While growing up in her Chasidic community in Brooklyn, transgender activist Abby Stein never heard anything negative or hateful about transgender individuals or the larger LGBTQ community. It was a subject that was never spoken of. Ironically, she wished the people around her had said something because, as she put it, “at least I would have known that we existed then.”
“I used to joke that the day the Chasidic community becomes transphobic, I’ve accomplished my goal,” Stein added. “And mission accomplished. I have now forced a conversation. Now every 12-year-old in that community knows that transgender individuals exist.”
Stein, the first openly transgender ex-Chasid, will share her story when she comes to the Metro Phoenix area later this month, just a few weeks prior to the release of her book, “Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman,” on Nov. 12.
Although the community Stein grew up in was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, culturally, she said, it felt more like 18th-century Eastern Europe. A direct descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, Stein grew up with 12 siblings and spoke Yiddish and Hebrew at home. She didn’t learn English until she was 20.
Stein was assigned male at birth and raised as such. Knowing nothing about the larger LGBTQ community, she followed the path her family set out for her, living as a man, getting ordained as a rabbi and even marrying a woman.
But she couldn’t keep living a life that felt inauthentic.
In 2012, Stein left her community with the help of the organization Footsteps, a nonprofit that assists people who are leaving or thinking about leaving haredi communties. She came out as transgender in 2015, and now works as an influential and oft-interviewed activist, author, public speaker and model.
Stein’s first local appearance will be at a Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix event that is part of its new Pride initiative, which launched in April. “An Evening with Abby Stein” is Pride’s first major event and Stein said it was an honor to be chosen for it. She was pleased that Federation was hosting such events year-round.
“All the pride Shabbats and events that happen in June are amazing, but I think we need a lot more than that,” Stein said. “We need to move beyond just accepting LGBTQ individuals and start celebrating them. In order for it to become part of who we are as a culture, we need constant events and constant awareness.”
The Federation event will also feature a meet-and-greet, with drinks and dessert, after Stein’s talk.
“We’re excited that Abby has agreed to stay late to meet with some of our LGBTQ members,” said Federation Senior Development Associate Kelly Harris. “Abby’s story speaks to so many people on so many different levels.”
Meeting with audience members is something Stein enjoys, too, as she meets so many people going through similar experiences.
In addition to the Federation appearance, Stein will also speak at two learning events hosted by Valley Beit Midrash on Sept. 19. The first is called “From Chasidic Rabbi to Trans Activist,” which will provide another opportunity for people to hear Stein’s story.
“We believe in the eternal Torah truth that all people are created in the image of God and have infinite dignity,” said VBM President and Dean Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz. “The vulnerable trans community has experienced so much abuse based upon misunderstanding and hatred, and we believe it is crucial to learn from Jewish trans leaders and their narratives. Abby Stein is a hero and Jewish thought leader that we are thrilled to have the opportunity to learn from.”
The other VBM event with Stein, “The Intersectionality of Gender and Jewish Identity,” focuses on how Judaism helped her come to terms with her identity.
Stein may have stopped being a rabbi and is now an atheist, but her understanding of Judaism has helped her through her transition and allowed her to celebrate her identity. In fact, she celebrated her transition and announced her name change at Romemu, a Jewish Renewal synagogue in New York.
“What I did was a bat mitzvah and a transition celebration,” Stein said. “We need something like that for the Jewish lifecycle. We need constant events and constant awareness to go beyond the Pride month.” JN
Registration for “An Evening with Abby Stein” is required by Monday, Sept. 16, and tickets for the event are $10. Both VBM learning events have a suggested donation of $18. Registration is required. For more information, visit jewishphoenix.org/event/federation-event-featuring-abby-stein and valleybeitmidrash.org.