Break the chains of religious tradition

Chained by an arranged marriage and religious customs, a New Jersey woman regains 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 as teenagers to men they barely know and are expected to spend their lives caring for their husbands and children. They are required to cover their hair and almost every inch of their skin, and to remain behind a curtain at festivals and religious events.

Where I come from, if a woman wants to feel her hair blowing or wear jeans or go to college, the courts have the power to take her children away from her.

You might be surprised to know that where I come from is the United States. Specifically, New York and then New Jersey, in the Orthodox Jewish community.

Recently, two women brought national attention to the fact that Orthodox Jewish women who leave this island community risk losing custody of their children: Vendor List; and New Jersey’s Perry Reich, whose custody battle — which includes her husband’s accusations that she sometimes wears pants — landed her an appearance last month on the “Dr. Phil” TV show.

My story is like 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. At 20, I was a trapped, abused stay-at-home mom.

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 quick and severe. My family cut off contact with me; one of my five siblings stayed in touch long enough to inform me that the others were considering doing shiva for me or mourning as if I were dead.

Perhaps most shockingly, several rabbis informed me that I had to say goodbye to my children because I was going to lose custody of them during my impending divorce proceedings.

They weren’t bluffing. Many unaffiliated family lawyers advised me to stop publicly flouting Orthodox laws and customs.

As the attorneys have noted, and as the experiences of Feldman and Reich illustrate, judges consider religion a factor in a custody dispute and generally consider stability to be in the best interests of children.

They are 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, which is here in the United States, in 2012, women rightly fear losing their children if they lose their religion.

Feldman and I each successfully settled and avoided divorce lawsuits, and each of us retained custody of our children. Others weren’t so lucky. Reich, for example, remains mired in her custody battle.

Fear in the religious community therefore persists. I recently started a non-profit, Unchained At Last, to help women leave arranged marriages, and the most common request I get is from Orthodox Jewish women who want to leave the religion and are willing to accept. ostracism from family and friends, but are terrified that a judge might take their children away.

For many, their situation seems particularly desperate because, like Reich, they felt compelled to let a beit din (an Orthodox Jewish court) arbitrate their divorce.

Binding beit din decisions and agreements routinely include a provision that children will be raised in Orthodox Judaism.

Secular courts generally enforce these decisions and agreements, even if a mother later realizes that she does not want to raise her children in a religion where men bless God every morning so as not to make them a non-Jew, a slave. or a woman.

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

(Fraidy Reiss is the Founder/Executive Director of Unchained At Last. She lives in Westfield, NJ A version of this commentary first appeared in The Star-Ledger of Newark, NJ)

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