Abby Stein has made a name for herself well beyond the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Brooklyn that she grew up in. As the first openly transgender woman raised in the Hasidic community, and a direct descendant of Hasidic Judaism’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, Abby has a particularly unique perspective of the Haredi world. Her activism for trans people of Orthodox backgrounds has earned her international recognition.
Abby’s story has been covered in many major publications including the New York Times, New York Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, and Vogue. In 2016, Abby was named by The Jewish Week as one of the “36 Under 36” young Jews who are inspiring change in the world.
Abby has seen firsthand the devastating effects that a lack of education can have for Hasidic youth. She’s been a staunch supporter of Yaffed’s work to ensure that Haredi kids get the education that they’re entitled to by law.
“In my yeshiva, we had about 11 hours of studying plus about an hour and 45 minutes of prayers every day… no history or social studies or science,” she told Yaffed’s founder, Naftuli Moster. “I couldn’t even speak enough English to communicate the simple act of opening a bank account.”
Fortunately, Abby was resourceful enough to overcome the educational neglect. As a child, she read from the few Yiddish publications that offered a glimpse of the outside world. Although the literature was highly censored, it still gave her more history and science than she was offered in yeshiva.
As an adult, Abby continued to fill in the gaps of her childhood education and, in 2018, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia University in New York. She’s also the first woman, and the first openly transgender woman, to have been ordained by an ultra-Orthodox institution, due to receiving her rabbinical ordainment before coming out as transgender.
Despite her departure from the Hasidic community, she still remains connected. During the pandemic, in an attempt to save lives, she shared details of large, unmasked weddings. While publicly, many Hasidic people denounced her for revealing the gatherings, privately, she received information and gratitude.
“A lot of the information that I get about gatherings are from people within the community who are sending me messages in English and in Yiddish. And then thank you notes. You don’t see that on social media because these people are afraid to speak up.” she said.
According to Abby, much of the fear of speaking up comes from the Hasidic leadership.
“There have been a few community leaders who very intentionally have done many things to downplay COVID. There are intentional campaigns to keep sick people from getting tested and encourage healthy people to get tested to try to knock down the numbers.”
While Abby acknowledges that a lack of education, along with the communal nature of Hasidic Jews are both major factors in the high COVID numbers, she says that “ultimately the fault for the COVID crisis in the Hasidic community lies on the leaders that intentionally or unintentionally decide not to do anything about it.”
It’s those same leaders who have pressured politicians to stay out of Hasidic schools, allowing them to continue to ignore state laws that mandate a substantially equivalent education in non-public schools. Abby has been a vocal advocate for Hasidic kids, even publicly confronting Mayor de Blasio about his inaction.
“Confronting de Blasio was a great moment because we got him on camera admitting there was a problem, but it also happened in Harlem, which wasn’t a place where he was expected to be confronted about it.” Abby said. “It’s really important to run after him and other people in government.. City and state. They need to know that we’re not giving up.”
Abby notes that one of the reasons that de Blasio and other politicians are reluctant to get involved when Hasidic people break the law is because of the Hasidic leadership’s strong resistance to outside interference.
“This is a community that doesn’t want you to get involved. They will be really happy and vote for you if you just stay out of their business. I think that ultimately, for most politicians, they think ‘I would rather spend my energy and my time on a community that wants to be helped.’” Abby said.
Another reason that politicians and the mainstream Jewish community largely stay out of the Hasidic world is the fear of being accused of antisemitism. But, Abby doesn’t see that as a valid excuse for not helping.
“You’re not really helping anyone by shutting down all criticism against a community. And obviously you are neglecting the most vulnerable parts of the community which are the people who have left and the people who are not fitting in, who haven’t fully left yet. If you just jump to the defense of the overall Hasidic community blindly when they’re wrong, you are harming these vulnerable people.”
Despite the Hasidic leaders’ resistance to outside interference, It is all of our responsibility to ensure that Hasidic kids get the education that they deserve. Find out how you can help!