Throughout history, the Jewish people has been enriched by our converts. Central figures in the Torah who converted to Judaism include Ruth (the great-grandmother of King David), the prophet Obadiah, Batya (Pharaoh’s daughter who rescued Moses from the river), Zipporah (Moses’ wife), and Rahab (who helped Joshua lead the Jewish people into the Land of Israel, and later became Joshua’s wife).

In more modern times as well, Jews have decided to join the Jewish people by choice. Here are seven surprising Jewish converts and their remarkable stories.

Queen Helena

Queen Helena ruled a small kingdom called Adiabene to the north of Israel, possibly in Iraq or Syria, early in the first century CE. Many Jewish traders passed through Adiabene, and Helena admired their honesty and enjoyed learning about Judaism from them. One merchant in particular, named Ananias, taught Queen Helena and her son Prince Izates. Both decided to convert to Judaism.

The Tomb of Queen Helena of Adiabene

When Queen Helena’s husband died, she appointed Izates king. It was the custom at the time for the deceased king’s other sons to be put to death in order to ensure that his successor faced no rivals for the throne. Instead of engaging in this barbaric custom, Queen Helena and King Izates were influenced by their new Jewish faith and spared the princes’ lives, exiling the dead king’s other sons to Rome instead.

Queen Helena travelled to Jerusalem; the Jewish historian Josephus maintains that she had a magnificent palace built for herself there. During the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius (41-54 CE), there was a famine in the Land of Israel. Queen Helena used her personal wealth to help alleviate her fellow Jews’ suffering, buying grain and fruits from Egypt and Cyprus to help feed the populace. Queen Helena died in her kingdom of Adiabene, but both she and her son King Izates were buried in Jerusalem.

Onkelos

A wealthy aristocrat in ancient Rome, Onkelos was the nephew of a Roman emperor. (Accounts vary as to which: some say he was related to the Emperor Hadrian, others to the Emperor Titus.) In the year 135 CE, Roman authorities brutally put down an uprising of Jewish fighters seeking to regain control of the Land of Israel from its Roman conquerors. Roman soldiers massacred thousands of Jews, and decreed that no Jews could henceforth remain in Jerusalem. The Roman Emperor Hadrian even ordered his soldiers to change the name of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina. Hadrian dispatched Onkelos to help oversee the city.

Onkeles commentary on the right

When he arrived in Jerusalem, Onkelos met Jews and was seemingly overwhelmed by the beauty and logic of the Jewish faith. After some debate within himself, Onkelos converted to Judaism. His actions enraged Emperor Hadrian, who sent squads of soldiers to Jerusalem to bring Onkelos back to Rome. Instead of following them, Onkelos taught the soldiers about Judaism, and they too decided to stay in the Land of Israel and become Jewish as well.

During Onkelos’ lifetime the Assyrian language, which is similar to Hebrew and written with Hebrew letters, was gaining popularity. Onkelos translated the Five Books of Moses into Aramaic. This translation (also called a “Targum”) is today included in many Jewish Bibles. “Targum Onkelos” is studied as a crucial commentary on the Torah; each day Jews around the world consult Onkelos’ translation to gain insights into his penetrating analysis of the holy words.

Johannes, son of Dreux

Johannes was born into an upper-class family that originated in Normandy in France, and was living in southern Italy during the late 11th century. Johannes’ twin brother Roger became a knight and was known as Sir Roger. Instead of aspiring to a similarly aristocratic life, Johannes made a radically different decision.

He heard of the infamous Archbishop of Bari, also in southern Italy, who’d become so enamored of Jewish learning and truth that he converted to Judaism and moved to Constantinople. This was a shocking move. Christians across Europe were waging crusades against Jews and other non-Christians. Joining the Jewish community seemed unthinkable. Yet when he heard about the Archbishop of Bari, something resonated with young Johannes and he decided to begin learning about Judaism as well. Sometime around the year 1102, Johannes had a strong dream about Judaism, and that helped give him the impetus to study.

European Jews lived in terror of the Crusades, so Johannes decided to move to Constantinople to study with rabbis there. On his way, Johannes was wounded by Crusaders who were targeting the Jewish community. He recovered, and at some point joined the Jewish people, taking the Hebrew name Obadiah. He lived all over the Middle East, including in the Land of Israel, and became a noted scholar.

A fragment written by Obadiah found in the Cairo Geniza

Obadiah wrote an autobiography and penned a beautiful prayer to be sung on the holiday of Shavuot. Fragments of these and some of his other writings were preserved in the Cairo Genizah. His Shavuot prayer, which includes musical notation, is the oldest surviving piece of Jewish sheet music in the world.

Robert of Reading

Robert was a brilliant student from the British town of Reading in the late 1200s. He studied Christianity and Hebrew at Oxford University, and became a Dominican Friar. Despite the fact that anti-Jewish hatred was rife in England at the time, Robert became interested in Judaism and decided to join the Jewish people. He formally converted, took the Hebrew name Haggai, and married a Jewish woman.

Tragically, Robert was arrested and brought before the king. He argued forcefully in favor of Judaism and against his former Christian faith. The king ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury to punish this “blasphemy” and Robert was burnt alive for heresy.

Lord George Gordon

Lord Gordon was born in 1757 in London; his father was the Duke of Gordon and young George grew up surrounded by wealth and privilege. Despite his comfortable life, Lord Gordon was concerned with the plight of the poor and downtrodden. He became an abolitionist after he joined the British Navy and witnessed the horrors of slavery in Jamaica. He entered Parliament in 1774. Refusing to join any political party, he claimed he represented “the party of the people”. He was a polarizing figure in parliament, both championing the poor but also being accused of helping foment a week of anti-Catholic rioting in 1780 that became known as the “Gordon” riots.

