“Every Friday when I light Shabbat candles, I can actually hear Shabbat coming in. I feel the peace and the holiness of Shabbat in every fiber of my soul. After kiddush I get up, look at the candles with tears of joy, and thank G‑d that He let me become a Jewish woman.”

In 1973, Ellen Peters, a Protestant biracial woman, was chosen as South Africa’s beauty queen. Today, she goes by the name Ilana Skolnick, and she is an observant Jew. I spoke with Ilana about her unique journey to Judaism.

Ilana was born in Cape Town, South Africa, the fourth of seven biological children and one adopted child. Ilana’s mother was a seamstress with a mostly Jewish clientele, and her father worked for a carpet company that was owned by Jews. And so, from a young age, Ilana had a positive association with Jews. But who would ever have believed that one day she would convert and become Jewish herself?

Ilana speaking at an International Conference of Emissaries
Ilana speaking at an International Conference of Emissaries

When Ilana was born, apartheid was still in effect, and “whites” and “blacks” were kept strictly apart, the whites leading more privileged lives. Ilana’s family was neither black nor white. Her mother’s grandparents were from Scotland and Indonesia, and her father was black, so her family was considered “colored.” Under apartheid, “coloreds” had many more privileges than blacks, but many fewer privileges than whites.

“We were considered second class,” Ilana explains. “In our neighborhood we didn’t feel inferior. The laws of apartheid weren’t kept strictly there, and we had all kinds of friends. But when we went into the big city, we felt the racism. Housing was divided into white and black neighborhoods. Buses for white people were marked as such, and it was forbidden for us to board them. We had to wait for a bus meant for blacks, even if meant waiting while several empty buses marked ‘For Whites’ passed by. Most restaurants were exclusively for whites. The whites could eat there with their dogs, but we weren’t allowed in. We were considered less than dogs.”

Ilana couldn’t go to any places of public entertainment and didn’t even have regular access to official buildings like the post office and government offices. She and her family had to stand in the lines for blacks and coloreds. The lines for the white people moved faster, and they got quicker and better service. It’s hard to believe that all this occurred less than 30 years ago!

“After I converted,” Ilana says, “I read stories about the discrimination that the Jews endured during the Holocaust. I really related to them, since I could remember the horrible racism that I experienced in my childhood.”

“Your people are my people and your G‑d is my G‑d”

When Ilana reminisces about her childhood, she recalls her spiritual home life. Her mother was particular about the children saying grace before meals, and she was careful to burn or throw away nail clippings because they were considered impure. They never ate pork, as it was considered an impure animal. Their home was a home of generosity and kindness, and her mother used to prepare huge quantities of food which were donated to the needy.

When Ilana was eight years old, her class reenacted the story of the famous convert Ruth, and her mother-in-law, Naomi. All the students were required to learn by heart what Ruth said to Naomi: “Your people is my people, and your G‑d is my G‑d; where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried . . . Only death shall part us.”1

“I felt a strong connection to those verses,” Ilana says. “I felt that they lit something in my soul. Even after the teacher tested me on them, I continued to repeat them to myself all the time.”

When Ilana underwent her official conversion process, she was required to say these verses, and she remembered them from when she was a child. In retrospect, she sees that from the time she was born, there were many signs that she had a Jewish soul.

“One day I’ll come visit you in Israel

“I was considered pretty since I was young, and I used to receive many compliments. My older brother was a newspaper photographer, and he would occasionally take photos of me. I loved the attention. The photos came out very well, and my brother was frequently complimented on them. He and another brother convinced me to register for the Miss South Africa beauty pageant.

“Apartheid affected the beauty pageants, too. It was only 40 years ago, and it’s hard to believe, but there were separate competitions—one for whites, and one for coloreds and blacks. Obviously, I was in the latter. In 1973, when I was 17 years old, I became South Africa’s black beauty queen.

“We had a Jewish neighbor then, and in honor of my success, he brought me a special present, a chain with a Star of David pendant. I had no idea what it symbolized, but I loved the little decoration and wore it around my neck.

