Transgender woman who left Hasidic community to speak at Yale

Abby Stein can’t remember a time when she didn’t feel that she was a girl, living in a sect where boys and girls weren’t even allowed to play together.

Abby Stein (photo credit: OVRIM (OWN WORK)/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Abby Stein
NEW HAVEN (Tribune News Service) — Abby Stein grew up in the highly insular world of Hasidic Judaism in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, and was ordained as a rabbi at 19.
But, although she was born with a boy’s body, Stein can’t remember a time when she didn’t feel that she was a girl, living in a sect where boys and girls weren’t even allowed to play together and where “it’s almost impossible to be accepting, to be tolerant of gay or trans people.”
But Stein never doubted her sexual identity.
“To me, it was just something that was there always. I don’t remember a time that I didn’t feel like I was a girl,” she said.
Stein, 26, now a nationally known speaker and activist, will tell her story of how she left the Hasidic sect by the time she was 21 and came out as a trans woman at 23 when she appears Wednesday at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.
Stein was invited to speak at the Slifka Center by Marlee Goldshine, who is working at Slifka on a Springboard Fellowship in social justice, sponsored by Hillel International.
“I want to validate the experience of all trans and gender queer folks at Yale,” Goldshine said. “It will draw LGBT people, which is important for Slifka to be inclusive of.”
Stein was caught between the culture she grew up in and her feelings about her sexuality, knowing “at a very young age that is not something you can ever bring up. I didn’t know that gay people or transgender existed until I was 20 years old. That’s how sheltered a community it was.”
She remembers at 7 looking up information on organ transplants, thinking “I’m going to do a full body transplant to a woman." At 9, saying her nighttime prayers, “I would just add a prayer to God that I just want to wake up as a girl. I joke that it took about 15 years but it finally came true.”
Not feeling comfortable playing with boys, and forbidden from playing with girls, Stein spent a lot of time in her room reading and writing.
“I didn’t feel like I fit in,” she said.
Stein speaks to give hope to trans people and others who may be having difficulty having their gender identity accepted, as well as to Hasidic Jews who have been sheltered from the outside world.
In her section of Williamsburg, “there was no access to TV, music, magazines … Broadway shows” and only Orthodox Jewish newspapers, Stein said. She spoke Yiddish and Hebrew, but didn’t learn English until she was 20. “It’s all you know. Everything you know is in that community. … They are the most gender-segregated society in the U.S. … First cousins, boys and girls, don’t socialize with each other.”
She left the community in 2012, a year after earning her rabbinical degree, but Stein still had not come out as trans.
“A big part of this transition, so to speak, happened when I left,” she said. “I lost most of my friends. I had to start from scratch.”
Her father, Rabbi Mendel Stein, told her he would no longer be able to speak to her. Just two of her eight sisters and four brothers do now.
Leaving home when she did — she went on to get her high school diploma and now studies political science and gender studies at Columbia University — made coming out less difficult, although by no means easy.
“It was definitely easier to some extent,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing both at once. When I look back I don’t even know how I did it myself, but to me it was a necessity. I had no other option.”
Now, she is a member of a Jewish renewal community.
“I’m very spiritually and culturally involved. Religiously and philosophically, I don’t believe in anything,” she said.
Stein, who said she is the first Hasidic Jew to come out as trans, is a member of a support community numbering about 40, some of them online, and recently had a get-together with 12 Orthodox Jews, some of them Hasidic. “None of them are out as trans. They’re all still living in the closet, so to speak,” she said.
Now, she teaches at several Hebrew schools while attending Columbia and has spoken widely, with more than 100 appearances in the last two years. She also has a page on Sefaria, an online library of Jewish texts, in which she has compiled texts that discuss gender issues. “Judaism for thousands of years has discussed these issues and there’s a way to be supportive within Judaism.”
Goldshine said Stein “really went viral this summer. … I think many people who are either in the know for Jewish stuff or LGBT news know her name now. … Her story is not unique but it seems unique because it’s not often told.”
Stein will speak at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Slifka, 80 Wall St. The event is free and open to the public.
Contact Ed Stannard at [email protected] or 203-680-9382.
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