Shmuel (Sam) Gordon was born and raised in Nigeria, Africa’s largest country with a population of 200 million. Shmuel was a sickly child and it was uncertain whether he would survive; indeed, he endured two near-death experiences. Then, at age 17, Shmuel had a “miraculous healing” and to show his gratitude, he devoted his life to God. Raised as a Christian (Nigeria is approximately 50% Muslim and 50% Christian), Shmuel attended seminary and at age 20 became a pastor. Renowned as a dynamic speaker and intellectual thinker, he led a church serving 1,000 people.

In 2005, Shmuel, his wife Shoshana and their three children moved to South Africa, where Shmuel started a congregation in Johannesburg’s Roodepoort neighborhood. His popularity soared – appearing regularly on TV and radio, and traveling throughout Africa preaching Christian gospel. Shmuel also trained other pastors, opening branches of his church in Ghana, Nigeria, and the United States (Texas and Georgia). Life was grand.

One night in 2011, Shmuel had a dream that would change his family’s destiny forever. “In the dream, a man engaged me in physical battle,” he tells Aish.com. “He would not let me go, and kept yelling: 'Now is the time to choose Israel!’”

The dream lasted all night, until Shmuel awoke frantic, shaking with the chills. “I didn't know what it all meant,” he recalls. “Dreams come and go, but this felt like much more.”

Soon after, a pastor from Norway invited Shmuel to a pro-Israel conference, and he became inspired to adopt pro-Israel activism in “response” to the dream. Shmuel founded the Africa-Israel Initiative to mobilize Christian leaders across Africa – counteracting anti-Israel media bias and speaking out against BDS and phony “Israeli Apartheid.”

Shmuel Gordon organized huge pro-Israel rallies across Africa.

Shmuel led delegations to Israel and organized huge pro-Israel rallies and conferences across Africa – in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Congo, Ghana, Zambia, South Africa, Nigeria, and Rwanda. To show solidarity with the Jewish people, Shmuel would often wear a tallit and kippah while leading throngs in the streets with pro-Israel banners, t-shirts and Israeli flags.

Speaking at a conference in 2014, Shmuel issued a clarion call to the African continent: “If you believe in the Bible, you must love Israel,” he said, thrilling the large crowd with his oratory skill and knowledge of Jewish history. “God’s covenant with the Jewish people is unshakeable, irreplaceable, immutable, irrevocable, and has no expiration date.”

Shmuel believed that by honoring God’s words to Abraham thousands of years ago – “Those who bless you, I will bless” (Genesis 12:3) – a new spirit of creativity, wealth, and spirituality could be unleashed throughout Africa.

Hidden Knowledge

Meanwhile, Shmuel was undergoing a noticeable transformation in his own religious observance, with his church sermons less Christian in content and increasingly more about Israel.

This process accelerated in 2013 when, on a trip back from Israel, Shmuel noticed a Jewish passenger intently reading a book. Intrigued, he approached the man and inquired; it was the Garden of Wisdom by Rabbi Shalom Arush.

Back in Johannesburg, Shmuel found a Jewish bookstore and devoured the book cover to cover. “I never realized that such wisdom existed,” he says. “From a Christian perspective, we were trained to think that the dynamic, flourishing religious Jewish community had basically ended 2,000 years ago with the exile – and that Christians were the new ‘chosen nation.’ When I read this book, I felt like a whole world of Jewish knowledge had been hidden from us.”

To show solidarity with the Jewish people,
Shmuel appears in tallit and kippah at a pro-Israel conference.

Shmuel got every Jewish book he could find, building up a library and sharing that wisdom with his family. “It was like opening a floodgate,” he says.

Shmuel purchased a Siddur and in 2014 the family began observing Shabbat. “For 24 hours, there was no work, no TV, no shopping,” says his oldest son Binyamin who was in high school at the time. “I was very into music, playing piano, and my band appeared on South Africa's Got Talent. But I put everything on hold to observe Shabbat. We'd sit around studying Torah, and then on Sunday attend church.”

