With the prevalence of conversions to Judaism today, some may be surprised to learn that only a few recorded cases of conversion in modern times exist before about 50 years ago. Indeed, probably more halachic responsa on conversions has been published in the last 30 years than in the entire last century. My rav, Rabbi Shimon Romm of RIETS, z”l, reported that until he left Poland in 1941 he had never even met a convert.
The three most famous converts of the last 200 years are Count Valentin Potocki – known as the Ger Zedek of Vilna – who lived and died during the lifetime of the Vilna Gaon; Warder Cresson, a Quaker who converted and relocated to Jerusalem and whose family in Philadelphia actually sought to have him declared legally insane as a result; and Lord George Gordon.
Gordon was born to Scottish family of nobles in 1751. He served in the English Navy and was politically active, serving in the House of Commons from 1774-1780. In 1787, he organized anti-Catholic riots in London that resulted in many deaths and substantial property damage (although some claim he didn’t actually play the central role in these riots).
Over the course of his lifetime, Gordon switched faiths fairly often, and following his imprisonment for his role in the riots, Gordon decided to become Jewish. At the time, London had a fairly small Jewish community whose religious leader was Rabbi David Tevelle Schiff. Rabbi Schiff was sympathetic to Gordon, but he decided – given the precarious situation of London Jewry – that converting Gordon wouldn’t help the community. (In most of Europe, conversion to Judaism was actually a capital offense.)
After being rebuffed by Rabbi Schiff, Gordon traveled to mainland Europe (probably Holland) and returned to England in 1787 to be converted by a rabbi in Birmingham. He underwent a bris milah and became known as Yisroel ben Avrohom Gordon.
He was eventually arrested due to outstanding arrest warrants, exacerbated by his unwillingness to appear in court bare-headed. In Birmingham, and in jail, Gordon led a life of extreme piety, wearing a beard, peyos and traditional Jewish garb. He refused to eat non-kosher food, and his ritual needs were taken care of by close relatives who bribed prison officials and even brought in a minyan so he could daven b’tzibbur. Gordon refused to deal with non-observant Jews and insisted on a very strict interpretation of halacha.
Gordon died in jail on November 1, 1793, the 26th of Cheshvan. Unfortunately, his relatives buried him in a Christian cemetery, where his body remains to this day.
So who was Lord George Gordon? He was a spiritual and truth seeker. He was one of those special souls at Sinai tradition tells us about. In this week of his yahrzeit, let us offer a tefillah for the ger zedek of London, Reb Yisrael ben Avraham.