Abby Stein’s Facebook page looks like those of so many 20-somethings: there are ample selfies of the 24-year-old Columbia University student posing in a variety of outfits and makeup styles, there are playful shots of Abby with friends, and there’s the requisite throwback baby photograph.
But scroll back far enough through her photos and the pictures of Abby are suddenly very different: in them, Abby is not Abby.
She is – she was – a bearded man dressed in full chassidic garb, replete with payes, shtreiml and bekishe.
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Around 2012, Stein left the insular, Yiddish-speaking chassidic community where she grew up in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, N.Y., and three years later, she came out publicly as transgender, changing her name and beginning the process of physically transitioning from male to female.
On March 15, Stein will be speaking about her experiences at a roundtable on Judaism and gender identity at Montreal’s Mile End Chavurah and on March 18, she’ll speak at Temple Emanu-el-Beth Sholom, also in Montreal.
Stein was invited to speak in Montreal by a fledgling local group called Forward, whose aim is to be in Montreal what the more established organization Footsteps is in New York: a support network that offers a range of services to ultra-Orthodox Jews who’ve left, or are trying to leave, the fold.
Created by several former Montreal Chassids just over a year ago, Forward holds regular gatherings for people who’ve left ultra-Orthodox communities.
Their aim is to acquire funding to do things such as provide psychological and social work services to those in need, and to rent an apartment as respite space for those who’ve left, or were kicked out of, their family homes.
“I left the community myself. It’s not only hard, it’s inconceivably hard… We see people [who’ve left ultra-Orthodox communities] jumping off roofs. We have to and we will do something about it,” said Hershy Moskovits, one of Forward’s founders.
Stein credits much of what she’s accomplished to Footsteps, which she found online in 2012 not long after discovering the Internet itself.
With Footsteps’ help, despite having rudimentary English and no secular education, Stein has gotten her high school equivalency, become fluent in English and enrolled at Columbia, where she’s a second-year gender studies major.
She recently started a support group for transgender people from Orthodox backgrounds and, as an avid blogger (she came out as trans via blog, in a post that garnered 20,000 views overnight), has become a role model for former ultra-Orthodox Jews – both LGBTQ and not.
“I see people in this group who’ve been doubly in the closet – both as [non-believers] and as transgender people… And I’m sure there’s 10 times as many people who want to come but are afraid,” Stein said.
While she didn’t begin seriously questioning her faith until adolescence, Stein said there was never a time she didn’t feel like a girl.
“My conscious memories are of feeling like there was some misunderstanding… of lying in bed as a child and dreaming of ways I could become a girl, imagining I could be reborn,” she said.
At 12, she began reading forbidden texts, starting with the books of the prophets and moving to biblical criticism and Kabbalah.
“By 15, I felt like I was done with this whole Judaism thing. I had too many questions,” she said.
At 18, she was married, and “seeing a woman’s life up close made me realize, ‘I want that.’”
After her son was born, she saw the “obsession with a kid’s gender from the beginning,” and felt she had to leave the community.
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Although Stein hoped leaving would resolve her gender issues, her experience of what she now recognizes as gender dysphoria triggered deep depressions, and after a particularly dark period, she knew she had to address it.
“I sort of gave in and started my transition [to becoming a woman], and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made,” Stein said.
One of her biggest goals is to get people in the chassidic community talking about transgender issues, so that people who are struggling understand that they’re not alone.
“Even if they talk about it with hate and mockery, I’d say it’s a topic where no publicity is bad publicity,” Stein said.