Abby Stein, a 25-year-old scion of a chassidic rabbinic dynasty, calls herself a Jewish woman of trans experience. She began her transition in 2015, three years after leaving her ultra-Orthodox community in New York. A divorced father of one when she left, she was fluent in Yiddish, but not yet in English.
Now, the Columbia University political science and gender studies student is working on a memoir. Since coming out on her blog in November 2015, she has given more than 100 presentations and speeches, started a transgender support group on Facebook for people from the ultra-Orthodox community and was named one of the New York Jewish Week’s 36 under 36 last year. Stein was in Toronto recently to speak to members of the Toronto Partnership Minyan and others.
You call your blog The Second Transition. Did the first transition make the second one easier?
In some ways, leaving the community was a lot harder, because there was a lot more of the unknown. I barely knew about Footsteps (the New York-based organization that helps people who are leaving the ultra-Orthodox community). By the time I started my gender transition, I knew exactly what to expect. But you still have a lot of people in the secular world – by that I mean the non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish world – who hate trans people, so that was a stronger challenge.
What were the biggest challenges of leaving the chassidic community?
The challenges were just surviving, being able to live in the outside world. Knowing how to dress, how to talk to people. I worked my ass off, as they say, to learn English.
Where did you go when you left the community?
I didn’t really leave from one day to another. After I got divorced, I moved back with my parents. I got a job outside the community and started prepping for college. Once I started college, I moved to Manhattan. But I think joining Footsteps in 2012 was the biggest milestone.
How did you learn about Footsteps, not having easy access to the outside world?
Through Israel, believe it or not. I couldn’t speak English yet, so I was involved in online Israeli forums. People referred me to Hillel, an organization in Israel that is similar to Footsteps, then someone at Hillel told me about Footsteps.
How did you get online when you were still living in the ultra-Orthodox community?
I knew that the Internet existed, because the community was fighting it. I knew that Wi-Fi existed, because the community was fighting it. I knew a friend who had a tablet, although he didn’t connect to the Internet. I found a public restroom that had Wi-Fi and after a few days, I bought a smartphone. No one in the community knew.
‘I didn’t leave because I was trans. I left because I got to the point where I didn’t believe in the community lifestyle anymore’
What made you decide to become an activist?
I started my blog anonymously in August 2015 and people reached out to me saying that they struggle with something similar. There’s no one who is out in the chassidic community and no one talks about it.
I posted my coming out post around 11 at night, Nov. 11, 2015. By the time I woke up, it had 20,000 views. That morning, someone reached out from the Yiddish Forward and asked for an interview. I realized that I could try being totally private, but I’m most likely not going to succeed. At the same time, by just embracing it, I could help a lot of people.
How has your Facebook group evolved?
There are about 40 people on it. Now I’m putting together a second group where people come from other backgrounds – Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, certain fundamentalist Muslim groups, Amish and so on. I’ve had a lot of people reaching out, probably 40 or 50.
Are you in touch with anyone from your former community?
There are a few people who have also left. There are also a few people who I would say are on the fringe, people who have Internet, for example.
Of the people who’ve left your community, are any of them from the LGBT community, as well?
Footsteps has a very high rate of LGBT people, for the simple reason that LGBT people are being pushed out.
How big a role did being transgender play in your decision to leave your community?
I didn’t leave because I was trans. I left because I got to the point where I didn’t believe in the community lifestyle anymore. I was struggling with identity, so I started exploring religious identity. It’s possible that if I wouldn’t have been struggling with that, it might have taken me longer to start exploring. So I might have left when I had 10 kids, instead of one.
Does Footsteps have a presence in Canada?
There’s now in Montreal an organization called Forward, which is like Footsteps. Forward started doing programming last year.
What’s your message for the ultra-Orthodox community?
I don’t think they want to listen to me, but if they do, they should know that transgender people exist, know that ignoring us is not going to make it go away and know that there are people struggling.
Do you have a message for the rest of the Jewish community?
First, I would say thank you. I think the most support that I’ve gotten in general was from the Jewish community. There’s still a lot of work to do and I think our end goal has to be not just that LGBT people are visible, but that LGBT people, and specifically trans people, are fully integrated. I think trans is always one step behind, because it’s more of a visible change and people have a bigger issue with it.
How would you describe your Jewish identity now?
I don’t like to put a label on my Judaism, but I’m very much involved with the Jewish Renewal movement. I’m not observant, but I’m very culturally and spiritually involved in Jewish life. I think Judaism has a lot of amazing messages to offer, if we are able to look on them with a modern lens.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.