speak English.

    They will not tell you that these young women are not taught health information, they know nothing about their bodies, about sex or birth control. They are given what is called Kallah classes prior to marriage, These classes teach them how to be good, dutiful wives. They do meet their future husbands in some cases, weeks before they are married. They also will not tell you that girls are “matched” to boys based on how much money can be paid to the future groom in the form of a dowry. If you don’t come from the “right” family, you are matched with someone who is equal in status.

    A number of these women suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands and because the Ultra-Orthodox cannot “tell” on another Jew, abuses go on in secret. Women cannot initiate a divorce, only men may do this. Some women are and will always be “chained” to their husbands, unable to remarry if their husbands refuse to give them a “get” or Jewish divorce.

    Women are considered second class citizens in this community, they must move aside when men walk down the street. They may not dance or sing in the presence of men. They are separated by a thick curtain on buses and in their shuls (church) they must cover their hair and their bodies. Women are often blamed for things that go wrong in these communities, if they don’t act and dress modestly.

    All this sounds so unbelievable, so impossible, but this is the reality. Places exist, right here in America, in New Jersey and New York , where these communities hide their own atrocities behind the veil of religious freedom. Take a drive through Lakewood, NJ, Monsey, NY or at it’s most insular Kiryas Joel, located in Orange County, New York. As you approach this town, you will see large signs that “kindly” warn off anyone who doesn’t belong there, anyone who isn’t in the cult. I applaud this woman for standing up and for reaching out to other women trapped in this nightmare.