Abby Stein came out as transgender in 2015, just three years after leaving the Hasidic community where she was raised. Now, the 26-year-old juggles her responsibilities as a community activist, public speaker and part-time student at Columbia University School of General Studies.
Stein has visited more than 100 campuses, sharing her story with thousands of students in hopes of teaching them the importance of inclusivity and that “Judaism and queerness are not a contradiction.” This month, Stein traveled across the nation to speak at various Hillels, including University of Miami Hillel, Colby College Hillel, Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale and Cincinnati Hillel.
In between catching flights and hopping on trains last week, she set aside time to speak with Shana Medel, communications associate at Hillel International. Here are the highlights from their conversation.
Shana Medel: What’s one of the major life lessons you’ve learned from your transition?
Abby Stein: “Haters gonna hate. It took me awhile to figure that out. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you say when you talk to people. They’ve already made up their minds. You’ve just got to learn how to work around it. I’ve also learned that there are people who will always love you unconditionally. It might not be the people who pretended to love you two years ago. You have to find a community that loves you for who you are.”
Medel: How do you balance your studies with being a public speaker? It can’t be easy with classes and prepping for tests.
Stein: “My grandfather has five or six grandkids that get married every year. He would always say that ‘a wedding takes energy and gives energy.’ In the same way, my speaking events at Hillels and other places take a lot of energy out of me, but also give me a lot of energy. It’s not easy, but I’ve found that traveling and speaking — although it does take a lot of work — is a labor of love for me. It’s amazing to travel around and meet people who are openly supportive and willing to learning more. Also, a big part of GS (School of General Studies), which is the school I’m in at Columbia, is balancing life and school. It’s what we all do — you just learn how to do it.”
Medel: Did Columbia/ Barnard Hillel play a role in helping you feel welcome and accepted during your transition?
Stein: “One of the first people I came out to during my second year at Columbia was Megan GoldMarche [currently the rabbi at Silverstein Base Hillel and campus rabbi at Metro Chicago Hillel], who used to work at Columbia/Barnard Hillel. I remember the first year I started school there — it was one of my first times at Hillel — I saw a rainbow sticker on her door and I thought, ‘Oh, I can talk to her.’ She was extremely helpful. And Rabbi Hain, the campus rabbi, was supportive to an extreme. Brian Cohen, the executive director, cheers me on every time he sees me and tells me that he’s proud of me. Hillel has definitely been a place that has helped me feel more welcome and more at peace, not just with my Judaism but with myself as a person.”
Medel: What does Hillel mean to you?
Stein: “Whether I’m at Hillel to study or for an event, I know it’s a place where no one is going to judge me or tell me what I should or shouldn’t do. And that’s truly beautiful. People are open and accepting. When I want to get a holiday meal, I unfortunately can’t go to my parents’ house. They don’t talk to me. But I know that on any Jewish holiday, I can go to Hillel. If I want any form of Friday night dinner — more observant or less observant — I can go there.”
Medel: What’s it like to explore your Judaism on a college campus?
Stein: “I can’t talk about what it’s like on every college campus, but at Columbia, I mean, duh, everyone is Jewish! It’s New York City and it’s Columbia. It’s not that hard. And I love it. I came from a very black and white background. I stopped being observant around 2012. For two years, I wasn’t interested in anything Jewish. Then, I started to explore different Jewish movements and getting involved with the Jewish Renewal movement and a Jewish Renewal synagogue on the Upper West Side. And actually, Hillel was extremely helpful because Columbia has such a diverse Jewish community. There are hundreds of students from all walks of life involved at Hillel on a weekly basis. It really taught me a lot about all the different Jewish communities. The first time I attended Reform and Conservative services was at Columbia/Barnard Hillel. I learned so much, even about Modern Orthodox Jews. It was really amazing to learn all of these things while being at school.”
Medel: What has it been like to explore fashion and express yourself through clothing and makeup?
Stein: “It has been fun. Before I transitioned, I sucked at fashion. I really tried though. One of my final attempts the year before I transitioned was borrowing a book for guys about how to dress up with colors. I just sucked at it. But somehow, the second I transitioned, I literally watched one YouTube tutorial about makeup and I’ve been doing my own makeup ever since. Ninety-nine percent of my photoshoots, I’ve done everything on my own — my clothes, my makeup, my hair. I’ve just loved it. Sometimes it gets taxing and I just put a bit of blush and say, O.K. moving on. But every season I try new styles. To me, it’s a form of art because it’s a way to express who I am to the world.”
Medel: What are some of the best practices for creating inclusive spaces for Jewish students who are transgender?
Stein: “I think it should be a requirement for Jewish professionals to go to a training, like the one offered by the organization Keshet, that teaches them how to work with LGBTQ people. It’s important to know what to do when someone approaches them. I can’t say it enough: Just putting a rainbow sticker on your door has a much stronger impact than anyone could ever imagine. It shows people that this isn’t just a place where you’re going to be O.K., but it’s a place with professionals who want to engage with you. Sometimes it’s not enough just to say that you’re LGBTQ inclusive. There’s a difference between knowing that no one will kick you out of a Shabbat dinner and knowing that if you’re struggling with something, a professional would be happy to talk to you. And I hope there’s a point where teenagers who come out to their parents don’t hear, ‘O.K., we still love you,’ but rather, ‘That’s amazing! Do you want to have a party?’ Acceptance is important.”
Medel: What is your relationship like with your family?
Stein: “I speak to two of my 12 siblings. My parents don’t talk to me at all. I still send them letters and emails and I call them, but they don’t respond. Every week, I send them a message that says, ‘Good Shabbos.’ I’m doing my part, and I think they’ll come around at some point. For now, it’s hard. The part that bothers me the most is that it doesn’t really bother me anymore. It’s human nature to shut out what hurts you. I can see them saying, ‘O.K., we don’t agree with your decision, but if this is who you are, then fine we’ll deal with it.’ Obviously, the ideal situation would be for them to understand and accept my decision. That’s a nice dream.”
Photo courtesy of Abby Stein