Throughout history the Jewish nation has been enriched by converts—upstanding men and women who opted to enter the covenant and become part of the Chosen Nation. The very purpose of exile was for the Jewish people to gain converts,1 our sages say, but ironically, for much of our history conversion to Judaism was extremely dangerous, even punishable by death. Nevertheless, there have always been brave individuals who followed their hearts and joined the Jewish people. Here we celebrate 18 converts, some legendary and others barely known, who have contributed to the rich fabric of Jewish life.

1. Batya

 Batya handing baby Moses to Yocheved for nursing care (© Ahuva Klein).
Batya handing baby Moses to Yocheved for nursing care (© Ahuva Klein).

More properly known as Bityah (Bithiah),2 she appears in the Torah simply as the daughter of Pharaoh who found baby Moses floating upon the Nile river and took him to the palace to raise him as an Egyptian prince. According to the Talmud,3 Batya had been at the river to cleanse herself from the idolatry of her father’s house and convert to the Jewish religion. A righteous woman, her very name means “daughter of G‑d,” and tradition tells us that she was among the select few who entered the Garden of Eden (Paradise) without experiencing death.4

Learn more about Batya

2. Jethro

Moses takes his leave of Jethro (Jan Victors, c. 1635).
Moses takes his leave of Jethro (Jan Victors, c. 1635).

A learned priest who had explored all the deities known to man at the time, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, joined the Israelites in the desert, proclaiming, “Now I know that G‑d is greater than all the gods . . .”5 When he saw that Moses was attempting to singlehandedly advise all the people in the desert, he realized the situation was untenable and encouraged him to appoint judges to assist him. He is referred to by seven different names throughout scripture.

Learn more about Jethro

3. Rahab

Rahab was saved from the battle of Jericho (Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872).
Rahab was saved from the battle of Jericho (Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872).

The sages tell us that Rahab was exceptionally beautiful.6 As the people of Israel stood poised to enter the Promised Land, they sent two scouts to survey the city of Jericho. Rahab, who is described as a zonah—which can be translated as “harlot” or “innkeeper”—hosted the scouts and helped them evade capture, and as a reward for her kindness she and her family were spared the city’s destruction.7 After converting, Rahab married Joshua, and their union produced Jewish leaders the likes of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.8

Learn more about Rahab

4. Ruth

Ruth and Naomi (Jacob Pynas, 1583-1631).
Ruth and Naomi (Jacob Pynas, 1583-1631).

A Moabite princess widowed of her Jewish husband, Ruth faithfully followed her former mother-law-to Bethlehem in Judea, famously declaring: “Wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G‑d my G‑d.”9 Her devotion was noticed by Boaz, a pious and wealthy leader. As described in the book of Ruth, the two married, and their great-grandson was none other than King David.10 Ruth is viewed as an exemplary convert, and her story is read and discussed on Shavuot, the day when we all became converts at Sinai.

Learn more about Ruth

5. Obadiah the Prophet

Obadiah is the author of the tiny book of Obadiah, which comprises just 21 verses. While scripture tells us precious little about his provenance, the sages11 explain that G‑d chose Obadiah to give the prophecy regarding the ultimate triumph of Israel over Edom because he was an Edomite convert. A minister of the evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, Obadiah is described as one who “feared G‑d very much.”12 When Jezebel mounted her campaign to exterminate the prophets of G‑d, Obadiah bravely hid 100 prophets in caves and spent all of his money to feed and support them. His wife was the woman for whom Elisha performed the miracle of the oil that kept on pouring, in his merit.

Learn more about the miracle of the oil

6. Shemayah and Avtalyon

Descendants of Sennacherib of Assyria, these two scholars served concurrently as president and chief justice of the Sanhedrin—the high court in Jerusalem. Records are scarce, and it is possible that they were the children of converts rather than converts themselves. Regardless, it is clear that their Torah accomplishments were widely recognized and held in great esteem. One Yom Kippur such large crowds gathered around them that it aroused the jealousy of the high priest, who poked fun at their humble lineage. They took it in stride and replied wisely.13

Shemayah taught, “Love work, loathe mastery over others, and avoid intimacy with the government.”14

Avtalyon’s best-known teaching: “Scholars, be careful with your words. For you may be exiled to a place inhabited by evil elements [who will distort your words to suit their negative purposes]. The disciples who come after you will then drink of these evil waters and be destroyed, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.”15

7. Ben Bag Bag and Ben Hay Hay

In the generation following Shemayah and Avtalyon, we find another pair of converts known as Ben Bag Bag and Ben Hay Hay. Presumably because of the danger involved in converting to Judaism at the time, their names were actually codes for their real identities. Hay is the Hebrew letter that was added to the names of both Abraham and Sarah. Thus ben [“son of”] hay hay hints to the convert’s status as a child of Abraham and Sarah. Bag bag takes the code one step further, since bag is spelled beit and gimmel, which together have the same numerical value as hay. 16 Alternatively, Bag Bag may be an acronym for ben geir, uben giyoret (“the son of a convert and a convertess”). Whatever the reason for his name, Rabbi Yochanan ben Bag Bag was known to be fluent in all areas of the Torah,17 and Ben Hay Hay was known to converse with Hillel.18

8. Queen Helena of Adiabene

The sarcophagus of Helena in the Israel Museum (Hanay, Wiki Commons).
The sarcophagus of Helena in the Israel Museum (Hanay, Wiki Commons).

