SEX-CHANGE RABBI

MY TRANS-AGENDA

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL KAMINER

HE MAR­RIED at 18, had a son at 19, and be­came a rabbi soon af­ter. But, for Srully Abra­ham Stein, the scion of a distin­guished Viznitzer Cha­sidic fam­ily whose roots reach back to the Baal Shem Tov, it all felt wrong.

From an early age, young Srully ques­tioned his gen­der, and won­dered if it were pos­si­ble to have a full “body trans­plant.”

By 19, mar­ried to a woman he had met for only 15 min­utes be­fore their wed­ding, and very soon a fa­ther, he was read­ing sec­u­lar books and re­belling by break­ing Shab­bat.

The mar­riage broke up, and Stein started study­ing. The move to tran­si­tion came in 2015, af­ter de­pres­sion forced her to con­front her se­cret iden­tity.

At 25, Stein — now known as Abby (main picture) — has come into her own. Af­ter leav­ing the Viznitzer Cha­sidim, Brook­lyn, and Ortho­dox Ju­daism al­to­gether, Stein started the tran­si­tion that’s taken her from clois­tered yeshivah-bocher to trans­gen­der ac­tivist and me­dia star.

Yet, once you talk to Stein, you re­alise her past might be the least in­ter­est­ing thing about her. It is her fu­ture that’s in­trigu­ing.

Hy­per-smart and fear­lessly self­pos­sessed, Stein rep­re­sents a new generation of ac­tivist, an un­apolo­getic per­son­al­ity whose equal pas­sions for Ju­daism and hu­man rights make her a po­tent force. Il­lit­er­ate in English when she left Cha­sidism, she’s now ma­jor­ing in gen­der stud­ies and po­lit­i­cal science at New York’s Columbia Univer­sity.

Just be­fore we met, Stein had spo­ken on seven pan- els at Lim­mud New York, more than any other at­tendee. “Be the change you want to see,” she told her au­di­ences and the press. A doc­u­men­tary on her life is in the works, cour­tesy of Lon­don pro­duc­tion com­pany Pas­sion Pictures. She’s been cov­ered ev­ery­where from the New York Post (“hor­ri­ble”) to NBC News.

“Trans aware­ness is my cause,” Stein says con­fi­dently.

“I’m ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple, es­pe­cially within the Jewish com­mu­nity. And I’m pas­sion­ate about pub­lic pol­icy.

“I’ve worked on a po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee here in the States, and I’m plan­ning to work on a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign.” Run­ning for of­fice some­day is “def­i­nitely a pos­si­bil­ity,” she adds.

Stein is both elo­quent and out­spo­ken when she fights for the cause. A few days af­ter our con­ver­sa­tion, she posted an im­pas­sioned dvar To­rah on her blog, The Sec­ond

Tran­si­tion, which el­e­gantly rolled the Baal Shem Tov, Moses, and Purim into a call for re­sis­tance against the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion which had just re­scinded Oba­maera pro­tec­tions for trans­gen­der high-school stu­dents.

“This week, it felt like ev­ery trans­gen­der stu­dent has to start wear­ing metal pants to school—this time the regime is com­ing for us,” she wrote.

“The most ef­fec­tive path to re­sis­tance is when the per­se­cuted, in whichever way it is, gather to fight back, to­gether.”

Trump is “stupid,” Stein tells me. “Lis­ten­ing to him is in­sane. His speeches lack in­tel­lect.”

Two days ear­lier, the Pres­i­dent had rather un­en­thu­si­as­ti­cally re­nounced an­ti­semitism af­ter a spate of at­tacks in the US. “That came way too late,” says Stein. “It’s past talk­ing time. The time to say: ‘We’ll pray, and we’ll be fine’ is long over. When­ever there’s some­thing an­ti­semitic, he takes for­ever to re­spond. Some­one on TV says some­thing bad about him, it takes him two seconds to get back on Twit­ter. That tells you his pri­or­i­ties.”

Among Jews, Stein says she’s found more ac­cep­tance — if some con­fu­sion— on trans is­sues.

“Among non-Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties in the US and Canada, it’s mostly very ac­cept­ing, and with Jewish millennials and young pro­fes­sion­als, ac­cep­tance is re­ally big,” she says.

“But it’s not perfect. The Amer­i­can Jewish com­mu­nity as a rule is more pro­gres­sive than the Amer­i­can gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, even in New York City, which is lib­eral and

You have to be the change you want to see’

The old guard in some com­mu­ni­ties try to stick to an al­most utopian ver­sion of a perfect Jewish fam­ily.”

The Union of Re­form Ju­daism is­sued a ground-break­ing res­o­lu­tion af­firm­ing the full equal­ity of trans­gen­der peo­ple in 2015. Con­ser­va­tive (Ma­sorti) rab­bis fol­lowed suit with an equally force­ful res­o­lu­tion urg­ing syn­a­gogues to be­come “ex­plic­itly wel­com­ing” to trans­gen­der peo­ple.

The res­o­lu­tion cited the fun­da­men­tal be­lief that ev­ery­one is cre­ated b’tzelem Elo­him — “in God’s divine im­age,” and re­ferred to “non-bi­nary gen­der ex­pres­sion” in the Bible.

In Strictly Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties, it’s a dif­fer­ent story. “I al­ways joked that my goal was just to get them to hate us, to recog­nise that we’re here,” she says. “I fi­nally got to the point where they’re aware — I can keep talk­ing about it, and they can’t just for­get about it.”

Still, she says, “there’s no way for some­one to tran­si­tion and stay part of the com­mu­nity. And I’d be naïve to say they can suddenly change.”

Stein started a Face­book group for other Ortho­dox Jews who’ve tran­si­tioned, and founded a sup­port group whose meet­ings draw more than a dozen peo­ple.

Even in more main­stream Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties — where, she says, in­sti­tu­tions like Yeshiva Univer­sity and the Ortho­dox Union of­fi­cially op­pose LGBT rights — “a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple” are ad­vo­cat­ing for a more in­clu­sive ap­proach to LGBT Jews.

“There are few Ortho­dox syn­a­gogues where LGBT peo­ple can feel wel­come,” Stein says. “But, over time, there will be more.”

With her ever-ris­ing pro­file, Abby Stein will un­doubt­edly play a role in mak­ing that hap­pen. “I get recog­nised a lot now,” she says. “I have to make sure I don’t lose track of what’s re­ally im­po­rac­cept­ing.

Now the stereo­type of a trans woman is a model’

Scion of a distin­guished Cha­sidic fam­ily, but be­ing a rabbi felt com­pletely wrong

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.