Ilana Skolnik and Elyse Singer grew up 8,000 miles apart, and in two different religious traditions, but both trace their current Jewish journeys to their study of the Hebrew Bible.
On Feb. 10, the two will describe those journeys and share the spotlight at Chabad of Western Monmouth County’s 26th annual Jewish Women’s Day program.
Skolnik, a former Miss Africa South and Jew by choice, will tell the story of her journey from a mixed-race Protestant family living under apartheid to a new identity as a Jew and Israeli. Zinger, a Marlboro resident, crafted a record of volunteer service to the Jewish community.
The pre-Purim program is designed to celebrate both “the inner and outer beauty of the Jewish Queen Esther,” according to a press release issued by the Manalapan-based Chabad.
Zinger, who will receive the Aishes Chayil (Woman of Valor) award, will recount how her Jewish understanding and observance have blossomed over the past 12 years, beginning with her attendance at a weekly Torah portion class conducted by Tova Chazanow, assistant director at Chabad of Western Monmouth.
“It opened my eyes and answered lots of questions about traditions that I had seen, but not fully understood, while growing up in Brooklyn,” Zinger said. “I came to appreciate the underlying reason for Shabbat rest, for example, as a day when we can put away thoughts of the hectic work week and connect with our families and with God.”
In addition to working as a dental hygienist in Hazlet, Zinger volunteers for numerous community activities. She has helped make gift baskets for previous Women’s Day brunches and Purim celebrations. She is active in Chabad’s Friendship Circle and takes part in its annual Walk for Friends.
Zinger performs with the Makhelat Hamercaz Jewish Choir of Central New Jersey. She and her husband Abe have three adult children: Jaime, who recently married Marlboro’s Elan Borenstein; Nicole, a special education teacher; and Jason, a Marine Corps reservist who has served a tour in Iraq.
At the Women’s Day program, Zinger said she will talk about the guidance she has received from Chabad’s Rabbi Boruch Chazanow and his wife, Tova, “and how they’ve inspired me to adopt a lifestyle of greater observance.”
In a 2007 newspaper article, Skolnik, born Ellen Peters, recalled the Bible class in Cape Town where she became intrigued with the story of Ruth. She remembered repeatedly reciting the Moabite Ruth’s pledge to her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi: “Beseech me not to leave thee for where thou goest I will go.”
During the 1973 Miss World pageant in London, Skolnik said, she befriended the Israeli contestant and subsequently wore a star of David pendant given to her by a Jewish family.
Today, Skolnik said, “I feel my soul was always meant to be Jewish.”
Yet, she added, “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 Simpson. In addition, I had an uncle who was Jewish, and his family used to recite Kiddush on Friday nights.”
The former beauty queen said she met Naaman Skolnik, the man who would become her husband, in 1980 in Athens, while she was working for TWA. She completed her conversion in 1984 in Tel Aviv, and they wed soon after.
Skolnik often shares with audiences how she and her husband met with the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, seeking help with an infertility problem. She did become pregnant, but the child died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome at age two months.
Later, the Skolniks adopted a baby girl from China.
Skolnik’s life story, said Tova Chazanow, reveals her “inner strength, unwavering faith, and fierce determination.”
Coordinators of the Feb. 10 Women’s Day event include Chazanow, Zisi Bernstein, Sarah Schapiro, and Rochie Galperin, backed by what Chazanow describes as “a countless number of volunteers.”