He was born into a poor family in West Virginia, a self-described “bigoted, backwoods hillbilly boy.” His formal education stopped at eighth grade. “They didn’t think you needed much more schooling to mine coal or make moonshine,” he said. What followed was an education of an entirely different kind, one that connected such unlikely topics as the Ku Klux Klan, the Mormon Church, and Judaism.
In the mid-1960s, a young George Caudill received a telephone call from his Church of the Latter-Day Saints Mormon Bishop, asking him to attend an approaching Stake Conference at which Ezra Taft Benson, of the Council of Twelve Apostles, would be the speaker. President Benson was the former Secretary of Agriculture during the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration.
The Bishop also informed young George that President Benson wished to speak to him directly about a matter of great importance to his continuing membership in the Latter-Day Saints Church.
Given his sheltered and modest upbringing, George Caudill found himself caught up in the political upheavals of those times. He had aligned himself politically with the George Wallace crowd and through them came into his first contact with Jewish people. The contact however was not a personal encounter but through a hate magazine called “The Thunderbolt.”
As a proud member of the Ku Klux Klan, Caudill picketed synagogues, burned crosses and drove around with confederate flags and racist, anti-Semitic banners flapping from the back of his black Chevy coupe. “The Klan was a tradition in my family,” he said. “I wore my grandfather’s robes when I was inducted into the Klan in 1964.” He became an organizer for the organization “The National States Rights Party.”
All the while he considered himself quite religious. Raised in the Pentecostal movement, he attended Bible colleges in order to study for the ministry. In fact, most of the people with whom he dealt in his political capacity were either ministers or very active lay leaders in fundamentalist Christian churches. He eventually moved west, becoming active as an organizer for the Klan in the Portland area. Here he met a young Mormon girl, fell in love and married her. Soon thereafter, he became a Mormon.
As requested, George Caudill attended the Stakes Conference services, waiting patiently and apprehensively to meet with the Mormon chief elder. President Benson got right to the point. He informed Caudill that his activities with the Ku Klux Klan and related groups had been brought to his attention and that consequently, his church membership stood in jeopardy. He was informed that one could not be in full faith with the teachings of the LDS Church and be anti-Semitic.
President Benson carefully explained that his political anti-Semitism was also anti- LDS doctrine. He showed him in Mormon scriptures and in the writings of Mormon Prophets and theologians that Jews and Mormons are considered to be of the same Israelite heritage. He spoke of his experiences with the Jewish people of Europe after World War II, the extermination camps, and the systemic murder of six million Jews. He began to explain that almost everything that George had been taught about the Jews by the Klan was erroneous and false doctrine.
The first phase of the transformation of young George Caudill was underway.
As he later admitted, George had never knowingly known a Jew. He knew nothing about Jews beyond what he had been taught in the religious literature of fundamentalist Christianity until he joined the Klan.
There he was taught that the Jews were the anti-Christ, the sons of Satan, angels of evil. The Klan taught him that the Jews were constantly conspiring to destroy the sacred White race and were not even totally human; they were the offspring of the rape of Mother Eve by Lucifer. Because of this genetic disorder, they were dedicated to the destruction of all who worship Jesus and sought the subjugation and the racial degeneration of the White descendants of Adam through Shem. He was told that because of this Jews lack a racial consciousness and therefore seek to promote a racial equality.
Over time President Benson sought to undo the educational damage done by the Klan counseling Caudill on the history, traditions, and the beliefs of the Jewish people and the doctrines of the LDS faith. He was told he would have to choose between the Klan and the Church. He chose the Church.
It was time to leave the Klan behind with all its nefarious teachings. In 1973, he made a bonfire in his backyard and gave each of his children pieces of Klan regalia to burn. Caudill had made a clean break with his past.
George began to study the Scriptures for the truth about the Jews beginning a study of the Hebrew language and a systematic search through the Hebrew Bible. A few years later Elder Alvin R. Dyer of the Council of Twelve ordained Caudill a Seventy in the Mormon priesthood with a special calling to teach the Gospel to the Jews. However, the special story of a former KKK clansman who had found his true faith in the Mormon Church wasn’t destined to end there.