Lord George was a staunch Protestant, but a visit to the British town of Ipswich changed his life. He was walking down a narrow street through the town’s Jewish area when he saw a sign above the door of the local Jewish community leader, Isaac Titterman. Reb Titterman served as Ipswich’s mohel, shochet and led services in the town’s synagogue. “All who are hungry enter and eat” his doorway announced, echoing the words of the Passover Haggadah. Transfixed, Lord George wanted to know more about a people for whom helping the poor and hungry was so central to their religion. Lord Gordon began studying Hebrew and Torah, and formally joined the Jewish people in 1787. He became extremely pious, growing a long beard and devoting himself to Torah study and charity.

Lord George Gordon

Sadly, he was only able to enjoy a year of living as a Jew as a free man. In 1788 he was tried for treason. The reasons were complex: Lord Gordon had visited France years earlier. Appalled at the great contrast between rich and poor, he was an outspoken critic of French politics, and became a champion of a polarizing figure in French politics. Convicted in 1788 of treason against France’s queen, Marie Antoinette, Lord Gordon was sentenced to prison in Newgate Prison in London.

As an aristocrat, Lord Gordon was given his own room in prison and allowed to have visitors. A steady stream of Jewish visitors meant that he only ate kosher food and was able to pray with a minyan every day. There were other Jewish prisoners in Newgate who benefited from these services too, and Lord Gordon was known for cheering up his fellow prisoners by playing the violin and filling Newgate with music. Lord Gordon passed away in prison in 1793, one of the best-known British Jews of his time.

Warder Cresson

Born in Philadelphia 1798, Warder Cresson experimented with many religious doctrines as a young man. He rejected his family’s Quaker faith and explored other Christian denominations. Eventually, he became friends with a Jewish farmer named Isaac Leeser who lived nearby. The more Warder learned about Judaism from his new friend, the more he became convinced that this was the religious truth he’d been seeking.

Warder decided to travel to the Land of Israel to learn more and he was able to get an appointment as the official American Consul in Jerusalem. He didn't end up taking the job: after he set sail for the Middle East, a former US government official wrote a disparaging letter about Warder’s religious interests, asserting that Warder was “laboring under an aberration of the mind for many years”, as evidenced by his fascination with Judaism. The offer to be Consul General was withdrawn.

Warder Cresson

Nevertheless, Warder stayed in Jerusalem for four years and formally converted to Judaism in 1848. He took the Hebrew name Michael Boaz and returned home to Pennsylvania a proud Jew. His wife and son had refused to join him in Jerusalem, and they weren’t pleased at Warder’s new faith. His wife and son petitioned a court in Philadelphia to declare him insane; the “proof” was his conversion to Judaism. Incredibly, a jury agreed, and Warder was declared mentally insane by reason of having joined the Jewish people.

Warder appealed his decision and was finally granted a new trial in 1851. This time a jury ruled that Judaism is a legitimate religion and that Warder was not mentally ill for having converted to it. While he was awaiting this crucial decision, Warder continued to live a religious life, joining Philadelphia’s synagogue Mikeveh Israel and taking part in Philadelphia’s Jewish life. He and his first wife divorced, and Warder returned to live in Jerusalem in 1852.

He married a Jewish woman there named Rachel Meladano, and wrote a book about Jewish theology. Warder continued to keep in touch with his old Pennsylvania friend Isaac Leeser, who published Warder’s letters from Jerusalem in an American Jewish newspaper The Occident. Warder passed away in Jerusalem in 1860, and was buried on the Mount of Olives. He was given the type of honor typically given to a prominent rabbi, so beloved was he in Jerusalem’s Jewish community.

Mike Flanagan

Mike Flanagan was born in Ireland. When World War II broke out, he volunteered for the British army even though he was only 16 and underage. He fought bravely and helped liberate the notorious Nazi concentration camp Bergen Belsen, where he was shocked by what he saw.

Following the war, Mike was stationed in present-day Israel, which until 1948 was ruled by Britain. While the British army favored Arab interests in the region, Mike felt drawn to Jews and the cause of re-establishing a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel. “Grandfather said he wanted to stay in Israel and help the weak, the Jewish Yishuv (community), fight against the Arabs,” his grandson Lior Hertz would later explain. He always “had sympathy for the Jews”.

Mike Flanagan in front of a
Cromwell Tank in Israel, 1948

In May 1948, Israel declared its independence, becoming an independent homeland for the Jewish people again for the first time in 1,878 years. Immediately, five Arab countries invaded the tiny Jewish state.

A few weeks into the war, in June 1948, Mike and his friend and fellow British soldier Harry McDonald decided to help. They snuck into a British military base under cover of darkness, and drove away two British Cromwell tanks, delivering them to Jewish fighters in Tel Aviv. Single-handedly, Mike and his friend had created Israel’s very first tank battalion.

Mike enlisted in Israel’s army and fought in the War of Independence. Afterwards, he converted to Judaism and married a fellow soldier named Ruth Levy. He moved to Canada after she died, but his remains were returned to Israel and buried there after Mike passed away in 2014 at the age of 85. At his funeral, he was honored by the Israeli Defense Forces for his crucial contribution to his adopted homeland and people in their hour of need.