Leav­ing Ha­sidic world for a trans­gen­der life

Abby Stein to speak at Slifka Cen­ter at Yale on Wed­nes­day

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Ed Stan­nard

NEW HAVEN — Abby Stein grew up in the highly in­su­lar world of Ha­sidic Ju­daism in the Wil­liams­burg sec­tion of Brook­lyn, N.Y., 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 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 get­to­gether 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. on Wed­nes­day at Slifka, 80 Wall St. The event is free and open to the pub­lic.

“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.”

Abby Stein

Con­trib­uted photo

Abby Stein, a trans­gen­der woman who was or­dained as a rabbi in a Ha­sidic com­mu­nity in Brook­lyn, New York, will speak at the Joseph Slifka Cen­ter for Jewish Life at Yale on Wed­nes­day.

Con­trib­uted photo

Abby Stein, a trans­gen­der woman who was or­dained as a rabbi in a Ha­sidic com­mu­nity in Brook­lyn, N.Y., will speak at the Joseph Slifka Cen­ter for Jewish Life at Yale on Wed­nes­day.

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