“Islam and Christianity have been in Nigeria for centuries,” Samanth Subramanian notes, “but Judaism has none of that conspicuous history or heritage.” Beginning in the 1990s, however, “a number of people in southern and eastern Nigeria have become practicing Jews, importing wholesale the rites of this unfamiliar faith and its foreign tongue.” In August, rabbis from the U.S. and Uganda travelled to Nigeria to convert nearly 100 people to Judaism. Subramanian sketches the history of this seemingly spontaneous development, and recounts his conversations with Moshe Ben Avraham, a leader of the synagogue in the southern Nigerian town of Port Harcourt, who is currently studying for a formal conversion to Judaism.
The day I reached Port Harcourt was particularly sunless, its skies dulled not just by exhaust smoke but also by the Harmattan, the winter wind that picks up sand from the Sahara and whips it across west Africa. When Ben Avraham picked me up to take me to his synagogue, his Toyota was coated in sand, as if the original Moses had driven it through the Sinai. From the passenger seat, I spotted an edition of the Zohar, the mystic text of [the Kabbalah], stashed next to the air freshener. A hardback, Ascending Jacob’s Ladder, nestled by the gearstick. An American rabbi preached on the stereo. To the dashboard, Ben Avraham had affixed a Nigerian flag, but also two Israeli flags, which twitched in the weak air conditioning.
About fifteen years ago, Ben Avraham bought some land on the periphery of Port Harcourt, for 300,000 naira—about [$2,500] at the time—and built the Aron Hakodesh Synagogue. “I was the only man here. There was no one else in the area at the time,” he said, which seemed impossible to believe, given the torrents of traffic and the ranks of mechanics’ shops on the main road nearby.
The synagogue’s buildings looked rough and unfinished, and shin-high hillocks of construction material sat around the compound, but the hall of worship, with its lofted ceiling, powder-blue arches, and tiled walls, was airy and complete. The Torah scroll lay behind a floral curtain. Up a flight of stairs, a compact library held shelves of religious titles such as The New Mahzor and High Holiday Prayer Book—many of them in Hebrew, which Ben Avraham can read only with difficulty. On one window was a sticker depicting a menorah, a Star of David, and, just in case things weren’t already clear, a declarative line of text: “I AM A JEW.”