Helena (or Hilni, as she was known in Hebrew) was the queen of a small idol-worshiping country. She and her children heard about Judaism and accepted its beliefs as their own. Her seven sons toiled in Torah and became accomplished scholars.19 When one went out to war, she promised to be a Nazirite for seven years. She traveled to Jerusalem to bring the requisite sacrifices,20 and stayed. She was extraordinarily generous toward the Jewish people in Jerusalem and to the Temple coffers, donating many golden vessels.21

9. King Monobaz

King Monobaz (or Munbaz) II, Helen’s son, followed his mother’s example, sharing his wealth freely, even depleting his royal coffers during periods of hunger in Jerusalem. When his relatives complained, “Your fathers preserved what they received and even added to it, while you’ve just squandered it all!” he calmly responded, “Yes, my parents may have amassed fortunes here, but I’ve amassed a fortune in heaven . . .”22

10. Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta

Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta was one of the leading sages in the generation that lived through the destruction of Jerusalem. How did he come to Judaism? He once purchased a cow from a Jew. The cow worked all week long, but refused to work on Shabbat. Upon learning about the concept of Shabbat, he was so impressed that he converted to Judaism and excelled in his studies.

Read the full story of the cow who kept Shabbat

11. Onkelos

In this standard edition of the Five Books of Moses with commentary, one can see the translation of Onkelos to the immediate left of the main Hebrew text.
In this standard edition of the Five Books of Moses with commentary, one can see the translation of Onkelos to the immediate left of the main Hebrew text.

Onkelos was the nephew of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Well-versed in Roman and Greek culture, he walked away from the wealth and power of his family and converted to Judaism. Noting that Aramaic was fast becoming the dominant language of the Jewish people, Onkelos transcribed a faithful Aramaic translation of the Torah, one that has been printed in every standard edition since.

Learn more about Onkelos

12. The Kuzari

Cover of the 1880 Hebrew language Warsaw edition of the Kuzari.
Cover of the 1880 Hebrew language Warsaw edition of the Kuzari.

One of the most important philosophical works of all time was written by Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, a Jewish scholar and poet who lived in Spain. Known as the Kuzari, the book is built around the theoretical conversations of a Khazar king who was searching for the “true faith.” He summons a Jewish sage and representatives of other religions, and over the course of their conversations becomes convinced that Judaism is the truth, ultimately deciding to convert.

While the book is most certainly not meant to be a historical account of an actual conversation (or series of conversations), it does reflect a historical truth. There was a kingdom of Khazars whose nobility had converted to Judaism. Due to their geographic remoteness, however, little is known about them with complete certainty.23

13. Another Obadiah

This original liturgical composition by Obadiah with musical notes was preserved in the Cairo Genizah (New York, JTS, Adler Collection, ms. 4096 recto).
This original liturgical composition by Obadiah with musical notes was preserved in the Cairo Genizah (New York, JTS, Adler Collection, ms. 4096 recto).

Johannes son of Dreux, born to a noble Norman family in southern Italy, was on the road to the Christian priesthood when he heard about the archbishop of Bari converting to Judaism. In the year 1102, following a striking dream, he began to explore Judaism, and soon determined that the prophecies in the Torah could not be understood the way Christians commonly interpreted them. Even as Jews were being slaughtered by Crusaders, some of whom were members of his own family, he decided to join the Jewish people, taking the name Obadiah. Several of his writings were preserved in the Cairo Genizah, including fragments of his autobiography and a hymn he composed to be sung on Shavuot in honor of Moses. The Hebrew text is accompanied by neumes, the system of musical notation used at the time, making it the oldest surviving piece of Jewish sheet music.

14. Yet Another Obadiah?

Image of Maimonides (Wikimedia)
Image of Maimonides (Wikimedia)

Around the same time we find evidence of another Obadiah, who converted to Judaism from Islam. When one considers that Obadiah the prophet was a righteous convert, it makes sense for converts to take his name—not unlike the many female converts who take the name Ruth.

