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Using hate to foster understanding
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Using hate to foster understanding

The remarkable journey of a transgender woman who grew up in the chasidic world

Abby Stein. Photo by Ingrid Holmquist
Abby Stein. Photo by Ingrid Holmquist

Much of what Abby Stein does these days revolves around love and respect for the people she left behind in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And yet she cites hatred as a goal. “When the leaders of the chasidic community express hate toward transgender people, that will be like mission accomplished,” she said. “At least then, they will have acknowledged we exist.”

That “we” is transgender people in all their stages of development, as well as the lesbian, gay, and bisexual members of the chasidic population. The 26-year-old’s mission is to educate the non-chasidic world about the community she grew up in — both its strengths and weaknesses — and to make life easier for those still living within it, facing ignorance and rejection about their identity. From hate, she believes people can move to learning, and from there to losing their fear of the “otherness.”

Stein left that insular world in 2012, at the age of 20. Known then as Yisroel, a young husband and the father of a new baby, she — or, at the time, he — was a Yiddish-speaking ordained rabbi from an illustrious rabbinical family. Even to herself, let alone to her wife or her family, she had not acknowledged how great a change lay ahead. She left because she lost her religious faith. It would take another three years before she also shed her gender identity, and — just two years ago — she began living as the female she had always felt herself to be.

A story like hers raises a multitude of questions. Interviewed by phone for NJJN in advance of a talk she will giving this Saturday, Oct. 14, at Bnai Keshet’s Kaplan Minyan, the Reconstructionist congregation in Montclair, she said, “I tell my audiences they can ask me anything — whatever you want. I don’t have to answer if I don’t want to.” With clear boundaries to protect her child and some aspects of her own searching, she strives to make the dialogue “as open as possible.”

Her post-chasidic learning began with English, which she barely knew, and all the trappings of the modern life that she had been shielded from, including social media, secular education, and taxes. Stein, a slender, lively figure, declared like a kind of Peter Pan: “I’ll never grow up!” — but, in fact, had to grow up very fast. Her first base was Footsteps, the organization that supports people breaking away from ultra-Orthodoxy, but it was still rough going.

Trying to get by as a secular man was hard, she said. “I sucked as a male. I could never figure out what to wear.” People attributed her “queerness” to coming from a fundamentalist background. So did she, and Stein assumed that her desire to be a woman would fall away as she became more comfortable in her new male role in the modern world. That didn’t happen.

Instead, as soon as she accepted her female identity, things got easier. “I was good at being a woman,” she said. For some people, she told NJJN, it might be possible to accept the body they were born with while cross-dressing, and not seek medical intervention. For her that was out of the question. She grew her hair long, toyed with different shades of lipstick, and began hormone treatment. 

She was a solitary kid growing up. In her upper-middle-class neighborhood in Williamsburg, she attended yeshiva and did what was expected of a son, but made few friends. “I never enjoyed hanging out with boys,” she recalled. In fact, the girl she married at 18 was her first close confidant. They got on well, despite “complications” sexually. 

The only topic Stein never broached with her wife was gender dysphoria (when a person’s assigned gender conflicts with gender identity). It would have been completely beyond her wife’s realm of understanding, she said. Her own was pretty limited; it began with a Wikipedia entry she found while surreptitiously exploring the Internet on a friend’s tablet.

When Stein expressed her desire to break away from strict religious observance, her in-laws intervened to end the marriage. She hasn’t spoken to her ex, who has since remarried, since the day she left. Also, Stein’s father insisted that the family sever all contact with Stein.

Her payot (sidelocks) and beard shaven, black robes shed, and Yiddish accent gradually fading, Stein earned her high school diploma and is currently studying at Columbia University’s School of General Studies. She shares an apartment and loves cooking. A descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of chasidism, Stein has become a member of Romemu, the Jewish Renewal congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

While studying gender studies and political science, Stein has also pursued her mission as an educator. She writes a blog, is working on a memoir, and has spoken extensively and been interviewed by print media and television from across the United States, Israel, Bulgaria, France, and Russia. Last year, she was selected by The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s parent company, as one of their “36 Under 36” Jewish leaders. Not surprisingly, she also has a website, abbychavastein.com; a social media following; and her own Wikipedia page.

That ease in the public eye seems strange for someone so new to it and who is speaking a new language, although her English is fluent. Stein says it comes from growing up with grandfathers and a father who were public speakers. “Being in front of a camera was hard in the beginning, but now I don’t even think about it,” she said. Her focus is on her mission. 

“Most American Jews are very open. They’re the most progressive and welcoming people I’ve ever met,” she said. She would like them to go further, to put aside preconceptions and assumptions — about the chasidic community, many of whose traditions she still treasures, and those like her who don’t fit the binary idea of “normality.” 

“Everyone has their own story and their own pain,” she said.

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