Chaya Milchtein is one of The Advocate's Women of the Year. View the full list from the current issue of the magazine.
Meet the “mechanic shop femme” who’s made it her mission in life to educate women and queers on all things auto. “I’m not a mechanic,” states Chaya Milchtein on her website MechanicShopFemme.com. “I’m an automotive writer, educator, and person who’s held the customer facing job with joy.”
After a tumultuous childhood in a strict religious home in Milwaukee, she ended up in foster care in her late teens.
“I’m the oldest of 15 children by Hasidic Lubavitch parents,” Milchtein told HeyAlma.com in a recent interview. “There were radicals even within the community itself…. I was raised in an abusive home but I wasn’t taken out of my home because my father was a rabbi, so he could do no wrong. Eventually, when I was 16, I was removed by child protective services.”
“It was a good thing for me,” says Milchtein now of her experience in the system. “I don’t have the horror story that most people have about going into foster care. It was the best thing that happened to me in my childhood.”
Around the same time, Milchtein started working in the Sears Auto Center and soon discovered she actually really enjoyed working in the automotive field.
“I really liked how there was a lot more black and white than gray, once you figured it out,” she says. “And I liked the challenge. There was always a part of the vehicle that you would have to learn, and it seems like no matter how much you learn, there’s always something new to explore.”
After her time at Sears, Milchtein worked within major automotive repair chains and dealerships as well as an independently owned franchise repair shop. She says that “working in the collision industry allows me to have a well-rounded understanding of cars inside and out.”
Now, at 25, with the Mechanic Shop Femme, Milchtein has created a successful business in which she uses her “automotive knowledge to empower women and queer folks through online classes and consultations.”
“I don’t know at what point it became like, ‘Oh, this isn’t a job anymore, this is actually something I want to do,’” adds Milchtein on deciding to turn her automotive know-how into a career. “When I moved to New York and I transferred with Sears…I started realizing that I’m actually quite good at this…. And then people started asking questions that [they] wanted to learn—and I had so much I felt like I had to offer. But not just that. I remember my mother getting stuck with her car failing all the time and trying to figure out how to handle the cost of future repairs and things like that. And I thought, Wow, I can actually get all this done myself and I can direct other people on how to do it…. When you explain something to somebody and they get it for the first time, that makes me happy.”
Though Milchtein certainly is a respected expert in the auto arena, she is also much more. The fierce LGBTQ and body-positive advocate says, “My work falls under the umbrella of empowerment. Be exactly who you are while educating yourself on things that will empower you. I blog about radical body acceptance, automotive fundamentals, and queer life and love.”