Now you know

Credit: Unchained at Last

She was a born-again Jew who found purpose and meaning in a more traditional Judaism than her upbringing in our conservative congregation. As she entered the Haredi community, her rabbi insisted they find a husband for her.

Her match, a Hasid with little education, arrived in the States needing a green card. On the day of her wedding, she was the happiest I had ever seen her. But her life came crashing down that night when she found him disappointed she didn’t have three breasts. Her first night of love turned into a physically demeaning rape.

She wanted to leave, but was told by her rabbi that satisfying her husband was her responsibility. So she rationalized the rapes and physical abuse as her lot — until she realized her daughter was in danger as well. That is when she contacted me.

We arranged for a midnight removal from her home in the Midwest, a hasty flight back to us, and with the help of a sympathetic Orthodox rabbi, a “get” (Jewish bill of divorce) from her husband. In time, she recovered enough to rebuild her life, marry again, and raise a family in a different part of the country.

This was my first exposure to the all-too-common issue of forced marriage in religious communities. Years later, I met Fraidy Reiss, who founded an organization called Unchained at Last — a non-profit dedicated to “ending forced and child marriage in the United States.” I have supported the organization as it works with women of all faiths to end forced and child marriage in the United States.

So it is that I recently attended an Unchained at Last event to recognize those who had dedicated parts of their lives to supporting this cause. I flew up from San Antonio and joined people attending from all over the United States and beyond, including speaker Chelsea Clinton.

I was the only rabbi. The. Only. Rabbi.

Ironically, this is an issue I have encountered in the liberal Jewish community as well. To any congregational rabbi who says they have never encountered this situation, I say, “open your eyes.” If you haven’t seen it, it’s because you don’t want to.

It’s possible that we as rabbis are unaware of Unchained at Last because it is an organization that does not reach out to clergy. Why should they? The clergy they encounter are usually more interested in “protecting” the “integrity” of the community than the ethics of husbands raping their chained wives.

But now you know. Despite all the efforts of Unchained at Last and its advocates, 42 states still consider child marriage legal. Children are allowed to marry at an age when if they were unattached, sex would be considered rape. And as minors, they do not even have the right to get a divorce. As minors they have no rights at all.

Over 300,000 such marriages have occurred since 2000.

Now you know.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar recently served as Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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