Ellen Nester Peters was crowned Miss South Africa South in 1973, and later that year she came in ninth at the Miss World contest. Today she is an observant Orthodox Jew known as Ilana Skolnik, married to Israeli businessman and chairman of Friends of Lubavitch of Tel Aviv Naaman Skolnik...
I was born in Cape Town to what was called a mixed family," Ilana began her interview with The Jewish Press. "My ancestors came from Scotland and France, maybe from Indonesia, so I was considered in South Africa a person of color. I didn't have the same rights as the whites. I had more privileges than the blacks but I was not allowed to study at the same school as the whites and we had no restaurants to attend."
So how did you come to represent South Africa in a Miss World contest?
Skolnik: I represented the coloreds and the blacks. At that time it was still before the fall of apartheid, so there were two Miss South Africas in the Miss World contest. You had the Miss South Africa who was all white and you had Miss Africa South, who represented the coloreds and the black people.
When were you first drawn to Judaism?
When I was in a Protestant school at the age of ten, the teacher asked us to study Ruth, Chapter 1, verses 16-17, which we had to recite aloud. Ruth said "Beseech me not to leave thee for where thy goest I will go."
I have loved this since I was ten years old, and I used to recite this very, very often. Sometimes I used to be very sad and I didn't know why I was sad.
How did your family accept the fact that you became Jewish?
They loved it. I think they are half Jewish, and Rabbi Klein [the Lubavitcher Rebbe's secretary] told me that the Rebbe said there was [a] Jew in my family. I am sorry I never inquired about it, but my mother told me that my grandfather's name was Saul Solomon Jacob Simpson.
Do you still have contact with your family back in South Africa?
Oh yes, very much so. I heard later that the Lubavitcher Rebbe had told a certain convert he should always keep up the contact, but I naturally have it because I was brought up in a very warm and loving family.
When and how did you meet your husband?
I met him in 1980 in Athens, Greece. I then was working as a stewardess for TWA on the ground. I would be meeting groups who came from all over to visit Greece. One time when I came back from America I had gone to collect my car at a long-term parking lot. The man in the office there asked me to make a recording in English on his answering machine saying, "The office is presently closed," which I did.
A few days later, Naaman called there. He had been expecting guests who didn't show up, and he had bought flowers for them. He told his friend he needed someone to give away these flowers to. His friend said why not give them to me. said no, I can't do that. So Naaman himself called me and told me why I should come and collect the flowers. He said it with such humor... He is very witty and sharp, and he caught me with his humor. I loved his humor and I said okay.
The following day he asked me if I could take him to various shops. I agreed and then I saw something in his suitcase which was crocheted. I asked him, "What is that?" He said, "It is my kipa." I said, "So put it on your head." That was my first instruction to him.
Yes, he did. I was in absolute shock then. There is a Jew in front of me with a kipa on his head. Anyway, a bit of time later, he proposed marriage, but he was so far removed from religion that he didn't even condition it on my converting to Judaism first. He said "I would like you to marry me." So I said, "Okay, let's go get married in a civil ceremony."
He said "I can't. I am a Jew so I must get married under a chuppah." He did not say to me that I have to convert.
But since getting married under a chuppah meant I would have to convert first, I replied that I would pray to G-d to give me the answer whether I should or not convert, because I didn't know anything about conversion, I just knew it was something spiritual.
He asked me where I want to live – Israel or Australia?
I had never been to either Israel or Australia, but I grew up in a home where we knew my father fought against the Nazis at Alamein. He was wounded and was taken up to Jerusalem. So I grew up with the stories of Jerusalem, and my father had in a glass cabinet a stone with the word "Jerusalem." I therefore preferred Israel.
Once in Israel, I opened a file at the rabbinate in Tel Aviv, and received two years of tears. Rabbi Frankel [then chief rabbi of Tel Aviv] did not accept me; he kept pushing me off for two years.
You see, I suffered racism in South Africa, so for me his rejection meant he didn't like my color. I didn't know then that this is the procedure when someone wants to convert – halachically you're supposed to discourage and push him off.
I was brought up with racism so I didn't know any different then. Of course, today I understand it and I think it is absolutely important to do that, because you are playing with fire when you convert someone.
So I met my husband in 1980, I opened a file in the rabbinate in 1982, converted in 1984, and married a bit later.
In 1986 we traveled to New York and met with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and since I had a problem – I was unable to conceive – I asked the Rebbe for his blessing. Two weeks later, after we returned to Israel, we received a call from the Rebbe's emissary in Tel Aviv, Rabbi Joseph Gerlitzky, that a letter had arrived from the Rebbe with a blessing that I would have children.
Then within no time I became pregnant, and between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the same week that I had become a beauty queen, I gave birth to a baby girl.
Two months later, I got up one morning and found that my baby daughter's soul had returned to Hashem.
This was a turning point in my life. I knew that nothing happens without a reason, and if G-d had given me such pain there is something I need to correct in my life. After that we went to the Rebbe again. When we went out of 770 I said to my husband that if such a tzaddik like the Rebbe spoke to me I must start observing the holy Sabbath (until then we had not yet observed the Sabbath).
He said "I'm not ready yet."
Then I went to a bookstore on Kingston Avenue and there was a book of recipes for Passover. I opened it up and saw a letter printed there from the Rebbe to Chabad women in which he explains that the atmosphere in a Jewish home depends on the Jewish woman.
As I stood reading this letter I knew that I am this Jewish woman the Rebbe was referring to and that the atmosphere in my home depends o me.
I bought this book and came outside, and my husband was waiting for me. I said: From the 11th of Nissan (which was only a few days away), I am going to start observing the holy Sabbath.
We traveled back to Israel and informed everybody that we were going to observe the Sabbath.