As few members of the British aristocracy have converted to Judaism, the conversion of Lord George Gordon* (1751 – 1793) was a matter of note in British society.
Lord George’s life both before and after his conversion was a roller coaster of events. At 12, he sailed as a midshipman (officer-in-training) to Jamaica. After his service in the Carribean and earning the rank of Lieutenant, he spent time in Virginia, where he developed a great sympathy for the colonists’ desire for self-rule.
In 1774, Lord George attained a seat in the House of Commons. In 1779, he organized and presided over the Protestant Assembly, an organization opposed to a bill that would relax the restriction on Catholic rights that was designed, in his opinion, to woo the Catholic nations to support England’s war against the Colonies. Unfortunately, when a rally to petition the repeal of the bill turned violent (Gordon Riots), Lord George was blamed and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Ultimately, he was acquitted.
Once free, Lord George retired from public life. When he began his friendship with the local Jewish community, his requests to convert to Judaism were rejected by London’s Chief Rabbi (perhaps to protect the local community from an unpopular public figure).
In 1787, Lord George was charged and convicted of defamation (in support of a friend, he had taken a newspaper ad denouncing Marie Antoinette). He fled the court and took up residence in the Jewish community in Birmingham, where he formally converted. He spent six months living as Israel ben Abraham before being arrested and then the final six years of his life in the infamous Newgate prison. His brother, the Duke, arranged a private quarter, as well as kosher food. As a wealthy prisoner, he was also allowed visitors and even managed to have a minyan in his cell each Shabbat. He frequently visited the other prisoners and distributed charity among them.
At the end of his 5 year sentence, Lord George was returned to prison when he refused to allow non-Jews (even his brothers) to guarantee his future good behavior (and the court refused to recognize his two Jewish guarantors). On November 1, 1793, Lord
George perished from a prison typhoid outbreak.(Not to be confused with the poet Lord George Gordon Byron.)
Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.