parks and skolnick talking to each other
Emily Skolnick (center) and Rosa Parks in 1988 (Photo/T. Rocamora via ACLU of Northern California)

Emily Skolnick, 101, led life in defense of liberty and equality

Emily Marks Skolnick didn’t dwell on the afterlife. Instead, she focused her long life on helping minorities, women and refugees. Her values, she wrote, demanded “a commitment to social justice, and that is the chief way I express my Judaism.”

Skolnick, who died Jan. 29 at the age of 101, spent a lifetime fulfilling that commitment. She helped integrate schools in the 1950s in San Mateo, and she founded a chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in her longtime hometown, where she attended Peninsula Temple Beth El.

She participated in the American Jewish Congress in the 1950s and was a passionate supporter of the New Israel Fund, especially local events involving the Association for Civil Rights in Israel — Israel’s equivalent to the ACLU.

“She was a supporter of NIF since its early days with a strong focus on social activism and civil rights,” said Orli Bein, NIF’s regional director in San Francisco. “She specifically supported ACRI and was active in civil rights her whole life.”

During the Vietnam War years, Skolnick hosted a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who headed an orphanage. During the Iraq War, Skolnick lay in the street in downtown San Mateo dressed as Saddam Hussein, wearing pajamas, to publicize her belief the U.S. was in bed with the Iraqi leader.

Don Simonson, her son-in-law, said Skolnick was “extremely interested in Jewish causes and the democratic process. She and her husband were not the kind of Jews that believed in a specific afterlife, but expressed their life as the Talmud indicated, to mend the world.”

Born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, into a family whose values centered around social justice, Skolnick helped organize labor union strikes for garment workers while attending Wellesley College in the 1930s. She worked in Washington and Duluth, Minnesota, before studying social psychology at Princeton University, where she focused on the importance of contraception in the women’s fight for equality. It was there that she met her husband, Alec, who died in 2004 after 61 years of marriage.

While living in Topeka, Kansas, she helped desegregate movie theaters in 1947 and instigated protests leading up to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that toppled school segregation.

In San Mateo, she co-founded a nursery school and set up a pilot preschool. In the 1980s, the Skolnicks hosted a family of Salvadoran refugees amid political turmoil in Central America.

Marlene De Lancie, 95, who worked with Skolnick for years on desegregation efforts in San Mateo as well as other social justice causes, said Skolnick was a mentor for many other activists.

“I think that her overriding passion was civil liberties and the civil rights of people and the civilized treatment of people no matter who they are and no matter what their circumstances,” De Lancie said.

Simonson said Skolnick was a real-estate developer who helped build shopping centers in Fresno and Simi Valley, as well as a self-taught architect who designed the home in Santa Cruz where she spent her final years.

When she was inducted into the San Mateo County Women’s Hall of Fame in 1999, Rep. Anna Eshoo said on the floor of the House of Representatives: “Emily Marks Skolnick is an extraordinary woman (who) has pursued her quest for human rights, equality and economic justice since she was a child.”

Emily Skolnick is survived by her children, Marcia Skolnick Simonson, Mark Skolnick and Ellen Skolnick; sisters Dorothy Vogel and Belle Lipsky; five grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter. Contributions may be made to the ACLU of Northern California.

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Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster is J.'s senior writer. He can be reached at rob@jweekly.com.