From ultra-Orthodox rabbi to openly transgender: Abby Stein tells her story in St. Louis


Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

Celebrating our differences and uniqueness as individuals is a hallmark Jewish value. So recognition of people who identify as LGBTQ+ is an ideal way to acknowledge their oneness. That’s a key message delivered by Rabbi Abby Stein, the first openly transgender woman raised in a Hasidic community.

Stein was a featured speaker at the Songleader Boot Camp (SLBC), where she spoke to Jewish leaders about her journey from ultra-orthodox rabbi to becoming a woman activist, author and educator. Stein also spoke to a packed audience at the Jewish Community Center on Feb. 20 as part of the SLBC Community Speaker Series. The following day, Stein sat down with the St. Louis Jewish Light and discussed her work, the challenges faced by the Jewish LGBTQ+ community, and her secret talent (she makes a killer gefilte fish).

Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Williamsburg neighborhood, Stein was expected at a young age to become a rabbi.  It was, after all, the family business. Stein is a 10th generation descendant of the Baal Shem Tov (regarded as the founder of Hasidic Judaism). The only problem was Stein, who was born a male named Yisroel, knew from about the age of 5 that she was a girl. Another challenge was shyness.

“Believe it or not, I was extremely socially awkward until I came out,” said Stein, 31. “And I had no friends as a child, which came from having a hard time relating to boys. And being friends with girls wasn’t an option where I came from. So that was really hard. When I was raised, I was groomed. Scary words, I know. I was groomed to become a rabbi and a community leader.”

That is exactly what Stein has evolved into, as a go-to spokesperson for the trans community. Her first book, “Becoming Eve: My Journey from ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman,” became a best seller.

When Stein came out to her father (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Stein, a leading Brooklyn rabbi) she knew it would likely cause a rift in the family, and she was correct. She no longer has a relationship with her father. But she was confident that it was the right decision and that coming out equated to a mitzvah.

“There is a very Jewish belief that every person is a manifestation of the divine,” she said. “We talk a lot about tikkun olam, which actually comes from a Kabalistic idea, where we’re all in this world to fix things and to correct and to make things more whole. So you put all those together and there’s the spiritual point where coming out literally is making yourself more whole. That means that there is no greater mitzvah than making G-d whole.

“There’s also a very literal aspect to it where when we think of the literal definition of a mitzvah, like good deeds. When you come out, you are more able to be you and are a better person in community. People who come out are better family members. They are better friends. They’re very human as a whole. And the better of a person you are, the better you are in society, the better you are in your life, better you are in the people around you. So I would say almost like there is no greater mitzvah.”

As an openly transgender woman with Hasidic roots, Stein is seen by some as an anomaly. She contends that it’s a fallacy to believe trans individuals make up a minority in the Orthodox world.

“There is something that we in the community call ‘stealth,’” she said. “As in, somebody who transitions and passes, as the gender they are presenting and then they don’t talk about it and no one knows about it.”

She also talked about acceptance of trans Orthodox Jews and the bare minimum of acceptance, which is tolerance.

“When tolerance means that if trans people need to hide themselves, they’re always going to have to worry. There was a trans woman who was teaching at an Orthodox school and she had to hide it. Then people figured it out and she got fired. So when you create a community and a world where people are tolerated but they are not truly celebrated, it’s always going to lead to discrimination.”

Stein said every denomination of Judaism should welcome LGBTQ+ Jewish members, in part because it addresses a societal shift.

“I know a lot of young people, even people who are straight and stick together and not part of the LGBTQ community, when they look into joining a community, they look what that specific community does and says about LGBTQ people because it tends to be a good indicator of how progressive that community might be,” she said.

“How do we get our young people to be more involved and to come to synagogue? I kept telling them to hold events like a pride Shabbat dinner. Also, if you’re thinking about getting people engaged and getting people involved in Jewish communities, that’s where I would say it’s not just the right thing to do. It is the smart thing.”

Generally, Stein disdains labels (“I think labels are meant for clothes”) but she talked about the significance of the concept of allyship.

“Humans in an ideal world wouldn’t need labels,” she said. “I wish we lived in a world where you are who you are and everyone accepts it. But we’re not there yet. I think allyship is important in the context of the world that we live in.

“We’re in Missouri right now, and here the government is passing laws against gay people, against trans people. So I think in this context, allyship is important in order to be used as more direct than just being a friend. Yes, it is about being a friend, but it also about being an ally. In the world we live in, ‘ally’ is a good label and helpful to identify people who we know we can rely on, people who are going to fight for us.”

Following her visit to St. Louis, Stein plans to complete her upcoming book, a collection of her previous texts on a wide variety of subjects. It will also include commentary and reflections with an emphasis on the creation story and gender. She’s also working on a young adult adaptation of her memoir “Becoming Eve,” and an entirely different genre—a cookbook.

“I’m in the beginning of it right now,” she said. “It will mostly be Hasidic food with some modern twists. A lot of Americans have a bad idea of Ashkenazi food. The foods that have been popularized in diners that people love include bagels and lox and matzah ball soup, and the ones that have been popularized by commercial producing, they are the ones people hate, like, gefilte fish because they’re not done well. Right? I make a homemade fresh salmon gefilte fish and people love it!”