Several years ago, Abby Stein was an ordained rabbi living in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Stein primarily spoke Yiddish, had never used the Internet, and was in an arranged marriage with a woman. Today, she’s an openly transgender woman and activist.
Stein knew from a young age that didn’t fit neatly into the gender-segregated roles outlined by her Hasidic community, a sect of Judaism that chooses to live in isolation from the secular world. In 2012, Stein secretly used the Internet for the first time to research what she was feeling and found a Wikipedia page explaining the term “transgender.” That’s when everything started making sense. Soon after, her son was born, a joyful moment but also one that made her think, “What if my kid is going to be like me?” That was the catalyst for what she calls her two transitions: first, leaving Hasidism and distancing herself from its rigid interpretation of Judaism, and second, presenting as the woman she’d long suspected she was.
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Coming out to her family—who are direct descendants of the Hasidic movement’s founder—was the first of many painful obstacles. Her parents shunned her. “I came out to my wife about not being religious, not about my gender. [Now,] I’m not allowed to have any relationship with her. No connection at all,” says Stein, though she maintains a relationship with her son. “I just always say, when he turns 18, he can be whatever he wants—he can be a model, he can be an actor, he can be a rabbi. That’s his choice.”
Then came adjusting to secular life: Stein learned English, started watching TV, and enrolled in Columbia University to study public policy and gender studies, all while transitioning physically. She says the self-acceptance she’s found and the people she’s met during this process have made the challenges worthwhile. After rejecting religion for a period, she was even drawn back to her faith, this time through more open-minded Jewish denominations that applaud curiosity. Stein now travels the country sharing her story and building support networks for ultra-Orthodox LGBTQ people. “I don’t remember a single [speech] where people weren’t telling a personal story to me afterwards. That gives you energy.”
Moving out—and forward: Stein was terrified to leave the only home she’d known. “It’s weird, but learning that I wasn’t crazy terrified me because I didn’t know how I was going to survive outside this community. [But] I didn’t believe in the ideology, and then there was the mental abuse I experienced, living like you’re in the 18th century.” She joined the support group Footsteps, a New York-based non-profit that helps people who are leaving the ultra-Orthodox community. But while she knew she wanted out of Williamsburg, she thought her desire to present as a woman would fade. “I thought I’d leave my community, get a high school diploma, get into a good school, and it was all going to just go away.” It didn’t. “I had to re-figure out everything—how to talk, how to dress, how to present myself.” After working through some of her fears with a therapist, she came out publicly in a Facebook post in November, 2015. “I came out to my parents before then, too, which didn’t go well,” she says. “They said they were never going to talk to me again, but I think my parents will come around one way or another.”
Turning fear into action: Stein began blogging about her experience, and when she saw how many people were reading her posts (her coming-out post was seen by 20,000 people), she knew she had something to offer in her writing. She started a secret support group on Facebook for trans people and writes about transgender references in ancient Jewish texts for Sefaria.org, the largest free online Jewish library, where she started a feminism vertical.
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Inspiring other transgender men and women to come out and teaching people about gender identity through her speaking engagements are Stein’s proudest achievements. As for her naysayers? “At least they’re talking about it,” she says. “I used to joke that the day the Hasidic community hates me, or trans people, is going to be the day when I’ve accomplished my first step because that would mean they recognize we exist.”
Redefining faith: Today, Stein has found renewed spirituality in practicing Judaism on her own terms. “Culturally, I’m very Jewish. I love Jewish food, I love the music, I love the holidays, I love the concept of making Shabbat [the Jewish Sabbath or day of rest] on a Friday night,” she says. “Does that mean that I can’t use my phone? F—k that. There’s a lot of things that I really relate to—it just took me a couple years of not doing anything [religious] first.”
Finding her style: “I think most gender-norms are totally made up, but I love makeup,” says Stein. “Pink and red are my favorite colors. Do I think that makes a woman? No. But it’s a very strong part of my femininity that I enjoy.”
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Best advice: Finding a support group was vital to her transition, says Stein. “Get support. You’re not alone. If I could say one statement, it’s that you’re not alone.”
What’s next: Stein is writing a “creative memoir” about her experiences that she hopes to publish in the next year. In the meantime, she continues to work with people in the LGBTQ community struggling to come out. She also hopes to use her unique lens, as a newly presenting women, to engage in activism that supports women of all kinds grappling with issues like harassment. “The fact that I’m terrified now to walk on the streets after 10 o’clock at night when, while presenting as a male, I never had to think twice about it—I don’t have words for that,” she says. “Nothing could prepare me for what it is like to be a woman in New York City.”