Leaving A Narrow Place: Abby Stein's Path Back to Faith
In the June 2016 Huffington Post article entitled How This Ex-Hasidic Woman Lost and Found Her Judaism, Carol Kuruvilla profiles Abby Stein, a 24 year old trans woman who left her tight-knit Hasidic community having sworn off religion -- and her return to faith.
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.
Abby relates her feelings on the age-old question of “when did you know you were trans?” with acknowledging that her dysphoria was always joined with her uneasiness with the stark traditionalism of her faith and upbringing.
Having grown up without access to newspapers, radio, TV, or the Internet, Abby’s inquiries extended to her rabbinical teachers, charged with interpreting the Torah in a literal context. Due to her questioning, she became known as “enlightened” -- a negative, almost derogatory term in that community.
Around age 15, an Israeli rabbi suggested Abby research Kabbalah -- a Jewish tradition leaning heavily on mystical interpretation of Torah -- and there, Abby began to learn of the idea that gender was a fluid thing.
In accordance with tradition, Abby was married at age 18 (many of the Hasidim marry and start families around ages 18-20):
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.
Abby’s disenfranchisement with the Hasidic traditions of faith led to her leaving the community and her eventual divorce. With the help of an organization called Footsteps, which works to help ultra-Orthodox Jews make the transition into secular society, Abby started building a new, more authentic life. After some time, however, she realized that something was off:
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.
Finding herself missing the life cycle of Judaism its varied forms -- food, music, a dedicated day of rest, even the spirituality -- Abby began searching for forms of Jewish community, but found all lacking in the spirituality she was looking for:
...I needed to relate to something. Call it God, why not? Something that exists out there that is more than my surface level.
She eventually found Romemu, a nondenominational Jewish congregation. Initially disenchanted with this group as well, she found her way back to Romemu after reading works by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the founding fathers of the Jewish Renewal movement, and found her own thoughts amplified:
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.”
On June 4th, Abby celebrated her return to faith in community with Romemu through a name change ceremony in front of open Torah scrolls, and her community welcomed her by her new name.
There is something wonderful about doing the most untraditional thing [a name change ceremony] in a traditional way... 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... 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.
Abby closes the article with a memory from her name change ceremony, officially called “A Celebration of Life in TRANSition”:
...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.
Read Huffington Post’s How This Ex-Hasidic Woman Lost and Found Her Judaism, and watch video from Abby Stein’s Celebration of Life In TRANSitionbelow.