“After I won the competition, I got a lot of modeling contracts, and together with the white beauty queen, I represented South Africa in the Miss World Beauty Contest. I placed 9th out of 54 contestants. During the competition, I became friendly with Israel’s beauty queen. I even have a newspaper clipping that appeared in the South African paper at the time, and in it, I’m quoted as telling her, ‘One day I’m going to go to Israel to visit you.’

The newspaper clipping from those days
The newspaper clipping from those days

“I never dreamed that I’d really go to Israel one day, not just to visit but to stay, and to become Jewish and Israeli.”

From the World of Physical Beauty to the World of Spiritual Beauty

“After the beauty pageant, I worked as a member of the ground crew for Trans World Airlines, and I also modeled. I accompanied a group of tourists to Greece and then lived in Athens for a time. One day, I received a very strange phone call from my friend. He told me that he had a friend who had come from abroad. This friend had bought many flowers for guests he was expecting, but in the end they couldn’t come. My friend asked if I’d like the flowers for my apartment. I was so distracted, and it was such a strange suggestion, I told him that we’d discuss it later.

“A few minutes later, the phone rang again. This time it was my friend’s friend, the one who had bought the flowers. He had an unusual accent, and I could tell he was very charismatic, even over the telephone. He convinced me to let him come the next day and bring the flowers.

“The next day, when this man came to my house, we looked at each other and he said to me, ‘You’ve been sent to me by G‑d. Be a part of my life.’ He was a Jewish Israeli, and I was a Protestant South African. I was in my twenties, and he was in his fifties. There was no logical reason for this, but from the moment we laid eyes on each other, we felt in the depths of our hearts that we were meant to be together. His name was Na’aman Skolnik.

“Once, after we had gotten to know each other a little, I saw that he had a skullcap in his bag. I asked him what it was, and he explained that it was something that Jews put on their heads to remind them that the Creator is above them.

“‘Then why is it in your bag?’ I asked. ‘Put it on your head!’ He put on the skullcap, and when I looked at him, something in my soul lit up.”

Na’aman returned to Israel while Ilana stayed in Athens a little longer. When she returned to South Africa, it became clear that Na’aman hadn’t given up on her. He’d phoned her mother to ask permission to marry Ilana. He didn’t care whether or not she converted.

“I was very uncertain about our relationship. I asked my mother what she thought, and she said that it was up to me. Since I was a Protestant, I had a very strong connection to G‑d. I prayed to Him, asking Him to help me make the right decision. After a while, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to marry Na’aman, but not as a Protestant. As a Jew. I decided to leave the world of outer beauty, to give up my career in modeling, and to invest in my soul. I wanted to draw closer to the beauty of Judaism, as well as to understand the signs I’d been getting all my life. In the first stage of my journey, I gave up all Protestant practices, rituals I had punctiliously observed since infancy. It wasn’t easy, but I knew that I was doing the right thing.”

A First-Rate Jew

As soon as she got to Israel, Ilana went to the Rabbinate to apply for a conversion, where she met with Rabbi Frankel, the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv at the time. Until that moment, she had imagined that as soon as she gave up Protestantism and decided to become Jewish, the process would be smooth and easy. She was disappointed to discover that the conversion process would be complex and arduous.

“At the Rabbinate, I was interrogated. They thought I wanted to convert only so I that could marry Na’aman. I told them that Na’aman had asked me to marry him without asking me to convert. He had told me we could get a civil marriage and skip the Jewish one. I told them that I’d been attracted to Judaism since I was small, and that I’d already given up my Protestant practices months ago so that I could become a Jew.

Ilana spent the next two years learning what she needed to know to convert. Sometimes she was sure that the rabbis’ objection to her conversion stemmed from her being colored. She didn’t realize that Jewish law has very high standards for converts. She didn’t know that rabbis must discourage potential converts over and over again in order to test their sincerity and resolve. At the end of the process, when she was 28, Ilana said the words that she’d rehearsed 20 years earlier, when she was an eight-year-old student in a Protestant school in South Africa: “Your people are my people and your G‑d is my G‑d.” And then she was a Jew.

