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.
Among N.J. Orthodox Jewish women, child custody fears form barrier to freedom
Fraidy Reiss • Star-Ledger
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
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.
My journey to freedom: Escaping an arranged ultra-Orthodox Jewish marriage
Elana Knopp • Star-Ledger
It was the holiday of Simchat Torah, and as I sat behind the thick, heavy curtain on the women’s side of the synagogue, a friend turned to tell me that her 17-year-old daughter was engaged. As I watched women and girls trying to catch a glimpse of the dancing men through a crack in the partition, I commented on the young age of the bride.
"That’s the way we do it," my friend said, smiling. "Marry them off when they’re young and dumb." She then launched into the usual: The couple would grow up together. They would get to know each other. They would eventually love each other.
I know all about young and dumb. At 19, I was set up with a boy and we were engaged six dates later, the usual time frame in the ultra-orthodox community. Girls are sent off into marriages without even the most rudimentary knowledge of their own bodies, reproduction or sex.
Girls are taught to marry, have children and serve their husbands, and the indoctrination starts early. College and career are frowned upon — for obvious reasons. College is a way out. Career is a way out. And no one wants us getting out.
Those of us who do wake up are simultaneously horrified and liberated; while we cannot believe we could be so duped, we are incredibly grateful for realizing it.
I was typical in my former community. I was married at 19 and had my first baby at 20. By 29, I had six children, one miscarriage, three sets of dishes and no college degree. It took me years to get up the courage to file for divorce. I was so afraid for so many reasons. There were the usual concerns, such as how I would manage to support my kids, put air in my tires and mow my lawn.
But it was the fear unique to ultra-orthodox women who leave the faith that haunted me: I was afraid of losing my children.
In Lakewood, as in any ultra-orthodox community, there is a rabbinic hierarchy, a hierarchy committed to a radical religious doctrine that controls every aspect of life — from politics and marriage to female modesty, birth control and sex. It is this same hierarchy that condones the kidnapping of children from women who have left the fold.
It took me years to get up the courage to take off my head covering and even longer to leave my house in a pair of pants. And, when I did, my closest friends and neighbors turned against me. I was systematically shut out, ostracized and vilified. In addition, because of my decision to live a truthful, genuine life, my community set out on a witch hunt, spreading rumors, fabricating lies and portraying me as something resembling a she-devil.
There is no place for anyone who deviates from what the ultra-orthodox community believes to be the norm, the correct and the righteous. There is no room if you are irreligious, intermarried, gay, transsexual. There is no room for questions, doubts, opinions or alternatives. There is no room to question authority. And I questioned authority.
As I continued my journey toward freedom, my best friend told me that I confused her — her way of saying that my newfound liberation forced her to question her fundamentalist lifestyle and that the repercussions of addressing those questions would leave her unable to stay in the life she was living. She chose not to question by ending our 18-year friendship.
I think often of a friend who loved to write, who once dreamed of becoming a published author. Her husband disapproved, however, forbidding her to write and deeming it immodest. She called me, frustrated, but determined to obey her husband. "Don’t listen to him," I told her. "Write!" It was then that she called me her "evil inclination." Apparently, I reminded her that she had a soul.
I am proud to act as evil inclination. After all, I have some souls to save.
Elana Knopp teaches English and Language Arts in Plainfield and Edison. She is a member of Garden State Equality and director of Unchained At Last.