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Jewish transgender activist shares struggle, insight

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University at Albany students filled Campus Center room 375 to hear transgender Jewish activist Abby Stein share her story and insight into transgender issues.

Stein left the Hasidic Jewish community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2012 through the help of Footsteps, an organization that assists people who wish to leave the ultra-Orthodox community.

In September 2015, Stein began hormone replacement therapy, and, two months later, published her coming-out post on her blog, The Second Transition.

Stein serves as an activist and educator. Additionally, she is an undergraduate student at Columbia University studying political science and gender studies.

Presented by Kehila Conservative Jewish Student Group in collaboration with Hillel, Stein’s presentation was the final event of the 35th Anniversary Sexuality Month hosted by UAlbany’s Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program.

Sarah Nolan, the director of Middle Earth, said the goal of Sexuality Month is to educate students about sexuality through a diverse range of topics.

Stein was the second of two trans speakers on the Sexuality Month agenda. Actor Trace Lysette, known as “Shea” on the Amazon series “Transparent,” presented this year’s keynote address two days prior.

The audience included members of the general public, Middle Earth participants and students from the Jewish and LGBTQ campus communities.

Junior and public policy student Hailey Hamias said she was excited about the event.

“I’m interested in the intersectionality of gender and religion,” said Hamias.

Hillel president Ryan Fox said he was pleased by the size of the crowd.

“It is awesome to see so many people here to welcome such a famous face to UAlbany,” said Fox.

Hasidic Jewish communities have been known to dismiss the legitimacy of transgender men and women.

“I used to joke when I started my activism: the day the Hasidic community is hating trans people, I have accomplished my goal,” Stein said. The Hasidic community also enforces strong divides between men and women, she added.

Stein said a common argument she hears is, “Where were all the trans people 100 years ago?” Stein believes she can prove the existence of trans and gender nonconforming individuals throughout history, especially in Judaism.

Stein, trained as a rabbi prior to leaving the Hasidic community, claims to have identified references to transgender men and women in an abundance of Jewish texts.

One such text was a translation of an 18th century Hasidic teaching that Stein showed her father when she came out to him as trans.

“At times the female will be in a male body. The soul of the female will come to be in a male,” the translation read.

“Who you are and what your body is doesn’t always add up,” Stein said. “Blame it on Hollywood or counter culture or hippies…we were around throughout history.”

Stein ended her presentation with a video from her 2016 name change ceremony at her Manhattan synagogue, Romemu. David Ingber, Romemu’s founding rabbi, compared Stein’s transition to the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

“Whenever we leave a narrow place, a place of constriction…a place where we are not authentically who we are…that transitioning is an exodus. It’s a freedom walk,” Ingber said as he welcomed her to “a place of new name.”

Aliza Barnett, president of Kehila, said the event exceeded her expectations.

“We are so honored that Abby was able to join us and impart her experiences and wisdom,” Barnett said. Barnett said the popularity of the event and resulting support for the Jewish and LGBTQ campus communities reveals UAlbany’s diversity.

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