A Visit to the Rebbe

A visit to the Rebbe
A visit to the Rebbe

Ilana and Na’aman had a Jewish wedding. After the wedding, they flew to New York and arranged a visit with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. “When I looked at the Rebbe, I saw a man who was completely connected to G‑d. I discerned the aura of light around him and was filled with emotion. The Rebbe spoke with me and my husband, and we asked him to give us a blessing for children, which he did.”

Until their meeting with the Rebbe, Ilana and Na’aman led a traditional Jewish lifestyle. “The visit to the Rebbe filled my heart. Until today, I can remember every moment of that special visit. When I met the Rebbe, I knew that I wanted to be a practicing Jew who kept all the mitzvahs. In the beginning, my husband adamantly refused, but after I read a letter that the Rebbe wrote to the women of Chabad, in which he said that the atmosphere in the home is created by the woman, I decided that I wanted to run with that thought. I told my husband that, beginning on the 11th of Nissan (the Rebbe’s birthday), which was two weeks from then, I would start keeping Shabbat in its entirety, and I did.”

After the wedding, Ilana wanted to become pregnant, but she couldn’t. The doctors told her and her husband that they would never have children together. But soon after their first visit with the Rebbe, Ilana became pregnant. It was a miracle. The baby was born in the month of Tishrei. She was a sweet, healthy baby, and she filled their home with light. When the baby was two months old, Ilana woke up one morning to find that the baby wasn’t breathing. She had died of SIDS in the night. “I gave her a kiss and told her that I was freeing her, and that we’d meet in heaven. I was crushed, and I miss her even today, but I know she was a special soul who only needed two months to complete her mission on earth.”

With her daughter
With her daughter

Ilana and Na’aman went to the Rebbe again, and the visit gave them the strength to deal with their tragedy.

“I said to myself and to my husband that if G‑d could hurt us so badly, it was a sign that we should learn something, and change. Working together, we got to the stage where we could say proudly, ‘We are Chabadniks.’”

Return to South Africa

Ilana and her husband lived together in friendship and love for 27 years. They lived in Tel Aviv and would travel together to visit her family in South Africa. Her family respected her conversion. Like Ilana, they had felt that she was different since she was young. They were happy that she was happy, and they loved Na’aman, who loved and respected them in turn.

Over the years, Ilana has traveled all over the world, telling her story. Many Jewish women have been inspired by a woman who has gone to such lengths to become Jewish, a woman who has exchanged the world of external beauty and fame for a world of inner beauty and soul work.

Telling her story
Telling her story

Na’aman passed away four years ago, at the age of 82.

“I asked Na’aman what I should do after he left me. He told me to return to South Africa and to continue my mission, and that’s exactly what I did.

“After 30 years of living away from South Africa, I returned to my childhood home. My family gave me a large house right next door, with my own kitchen and a private entrance.”

Ilana continues to travel around the world, speaking to Jewish women, encouraging them in their dedication to Torah and mitzvahs.

“I love speaking to Chabad girls. I call them ‘the Rebbe’s girls’ and feel that in inspiring them, I’m paying the Rebbe back just a little bit for the inspiration he gave me in the unforgettable meetings that we had with him.”

Ilana’s return to her childhood home is a kiddush Hashem (a sanctification of G‑d’s name). The neighbors watch her behavior with wonder as she takes her mother, who has Alzheimer’s, for walks around the neighborhood. She feeds her mother, tends to her and speaks to her, trying to care for her mother as Ilana was cared for when she was a child. In caring for her mother, Ilana is following the directive of the Rebbe, who told converts to maintain good relationships with their families.

“Every Friday evening, I light candles in my childhood home with my mother by my side. I feel privileged to have joined the chosen people. I love Shabbat, and feel it in every fiber of my soul. I thank G‑d for having allowed me to become a Jewish woman, and I thank the Rebbe, who lit the spark in my soul and helped me find my place in the world.”

Watch Ilana tell her story at the International Conference of Emissaries.