When Abby Stein began her transition from male to female at the age of 23, she could have chosen to stay under the radar. Instead, she came out on her blog, and when reporters started calling she responded, because she wanted to let other chasidic transgender Jews know they are not alone.
“I wanted to be a voice,” she said. “If someone would have told me then that there were other people like me, it just would have been so helpful.”
Today, she’s getting the message out: there are transgender Jews in the chasidic community, and there is support out there for them. In addition to doing interviews with news organizations, she’s also spreading the message by speaking about her experiences on college campuses across the country. She started a Facebook group for chasidic transgender Jews, which has 25 members, and a support group that had 12 people, most of them still in the closet, at the first meeting.
“I want to get every person in the chasidic community to know that this exists,” she said. “I can’t expect that they are going to accept us anytime soon. But at least they know about it.”
The first time she remembers feeling a disconnect was when she was 4. “I thought: ‘Hey, why does everybody think I’m a boy?’”
At 12 she came to the conclusion that her ultra-Orthodox religion was the reason she felt so uncomfortable. An Israeli rabbi suggested she started reading Kabbalah, which discusses the concept of people being in the wrong bodies. “Here was the place that I felt validated,” she said. “I became more OK with being religious.”
At 18 she married, and the couple had a baby a year later. That brought back that deep sense that something wasn’t right and five months later she joined Footsteps, which helps ultra-Orthodox Jews integrate into secular society.
She is now in a program for non-traditional students at Columbia University. She plans to do policy work relating to LGBTQ issues.
She remains involved in Judaism through Romemu, part of the Jewish renewal movement. “I tried for awhile to disengage myself from Judaism altogether. But it’s really hard to take 20 years of your life and forget about it.”
Rabbinical rarity: Stein likes to joke that she’s the first, and only, ultra-Orthodox ordained female rabbi, having received a rabbinical degree in 2011 at Yeshiva Viznitz in South Fallsburg, N.Y.