Although Ellen Peters was raised in South Africa as a Protestant in a mixed-race family under apartheid, she always felt a connection to Judaism. 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 was named 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 at age 17 to represent the country’s non-white population in the 1973 Miss World competition.
“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. “At 18, before I ever thought of converting, I was wearing a Star of David necklace given to me [by a Jewish family] as a present for winning a beauty contest in South Africa.”
At the Miss World contest, 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 Israel after meeting her Israeli-born husband Naaman Skolnik during a trip to Europe. Although the two were in love, he asked her to convert to Judaism 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.”
Actually it was only in the last 12-15 centuries that Orthodox rabbis make it very hard to become Jewish because conversion to Judaism was declared illegal by Church influenced governments from the time of the late Roman government during the 5-6th century all the way until the 19th century.
In biblical times conversion was easy and in early talmudic days our sages and rabbis tried to make it very easy to convert to Judaism; as the famous talmudic stories of Hillel and three non-Jews who were interested in becoming Jewish illustrate.
Although she eventually made it through the complicated Orthodox conversion process, only an encounter with the Lubavitcher Rebbe three years later made Skolnik experience a spiritual calling.
Ilana Skolnik said 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.”