Obadiah wrote several letters to Maimonides, asking about the status of the convert in Judaism. Could he say the parts of prayer that refer to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as his forefathers? Could he thank G‑d for having taken “us” out of Egypt or thank Him for not having made him a non-Jew—all parts of the standard prayer liturgy? Maimonides replied to his letters, assuring him that he could. As a full-fledged member of the Jewish nation, Obadiah was just as much a descendant of our forefathers, and heir to a majestic tradition, as any other Jew.

15. Moshe ben Avraham

Cover page of Tolaot Moshe (The Chaim Elozor Reich z"l Renaissance Hebraica Collection on Hebrewbooks.org).
Cover page of Tolaot Moshe (The Chaim Elozor Reich z"l Renaissance Hebraica Collection on Hebrewbooks.org).

Born in either Nikolsburg or Prague (both currently in the Czech Republic), Moshe was an early 18th-century printer who worked on many important Jewish books in Amsterdam, where he had converted to Judaism. He authored Telaot Mosheh, which is believed to be the first Yiddish geography book. It includes sections on the Ten Tribes, the Garden of Eden, Africa, Greenland, the Americas, Europe and Asia, and concludes with a chapter about the messianic era.

See the original printing of Telaot Mosheh

16. Lord George Gordon

Lord George Gordon after his conversion to Judaism (Jewish Encyclopedia).
Lord George Gordon after his conversion to Judaism (Jewish Encyclopedia).

Born to a Scottish noble family in London in 1751, Lord George Gordon was blessed with a keen sense of justice. He became distressed by the treatment of slaves in the Americas while stationed in Jamaica in the Royal Navy, and decided to go into politics. As a member of Parliament he became involved in the issues of the American War of Independence, and was charged (and later acquitted) of treason after leading a march through London to petition Parliament on the subject. After this his religious views came to the fore, and he began to meet with Jews and study the Torah. Although his initial request had been denied, he eventually converted to Judaism, took the name Yisrael and joined the Jewish community of Birmingham. With a full beard and traditional Jewish clothing, he devoted himself to Torah, mitzvot and charity.

He was imprisoned a second time because the government was resentful over his previous acquittal. His family got involved and were able to arrange for him to keep a kosher diet, observe Shabbat and holidays, and play violin for other downtrodden prisoners. To demonstrate simchah (joy) in the face of adversity, he held parties in his large cell for anyone who wished to attend, and people from all walks of life became interested in his conversion and in Torah as a result. Even when his sentence was over, he was refused release. He contracted typhus and passed away in prison at the age of 42.24

17. Avraham ben Avraham

The plaque above the entrance to the grave of the Gaon of Vilna states that the remains of Avraham the Righteous Convert are interred there as well (Chaim, Wiki Commons).
The plaque above the entrance to the grave of the Gaon of Vilna states that the remains of Avraham the Righteous Convert are interred there as well (Chaim, Wiki Commons).

Near the grave of the Gaon of Vilna lie the remains of Avraham ben Avraham, who converted to Judaism in the 18th century. A legendary member of the noble Potocki family, he secretly traveled to Amsterdam to convert according to tradition, and then devoted many years to Torah study. He was ratted out to the authorities while living near Vilna and, after refusing to denounce his Jewish faith, was burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church on the holiday of Shavuot.

Read the full story of Avraham ben Avraham

18. Warder Cresson

Panorama of Jerusalem (United States Library of Congress).
Panorama of Jerusalem (United States Library of Congress).

Born to a Quaker family in Philadelphia in 1798, Warder Cresson was appointed the first American consul in Jerusalem. Once he arrived in the Holy Land, however, he discovered that his appointment had been rescinded. But he was so taken by the Jewish community that he decided to convert. He returned to Philadelphia to wrap up his affairs before moving to the Holy Land permanently. His wife and family tried to stop him by claiming that he was insane and needed to be institutionalized. In a widely covered trial he was found to be of sound mind, and soon made the journey to Jerusalem once again. There he married a Sephardic woman named Rachel Modelano (he and his first wife had divorced), and lived as a Sephardic Jew under the name Michael Boaz Yisrael until his passing in 1860.

The Family Next Door

The contemporary Jewish world is deeply enriched by the presence of thousands of sincere converts to Judaism—men and women from a kaleidoscope of backgrounds who have willfully joined the Jewish people. Invariably it was a long journey that probably included a fair amount of soul-searching, struggle, doubt, and a giant dose of faith and conviction. It may be the woman who sits next to you in synagogue, your son’s Hebrew teacher, or the family down the block. The gerei tzedek (“righteous converts”) are an integral part of the Jewish mishpachah (family), and if you yourself are a ger tzedek, let us extend our greetings: Welcome aboard! We’re glad you’re with us.

Learn more about the conversion process