Former Klansman tells of strange journey to Judaism

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It is almost impossible to picture him as he appeared in 1964, in the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan.

The robes were handed down from his grandfather, a West Virginia coal miner who passed on the idea that African Americans should know their place, that Jews were the anti-Christ, that the old Southern way of doing things should be preserved through fear tactics and cross burnings.

During the civil rights struggle of the '60s, Caudill picketed freedom marches and synagogues with both the KKK and neo-Nazi groups in Portland, Ore.

Now, he is a Jew by choice who gives talks about his transition from Klansmen to Jewish leader.

Having recently moved to the East Bay, Caudill, 52, will be speaking here for the first time at Chochmat HaLev on Thursday, Aug. 1 in Berkeley.

As a child, Caudill remembers being oblivious to the racism that permeated his West Virginia town.

"My best friend was black. We swam in the same swimming hole but we couldn't go into each others' houses. There's an oddity about bigotry; children don't have it," says Caudill.

But the adults in town certainly did. Caudill remembers signs on the road that said "THIS IS KLAN COUNTRY" and "NO NIGGERS IN TOWN AFTER SUNDOWN."

After Caudill got his eighth-grade certificate ("In my family, that was considered plenty of education"), at age 16 he married a Mormon and converted to her faith. The couple moved to Portland, where Caudill became angry that African Americans were demanding the right to vote.

"I felt it was a violation of tradition and customs," says Caudill, who joined the local KKK. It was run by a prominent lawyer whose Klan status was secret because "most of his clients were black."

Caudill's involvement was no secret, however. He took the helm of the local chapter of the National States' Rights Party, which he calls a political front group for the KKK.

"For rallies, we'd only get about 25 to 30 people, and half of those were FBI informants. That was a Klan joke, that the informants were the only ones who paid their Klan dues on time." Small numbers aside, Caudill insists "if you can create fear, one person can be very powerful."

For Caudill, it was the potent intervention of one church elder that convinced him to leave the Klan.

Caudill often drove to church in his two-door Chevy, flanked with Confederate flags and slogans like "Send Jews back to Russia." The bishop said Caudill's bigotry was jeopardizing his church membership and introduced him to Mormon Church leader and former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson in the mid-'60s.

"Benson asked me what it was about Jews I didn't like. I went through the rhetoric," remembers Caudill. "He took my points one by one and showed how Mormon teachings opposed this thinking."

Just after Caudill embarked on a study of Judaism at Benson's behest, the back window of his Chevy was shot out as he drove through an African American neighborhood. That day, he loaded his four kids into a U-Haul and moved to Idaho.

When Caudill arrived, his first order of business was to light a bonfire of Klan regalia. Each of his children threw a piece of the clothing into the flames.

The next order of business was a stop at the local FBI office, where Caudill dropped off a list of local Klansmen. "I said, `Take my name off the list. I quit.'"

In Boise, the Mormon Church asked him to continue studying Judaism for the purpose of discovering why so few Jews convert to Mormonism — fewer than 100 a year. After reading Maimonides' "Guide For the Perplexed," Caudill began to think Jews were ill-served by those trying to convert them.

He also found himself leaning toward a Jewish concept of God — to teachings about family togetherness and social responsibility.

After 18 years as a Mormon, Caudill converted to Judaism. Since a Conservative conversion wasn't available in Boise at that time, he went to Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, which he had once picketed with a swastika.

For the next 19 years, he lived in Boise and became a lay leader of the small Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel.

Two years ago, Caudill had a heart attack. Still married to his Mormon wife, he says he lay in his hospital bed and "prayed to God, `Send me a Jewish wife. I want to have a Jewish life."

He separated from his wife and met Judy Sink, an artist making tapestries for the synagogue's centennial. The two married, Caudill quit his job of 23 years at an ice cream plant, and the couple moved to the Bay Area where they run an eco-kosher house-cleaning business — using environmentally safe cleaning products.

Caudill, who appeared on "Donahue" last year, speaks to groups as often as he can. "My message is this: I don't believe in tolerance, because tolerance has within it the seeds for intolerance. I believe in acceptance."