Abby Stein was born into a family of rabbis in a Hasidic neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She told The Huffington Post that growing up, her life was defined by the traditions and expectations of the tight-knit Jewish community around her. Inside, Stein was struggling with questions about God, religion and her own gender identity. She decided to leave the Hasidic community when she was about 20 years old and, with the help of Footsteps -- an organization that helps ultra-Orthodox Jews transition out of their past communities -- started building a new life in the secular world. Stein is now a student at Columbia University in New York, where she studies political science and women and gender studies.
Below, the 24-year-old tells the story of how she left her childhood faith -- and how a young woman who once adamantly swore off all religion came to be joyously celebrating her name change in a synagogue.
I went to a Hasidic Jewish day school that was supposed to be all boys. I can tell you now that there was at least one other kid there who wasn’t really a boy.
People always ask me, "When did you realize you were trans?" What I remember is realizing when I was really young that everyone else thought I was a boy.
For years, I had a lot of different ways of dealing with that. I found that my discomfort with religion always went hand-in-hand with my discomfort with myself, the gender dysphoria. The thought that maybe it was happening because I don’t really believe in my religion. And that’s when I started asking more and more questions.
The more I asked, the more people would say that I was “enlightened.” In that community, saying that someone is enlightened is almost a curse, the worse thing you can say about someone. They always say you can ask questions, but you can only ask questions within a box.
The rabbis talk of the internet as a bad place, with information about stuff you shouldn’t read. Even within the community, they censor everything. I think by now, it’s opened up somewhat, but when I was growing up, we had no access to internet, no TV, movies, newspapers, radios, anything. I didn’t know trans people even existed.
“They always say you can ask questions, but you can only ask questions within a box.”
The first time I remember getting in trouble for asking questions was when I was 12 years old, studying the Talmud. There was a rabbinic teacher leading the class. It’s part of that culture to take everything in the Talmud literally. But actually, many of these stories are meant to be taken more metaphorically.
I remember reading a few pages where they had some really creepy stuff. Like, if you want to see demons, you take a chicken, burn it to ashes, and put that next to your bed at night, and when you wake up, you’ll see demons. So I asked the teacher, “Can I try that? Is it actually going to work?”
He freaked out on me, saying, “That’s heresy, you can’t say that.” And I thought to myself, “Why are you upset at me?”
When I didn’t get answers, I read books I wasn’t supposed to read. That’s when I got introduced to medieval Jewish philosophy and to the Jewish sages.
By the time I was about 15, a rabbi from Israel told me that I should get into Kabbalah. 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.
By that stage, it was time for me to get engaged and married. Most people in the community got married between the age of 18 and 20 and they start having kids right away. [Abby was 18 years old when she got married].
After my son was born, the question of God became even more urgent. I started going back to studying more philosophy and mysticism. I tried hard to believe. The question was: “Yes or no?” was it true or not? The God I grew up with was very straightforward. A bogeyman in the sky, just this being you have to deal with. As a last resort, I went to the internet, which I was told was this place to get terrible information. I started reading about science, evolution, Biblical criticism.
By the time I was about 20, I decided it was time to leave the community. I tried to work on my marriage, but eventually got divorced.
For the next two years, I felt very much disenfranchised from God. One rabbi called it “Post-God Traumatic Disorder.” When God is just this really bad person who is going to punish you. I was like, “That’s it. I don’t want to know anything about the Jewish religion. This is all bulls**t.” It was like that for two years, but slowly, I realized there was something missing.
“I don’t believe in God, but I believe in Judaism.”
I loved the way Judaism does life cycle events. I loved the idea of having one day of the week off. (Even though, if I don’t believe, there’s no reason why it would be Saturday and not Tuesday). I related to Jewish music, to the food, and even the spirituality part, I’ll admit it.
A few people started telling me about more liberal Judaism. I tried Humanistic Judaism, keeping the community without any of the spirituality part. It felt very empty in some way. I liked the singing and meditation, the dinners, but I really missed the traditions. I had a lot of conversations with atheist groups, but call it prayer, call it meditation, I needed to relate to something. Call it God, why not? Something that exists out there that is more than my surface level.
Then, someone told me to check out a place called Romemu. It’s a very loose spectrum of people, from very traditional observers to people who don’t believe in anything traditional. I walked in to a service and in the middle of the sermon, the rabbi mentioned God. I got so upset. I walked out of there, thinking, “I’m not interested in God.”
Watch the video below to see Abby's Celebration of Life in Transition Ceremony at Romemu.
Then, I discovered the writings of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the father of the Jewish Renewal movement. I haven't bumped into a person like him ever. He had a relationship with people of every spiritual or non-spiritual tradition, including atheists and agnostics. He was really good at technology and science, he had a relationship with Sufis, he had an amazing personal relationship with the Dalai Lama. In his book, Jewish With Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice, he wrestles with the question of God. Here’s an excerpt that I have highlighted in my copy:
If you say, "You’re anthropomorphizing the infinite by personalizing it,” I readily admit it. But what is it that I want? I want a connection. I want spiritual intimacy. We are hungry for cosmic companionship. We want someone or something to talk to who is not our parents or partner or children or therapist or friends -- who is all of these, but more. Our soul needs this.
“But it’s all one big mental construct,” the intellect says, and I agree. But I begin not with my mind but with my imagination, and imagining a God I can talk to gives me satisfaction on a very basic level … There is a satisfaction circuit built in when I call upon the spirit of the universe, a circuit that tells me, "This is good for you. Keep doing it."
It’s a very pragmatic way of looking at God. You’re saying God is all made up, but okay, who cares? People say, "I can’t pray because I feel like I’m talking to myself." The rabbi would say, “Pray! That’s so good. Go talk to yourself.”
I feel like it’s so much easier to say there’s a God that’s going to strike you down or to say there’s nothing, it’s all bulls**t. It’s much harder to say, "I don’t know."
I say a lot that I don’t believe in God, but I believe in Judaism. Six months after I left Romemu, I came back to the community. I've been a member there for two years. On Friday, June 4, I had a "Celebration of Life in TRANSition," and the community welcomed me officially by my new name.
There is something wonderful about doing the most untraditional thing [a name change ceremony] in a traditional way. In Judaism, a name change is always done in a synagogue in front of an open Torah scroll. Traditionally, it’s been like that for at least 1,000 years. I wanted to do that, even though, do I think the Torah has some higher power? No, but it has the power of being a text that Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other traditions have honored for thousands of years.
“Call it prayer, call it meditation, I needed to relate to something. Call it God, why not?”
I wanted to show that if you claim being trans is unacceptable in traditional Judaism, well, here is a community that is not just okay with accepting me as I am, but is celebrating with me, rejoicing with me. What I’m hoping is that by sharing my story, others in the same situation will realize that you can have your name changed in a synagogue. There are so many synagogues where you can’t, but there are also those where you can -- the Jewish Reform movement, the Conservative movement. Within Orthodoxy, there’s still a long way to go. Every time something like this is done, it’s one step closer to acceptance for everyone.
I managed to keep myself from crying during the ceremony, but I choked up at one part. It was a traditional blessing that meant, "Blessed are you, O Lord, who has kept me alive and brought me up to this day." I’m grateful that I survived to this day. That was a point that was really important. The name change was also a very emotional part. The way the community reacted was so amazing.
Even the negative feedback has ended up being positive. People would ask me, "I don’t get it, are you religious or not?" My answer to them is, "That’s not a yes or no question."