Mikayla Stern-Ellis expected to learn a lot of new things about herself during her freshman year at Tulane University in New Orleans. But she never expected that she would discover a half-sister she had not even known existed.
Stern-Ellis, 19, called the discovery that she and her college friend Emily Nappi, 18, share the same Colombian sperm donor father “bashert” (preordained).
“I’m more of a cultural Jew than a religious one, but this has to mean something,” she told The Times of Israel. “I definitely now believe in fate. How could I not?”
Stern-Ellis, who grew up in the Jewish community in San Diego, had initially not been interested in attending Tulane, but after she was sent a free application, she applied to the school and ended up being offered a scholarship and entrance to an honors program. On visiting the campus last spring, she felt that Tulane was the right fit for her.
Nappi, who is 7 months younger than Stern-Ellis, was raised in San Francisco and had had her sights set on Tulane for some time. Nappi is not Jewish and does not identify with any particular religion. “But she does identify strongly with her family’s Italian background,” Stern-Ellis noted.
It was only two weeks ago that the young women realized they were biologically related. Since the two met last April through an online roommate survey from Tulane, they had been acquaintances, but not good friends.
“Through the survey, we learned that we had quite a bit in common,” Stern-Ellis reported. “We share a lot of values and we both have strong feminist sensibilities, which probably come from the similarities in our upbringings.”
Both women come from lesbian families. Stern-Ellis’ mothers are both Jewish, and she has a younger brother to whom she is not related biologically (they were each born to a different mother and conceived with sperm from different donors).
They are members of Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform congregation, where Stern-Ellis had her bat mitzvah ceremony and helped out in the preschool and religious school. She also attended Jewish summer camp and participated in drama programs at the local Jewish community center. Last May, she went to Poland and Israel on the March of the Living.
Nappi’s mothers have divorced and gone on to remarry, thus giving her four moms. She has two step-siblings who are much older than she.
Stern-Ellis and Nappi are not only newfound half-sisters, but they are also one another’s only biological sibling.
Not long after meeting online, signs that the new friends might be related began to surface, but they shrugged them off. When last Father’s Day, Stern-Ellis humorously posted on Facebook a note of thanks to her unknown Colombian sperm donor, Nappi commented that she also had a Colombian sperm donor. Then, once the school year started, Tulane classmates were pointing out that the two women resembled one another.
Stern-Ellis’ mom Debra thought there might be something more to these coincidences when she saw photos of Nappi. Over winter break, she suggested that her daughter compare sperm donor registry numbers with her friend. When the numbers matched, they were astounded.
“Emily texted me her number and my mother texted me mine at the same time. When I saw they were the same, I wanted to yell, but I was in the dermatologist’s office where it was really quiet, so I just sat there silently freaking out,” Stern-Ellis recounts.
It has only been a couple of weeks since the women learned they are sisters, but they have quickly become close. The process has been hurried along by their being interviewed by major media outlets like CNN and NBC. Their families have also gotten to know one another while meeting up in New York recently as their daughters appeared on TV.
Nappi is not interested in meeting the Colombian sperm donor. Stern-Ellis has always wanted to meet him, but she’s putting plans for finding him on hold while she processes the fact that she has a new sister.
Stern-Ellis says that Nappi has not yet asked her much about her Jewish background, but she wouldn’t be surprised if that changes. “I’m so Jewish that as soon as my friends get to know me, they all fall in love with Judaism.”