One day, Shmuel came home and announced that the family was now keeping kosher. “We stopped buying meat, and instead would go to a farm, buy our own livestock, and have it slaughtered as best we knew,” Shmuel says. Then, given the Torah prohibition against eating animal blood, they would pour coarse salt on the meat and let the blood drain into their backyard barbeque pit.

Increasingly, Shmuel shared Torah ideas with his congregation. “My sermons attacked the fundamentals of Christian theology,” he recalls. “I told the congregation that the Trinity was a man-made invention and that we should pray not to an intermediary, but to one God.”

Shmuel pushed the envelope further by instructing the church choir to remove the name “Jesus” from all the songs at Sunday services.

“My life was torn in two,” he recalls. “The more Judaism I learned, the more disconnected I felt from Christianity. We stopped celebrating the various holidays. After nearly 30 years as a pastor, Sunday mornings had become my worst time.”

Shmuel’s church choir leads a rousing rendition of a popular Hebrew song
(lyrics projected on screen).

Closing the Church

The levee broke one Saturday night in 2016. Shmuel couldn't sleep, and the following morning – while delivering the Sunday sermon – courageously broke the news. “I told the congregation that I'd been doing research about my tribal heritage in Nigeria, and discovered that I’m Israelite,” Shmuel recalls. “I told them: ‘You're welcome to go wherever you want, but my family and I cannot continue practicing a faith we no longer believe.’

“Then I told them that, effective immediately, the church was closed.”

Chaos and commotion ensued. Some congregants viewed Shmuel as a traitor and issued death threats. Other congregants approached him saying they wanted to follow his Jewish path. So Shmuel formed a Noachide community and began meeting on Shabbat. From time to time, rabbis came from Israel to teach them the basics.

Some church members formed a Noachide community that meets on Shabbat.
(Shmuel is in the back row, center.)

Meanwhile, Shmuel redoubled his efforts for Israel advocacy. He resigned from the Christian group he'd founded, and joined forces with SAFI – South African Friends of Israel. There he found a kindred spirit in SAFI executive director Gavriel Sacks, whose mother had converted to Judaism.

Shmuel decided to become a Jew.

What about the Gordon family? “I didn't force anything on them,” he says. “I shared Jewish books and let them embark on their own journey. My wife was initially skeptical, and all three kids at the time were teenagers. But remarkably, they each discovered the truth of Torah for themselves.”

The Gordon family (L-R): Binyamin, Dovid, Shmuel, Shoshana, OriElla.

With the family united in resolve to become Jewish, they met with the highly-respected Johannesburg Beit Din and were accepted into the conversion program. They moved to a Jewish community, and underwent a daunting, two-year process. In August 2019, after a rigorous final exam in Beit Din, the Gordon family became Jewish.

Today, five of Shmuel’s former congregants are undergoing the conversion process, and more are expected to join. I ask Shmuel if it’s a challenge, given the small number of blacks in the South African Jewish community. “The Jewish community welcomed us very fast,” he says. “We never experienced any kind of discrimination.”

Binyamin Gordon studying Talmud in Jerusalem.

Binyamim, the eldest Gordon child, age 25, visited Israel recently for the first time on an Aish program. “When I got to Israel, people were speaking a different language, yet everything seemed so familiar,” he told Aish.com. “I felt like I'd been here before, that I was returning to a place I’d left long ago. I'm home.” He is now studying at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem and hopes to return to South Africa this summer to arrange for aliyah.

OriElla, the Gordon’s daughter, is currently in Jerusalem studying at Neve Yerushalayim College.

The youngest, Dovid, attends high school in South Africa.

As for Shmuel and Shoshana, they have eyes set on aliyah. "I'm hoping my whole family moves to Israel, where I can study Torah the rest of my life," he says.

Shmuel is currently writing a book about his experiences, and wants to spread the light of Judaism to as many as he can. As for his native continent, he claims: “The soul of Africa was stolen many years ago. If we can connect with the Almighty in the right way, great light will come to Africa.”