Abby Stein always considered herself a girl at heart, in body and mind. It wasn’t until she realized everyone else thought she was a boy that she knew something wasn’t right. As she wipes lipstick from her coffee cup and dabs mascara flecks from her eyes, Stein recounts the difficult memories of being born and raised as a male in the Hasidic Jewish community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the obstacles she overcame to become the happy and strong trans woman she is today. This is her story.
Williamsburg is an enclave of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews. The community has their own dress code, speaks strictly Yiddish. Television, Internet, and phones are forbidden in most households. According to Stein, one could go years without interacting with a non-Jew. “So the stronger I started struggling with my own body, the way I would try to deal with it would be with religion.” Stein tells in a Now This video. “Every night before I went to sleep I prayed to God that I would wake up as a girl. I could never imagine a perfect life living as a man.”
It all started when she was four years old. “I felt like my private parts were just wrong,” Stein says. Sometimes, she’d even try to hurt her genitalia to make them go away. “To be honest, I didn’t know the physical difference between boys and girls, because it was never discussed in our community.”
At age 15, Stein’s family sent her to study to become a rabbi in the Catskill Mountains of New York. There, she met an Israeli rabbi who introduced her to Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. “It was through those teachings that I got introduced to the idea that gender was fluid and to the idea of the soul being in the wrong body — what we consider to be transgender today,” Stein tells Huffington Post. Still, as she studied Kabbalah, Stein continued to suppress her inner identity.
Stein stayed in the mountains, receiving her rabbinical degree until she was 20 years old. By then, her marriage had already been arranged to a woman named Fraidy Howrowitz. Soon after, the couple was expecting a son. That’s when Stein’s issues with gender began to get difficult again. “I asked questions like, ‘Is my son going to be a boy or is he going to be a girl just like me?” She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to trust the doctors.
“Everything I had done until then, like trying different prayers or hoping it would just go away wasn’t working anymore. The Hasidic community is very sheltered and can only survive if no questions are asked. Now I had questions and I needed answers, and I knew I wasn’t going to find them here.” Against the warnings of her community that the Internet was a dangerous place, Stein absorbed as much information on transgender stories as possible. Afraid she would find nothing, she suddenly found the world of the trans community at her fingertips.
At that time, Stein couldn’t speak English at all, so she relied on the Hebrew Wikipedia page on transgender to give her the answers. But, instead of feeling relieved, a deep anxiety set in. “I said, ‘Okay, I know I’m not the only one, but should I actually do something about these feelings? What’s going to happen?”
After three months of online research, Stein made two important decisions: to inform her wife Fraidy about her feelings and to leave the Hasidic community. The couple separated in Spring 2013, divorced that summer, and Stein left in the Fall. She also got a high school diploma and was accepted into Columbia University—a stunning achievement given that she couldn’t speak a word of English just a year or two before.
But there was one more step in Stein’s journey. In her first semester of college in 2013, she was still living as a man. “I was doing great, getting straight A’s. And then I had a breakdown. I fell into a depression.” She says the hardest part was coming out to herself and persuading herself that she had to physically transition to complete the process.
She legally changed her Jewish male name, Yisroel, to a more feminine Abby. She also began a hormone therapy in September 2015. Stein says of the process, “There isn’t a single part of my body that hasn’t changed. Seeing my body change made me appreciate human anatomy. Hormones actually affect everything. I have been more productive the last 18 months than I’ve been in my first 24 years combined.”
In addition to the physical changes, Stein had to navigate a brand new social sphere too. After years of living in an isolated community, she was finally experiencing a faster-paced, technological world. She says, “There’s a lot of overlaps between living a fundamentalist religious community and transitioning. Shopping for clothing outside of my community for the first time is very similar to trans people going to shop for female or male clothing for the first time. People who leave the ultra-orthodox community are immigrants in their own country. We don’t know the language or the culture. For example, the first time I walked into a Starbucks, I had to walk up to the barista and ask, “I’m not sure what to do. How do I order?”
Furthermore, Stein now understands the complexities and complaints of being a woman in modern day society. In an interview with Columbia University, Stein says, “I would say New York City is more sexist than transphobic. I haven’t been catcalled or given any hate for being trans. Instead, as a girl, I’m catcalled on a daily basis which is insane. Why the f*** does a random man think he can be like: “Hey, nice a**.” or “Hey cutie.” I’m like: “Shut the f*** up.” When I talk to girls about it, they’re like: “Yeah, duh, it’s part of life.” I feel like there aren’t many people who have been on both sides of it. Now when it’s past 10 pm, I have to think if I want to go on this street or not because some dude might decide to strike up a really weird and creepy conversation.” She goes on to say that many people don’t realize how bad the situation has become as someone who has been on both sides, as in not having to endure it and now seeing it everywhere, can see. This attitude toward women is something we’re not discussing enough, and certainly not demonizing enough. “The best article I have read for men against cat calling have been written by trans men, those who have been on both sides of the coin.” This is just one of the ways that Stein speaks out for those who are oppressed.
Today, in addition to being a student, Stein is a blogger, public speaker and outspoken activist within the trans community. Although she no longer serves as a rabbi, she has returned to a Jewish Renewal synagogue – a sect of Judaism that not only has accepted Stein as her true self, but has fully and genuinely celebrated her new name and identity.
Stein says, “For people who are struggling themselves, first of all, know we are out there. There are so many people who are going to unconditionally accept you and support you. You can and will succeed.” Stein herself is living proof. “I am excited and happy in every way that I was hoping that I would be. It’s really amazing. Life is better than I would have dreamt it would be.”
Abby Stein’s story demonstrates the power of the human spirit—that true happiness can be achieved if you have confidence in your decisions and beliefs, and a supportive community cheering you on.