MILWAUKEE – She’s a Hillel rock star, livening up events with positive energy, helping to found a new Jewish women’s group and interning at Hillel Milwaukee.
“She got the Challah for Hunger program off the ground nearly single-handedly,” said Hillel Milwaukee Executive Director Julie Schack, interviewing in early December. The program has students baking challah and then selling it in the student union to benefit those in need. “She’s out there today.”
“This is literally her second home. She probably spends more time here than in her own home,” Schack said. In addition to 20-year-old Anastasia (“Anya”) Esther’s internship at Hillel Milwaukee, she’s just always around, at every event, and Schack said it’s to the organization’s benefit.
But darkness can be found behind even the brightest of stars. Two years ago, this University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee college sophomore was homeless at 18. Esther lived out of her car in Wausau. The back of her old hatchback didn’t lay completely flat, so as a high-school senior she curled up to one side or the other.
Today, as she nears the realization of her dream – conversion at a Madison mikveh later this month – Esther has a message for the world: Homelessness is real.
“I think the face of homelessness is often an older person, but young homelessness is also just as awful and just as important to be spoken about,” Esther said. “Homelessness is very close.”
Esther sometimes hears people talk about homelessness with too little thought, viewing the homeless as choosing their circumstances, or viewing homelessness as impossible. Once, a staff member at UWM unknowingly said to her in conversation, “what, are you worried you’ll be out on the street?”
Esther has a spotty, up-and-down relationship with her parents. She was in high school when she told them she’d fallen for Judaism, even though she had yet to step foot in any synagogue in America.
Her Judaism was from a distance, sparked by learning about the Holocaust in school and a rabbi’s visit to her high school while Esther was rehearsing for a “Fiddler on the Roof” production.
“When I literally ran out of books on the Holocaust in the city of Wausau that I could read, I started considering the concept of Judaism outside of the Holocaust,” she recalled.
Anti-Semitism against the Jewish-curious
In a twist, Esther experienced anti-Semitism not because she was Jewish, but because she was interested in Judaism or essentially considered herself Jewish.
“I had experienced very light anti-Semitism with the Jew jokes and stereotypical statements,” she recalled, “but those were people at the time who I considered my friends.”
Then, in July 2016 when she was still living at home, she headed out of town to Oshkosh, to attend Badger Girls State, a government and leadership conference for girls. Word got to her: Someone set a swastika ablaze with lighter fluid on the blacktop in front of her family home.
She wasn’t sure how her parents, with firm ties to their Christian faith, would react. After the swastika incident, she had to explain to them why someone would do that by telling her parents what she’d already told others. She told them of her plan to convert to Judaism and that she considers herself “genderqueer,” which means she doesn’t fit neatly into one of the two conventional gender columns. She’s fine with either pronoun “she” or “he,” she said.
Let’s not go into too much detail, to protect this family from additional wounds. We can at least say this. After her gender and Judaism revelations, added to other issues, Esther spent several months living out of her car and sleeping on couches, holding on as best she could until college. Since then, there’s been some relationship repair, but the experience lingers.
“Esther” is not Anastasia (“Anya”) Esther’s given name. She legally changed it in November.
Esther drifted from Christianity at an early age. “I knew probably around the time I was in the sixth grade,” she said. “I had a lot of inner conflict with it for a long time.”
She remembers thinking: “I don’t know what I am but it isn’t this …. I considered myself agnostic for a long time.”
As a high school sophomore, after the rabbi’s “Fiddler on the Roof” visit, Judaism became attractive to her as a place where things are “up for discussion.” The visiting rabbi talked about how some people, groups or movements would say this or that. She liked how not agreeing is “a sign of being thoughtful,” she said.
“What clicked with me was that concept of being allowed to ask questions and receiving thoughtful, open answers to those questions,” she said. “This is where I want to be.”
Making it happen
Esther felt as though she was restarting her life, because she was, when she moved to Milwaukee – the big city – in August of 2017. She’d been here about a week before she saw the Hillel Milwaukee table at a student fair.
She wandered over: “This might sound crazy but I’d like to find out about converting.” She was invited to Shabbat.
“I showed up for Shabbat in the middle of Rosh Hashanah in 2017,” she recalled. She didn’t want to go alone, so she asked around in her dorm until she found a companion who said she had “nothing better to do.”
They arrived and Esther soon lost track of her companion.
“It was like suddenly everything was right,” Esther said. She recalled “this feeling of togetherness and community and reading through the English translations” and feeling that “this is what I’ve been waiting for and hoping for, for so long.”
“It felt like a Lifetime movie.”
At a second Shabbat she shed tears.
“My best friends, I found through Hillel,” she said. “My takeaway from everything has been that there is a family for me out there.”