During his studies of the Jewish people and their culture Caudill found that often the material he read from Mormon or Christian sources differed radically from that of Jewish or independent sources. The material often sought to cast the Jew in an unfavorable or subservient light. Yet a reading of reliable historians often vindicated the Jews and showed the bias of the non-Jewish account to be theologically based. The more he studied the more questions he had-questions that were either not answered or answered in a contradictory manner.
He began to study early LDS history, particularly the works of Joseph Smith and his teachings about the Jews and Israel, all the while studying early Christian writers, the Dead Sea Scrolls, early church history, even Christian-Jewish disputations and dialogue. His studies led him to believe there was a serious flaw in Mormon theology that could not be explained as a mere difference of opinion concerning the meaning of an untranslatable text. There was a noticeable lack of an in-depth understanding of the Hebraic concepts in the theology of the prophet Joseph Smith.
He sought to find a rational Christian, hopefully Mormon, explanation for the discrepancies of conceptual understanding between the English translations and their Hebrew originals. He questioned his church leaders on the observance of God’s laws as given through His Prophet Moses. He received unsatisfactory answers. He questioned the virgin birth theory and was severely reprimanded leaving him deeply disappointed.
George then decided to take his insatiable desire for the facts directly to the people doing the proselytizing themselves. He sent questionnaires to approximately 170 various Mormon offshoot and Christian groups seeking to convert Jews to their particular brand of Christianity. None could show logical, rational, or reasonable answers to the questions of translational errors that became dogma, or the reasons that non-Jewish mythical concepts became the doctrine of a Christianity that claimed to follow the Hebrew God.
Instead, they appealed to faith, belief, doctrine, and tradition, rather than the logic of scientific deduction. None wished to examine the texts on their own merit without recourse to later obtained belief systems, to arrive at the true meaning of the texts.
George was soon to encounter someone who offered a few answers to his questions- a Hebrew scholar from an unlikely source. He had made three trips to Salt Lake City to consult with LDS President Benson and others to see if he might be overlooking the answers to the questions that only Judaism seemed to be answering. During one of the visits, he discovered a copy of a newsletter that bore the title “United Israel Bulletin.”
LDS President Ezra Taft Benson and United Nations correspondent David Horowitz had known each other for years and often communicated by articles and letters, both holding a common interest in the fate of the lost Northern Tribes of Israel. Intrigued by the newsletter, young George Caudill decided to contact the Bulletin Editor. His transformation was soon to enter another phase.
Fascinated by the Caudill story, Horowitz responded thus beginning a friendship and confidential relationship that continued for years. Caudill would later write that Horowitz was the only one willing to help him evaluate the texts in their own context and within their own time frame and historical perspective. He assisted in showing how the texts were understood at the time they were written, and how they were reevaluated by later generations of scholars and prophets. Caudill had found his teacher.
The answers to these and other questions motivated him to give serious study to Judaism. He studied Maimonides, Leo Baeck, Buber, David De Sola Pool and a number of other great Jewish minds including the writings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the writings of Chaim Potok. He even read the history of most religions and studied Philosophy and the Talmud. More and more he felt Judaism supplied the answers to life’s trials and tribulations, offered sound family values and social responsibility, as well as giving meaning to life cycle events from birth to death.
On April 17, 1977, George Caudill made formal conversion to Judaism at Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon, with Rabbi Joshua Stampfer presiding. After moving to Boise, Idaho, he became active in the Jewish community, often speaking at synagogues about his transformation from the KKK to Judaism.
In 1986, he was asked to lead lay services and in 1991 he was licensed to perform weddings. He later conducted Basic Judaism classes and taught Hebrew and Jewish Spiritualism and Meditation classes.
He moved from Idaho to Berkeley, California in 1995 to receive rabbinical training (semikhah) at Chochmat HaLev, an independent Yeshiva and was ordained as a Rabbi in 2001 by Rabbi Gershon Winkler.
George Caudill (now Rabbi Steinberg-Caudill) has completed a remarkable journey, one that took him from the abhorrent teachings of the Klan regarding the Jews to his conversion to Judaism at the Neveh Shalom Congregation in Portland, a place he once picketed with a swastika.
The man who traded a Klan robe for a tallit credits two Jews who provided the impetus and motivation that fired his determination to stay the course. One was veteran UN Correspondent David Horowitz, whom Caudill affectionately called “my teacher,” and the other was Israeli leader Golda Meir, who he once wrote asking for “an authentic Hebrew Bible.” She kindly responded by having a copy of the Tanakh sent to him.