South African Beauty Queen’s Conversion Mirrors Ruth’s Story
Ilana Skolnik: “I feel my soul was always meant to be Jewish.”
The Shavuot story of Ruth might retell the journey of the most famous convert to Judaism, but South African-born Ilana Skolnik, who became a Jew more than 20 years ago and has lived in Israel ever since, has no less of an amazing story.
Born Ellen Peters, Skolnik, who was raised as a Protestant in a “colored,” or mixed-race, family under apartheid, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that she had always felt a connection to Judaism and that one of her earliest memories was reciting the first chapters from the story of Ruth.
“It was only after I converted that I found out that my grandfather on my mother’s side had actually been called Saul Solomon Jacob Simson,” the 54-year-old Herzliya resident said. “In addition, I had an uncle who was Jewish, and his family used to recite kiddush on Friday nights.”
Despite the obvious barriers of growing up colored in the 1950s and ’60s in South Africa, Skolnik was selected to represent the country’s non-white population in the 1973 Miss World competition held at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
“The goal was to make a point that there were groups other than whites living in South Africa,” recalled Skolnik, who was 17 at the time. “But for me it was just a great experience to see the world and meet women from all different places.”
Although she could have built a future based on her obvious physical beauty, the young woman instead decided to pursue a life based on internal beauty and spirituality: converting to Judaism, marrying an Israeli and building her home in the Jewish homeland.
“I hope that my life followed the direction of the beauty that is inside a person, and it is that which speaks to me more much more than the Miss World contest ever did,” said Skolnik, who today gives inspirational talks all over the world about her spiritual awakening and her conversion 26 years ago.
“God has a way of making people do things and there is always a reason why such things happen,” she said.
“I feel my soul was always meant to be Jewish, and there are so many things that have happened in my life to indicate this,” she went on. “I mean, even at the age of 18, before I ever thought of converting, I was wearing a Star of David necklace that had been given to me [by a Jewish family] as a present for winning the beauty contest [in South Africa].”
At the Miss World contest, too, Skolnik clearly recalls striking up a friendship with the Miss Israel contestant, who came in second place.
“I still have a newspaper article from the event where I am quoted as saying to her, “Mazal tov, I will come and visit you in Israel one day,’” laughed Skolnik.
Although it took her more than a decade, Skolnik made good on her promise and arrived in the country after meeting her Israeli-born husband Naaman during a trip to Europe. Although the two were in love, Skolnik’s husband asked her to convert so that they could be married in a Jewish ceremony.
“At first I thought that the rabbis were being racist,” recalled Skolnik of the conversion process. “When I opened my file, the rabbi gave me a very hard time, and I was running around after that file for two years. I did not realize that under Halacha, converting had to be made as difficult as possible in order for converts to understand how difficult it is to be a Jew.”
Although she eventually made it through the complicated Orthodox conversion process, it was not until an encounter with the Lubavitcher rebbe three years later that Skolnik experienced her spiritual calling.
“It was Hanukka time, and it was the turning point in my life,” she said. “I had requested the rebbe to make a blessing for me to have children. The doctors had told me that it was impossible for me to conceive, but a few months after meeting with the rebbe, I did get pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl.”
Sadly, Skolnik’s daughter died in infancy, but years later, she had the opportunity to adopt a young woman, also a convert, from China. Dvora Leah, said Skolnik, took on the family name and even named her nine-month-old daughter after Skolnik’s mother-in-law.
“I took care of my mother-in-law, Pnina, for many years as she got old, and often felt like we were Naomi and Ruth [from the Bible story],” she said, adding proudly, “Now I am a grandmother.”
Skolnik said her Judaism had become “an integral part of my life.”
“After I converted 26 years ago and became a Jew, I had not done anything and had an empty hole where I was no longer a non-Jew… I had a hole and nothing to fill it with,” she said, adding that her journey was all about filling that void and becoming fully Jewish.
“When I drive up to Jerusalem today, I feel it and I know absolutely that I have a Jewish soul now,” finished Skolnik. “When I light the Shabbat candles and then I sit down, it is at that moment I know I am a Jewish woman. I know that I am in the right place with the right people in the right land.”