As the founder of an international anti-missionary organization, Penina Taylor’s mission is to keep Jews Jewish.
“We have a beautiful gift in being created Jews and we shouldn’t squander our treasure,” said the 43-year-old mother of four in a telephone interview. “If Judaism doesn’t feel joyful and isn’t a treasure to us, then we need to find ways to make it so.”
Taylor has come a long way from her 17 years as a practicing Christian and an evangelical leader and inspirational speaker at church services and conventions. In those years, her aim was to make Jews believers in Jesus.
Her tumultuous spiritual journey – from secular Jew to evangelical Christian to messianic Christian and ultimately Orthodox Jew – is chronicled in her lectures and recently published book, “Coming Full Circle” (Hatikva Books).
Taylor now lives a strictly Orthodox Jewish life and can be found speaking to crowds at synagogues, yeshivas, and Jewish centers throughout the world about her search for truth and advising Jews to find fulfillment in their own heritage instead of looking elsewhere.
|Penina Taylor, once a convert to Christianity and now an observant Jew, lectures and writes about her spiritual journey. courtesy penina taylor|
In recent days, she has spoken at Cong. Beth Aaron and Torah Academy of Bergen County, both in Teaneck, and the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth. She will speak at Cong. Beth Abraham in Bergenfield on Sunday at 8 p.m. and Monday morning at the Kushner School in Livingstoon.
People who have heard her say that her words resonate with them. Debbie Rosalimsky of Teaneck, who attended a recent lecture, said she’s grateful to Taylor for sharing her story and “also inspired by her passion for bringing back Jews who have strayed by relating her own experience and well as educating them through her extensive knowledge.”
Taylor said she was vulnerable to Christianity because of the lack of Jewish spirituality at home. She grew up in a secular Jewish household in South Jersey where nobody mentioned religion. Her parents divorced when she was four and her mother struggled to make ends meet and was seldom at home. Taylor suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of a family friend.
Feeling isolated and depressed, Taylor began drinking and taking drugs in high school. Her grades hit rock bottom. Such struggles left her questioning the point of her existence. When a Christian friend in school urged her to let Jesus into her heart, Taylor was intrigued. She never knew religion was about a close relationship with a divine being. “I understood at that moment that I was a spiritual person and needed a connection with the divine,” she said.
At 16, she converted to Christianity and joined a church-going crowd. She stopped drinking and quit drugs and her grades improved dramatically. She felt empowered, she said, by a new sense of purpose that turned out to be life-altering. “My whole life changed when I became a Christian,” she said.
Her mother was impressed by the transformation, and she too embraced Christianity. Taylor was so persuasive, she also succeeded in converting her sister and her father, who subsequently decided to remarry her mother.
After high school, Taylor attended a Bible college in Florida and trained as an evangelist. She fell in love with the brother of her best friend from church. Paul Taylor was a devout Christian serving in the U.S. Air Force. She admired his commitment to Christianity. They married and started a family.
The couple moved around the globe, and wherever they settled, they became involved in their church, holding leadership positions. Penina Taylor became a counselor for the Billy Graham Crusade and was in demand as a motivational lecturer at churches, youth groups, and women’s events.
“People were attracted to my story,” she said. “I was a Jewish girl who came to believe in Jesus and amazing things happened in my life.”
But she felt that something was missing. While praying one Friday, Taylor experienced a deep yearning to light Shabbat candles. At first, she was confused by her desire to perform a Jewish ritual, but her husband urged her to follow her soul’s instincts. Using an old Maxwell House Haggadah that her grandmother had once given her, she recited the prayer.
Weeks later, her husband was reading the Hebrew Scriptures and discovered that Jews were supposed to do things like keeping kosher. He asked Taylor to give up pork and shellfish.
As she continued her study of Jewish Scriptures, Taylor became determined to follow the biblical laws. She and her husband began adopting more mitzvot, and she felt herself drawn to Jewish observance. But she was confused because of her belief in Jesus.
Messianic Judaism seemed to be an answer to her religious crisis. She and her husband established a messianic congregation in Maryland in which he preached and she played the guitar. All the while, she continued learning about Judaism.
In 2000, they bought a home in Baltimore’s Orthodox neighborhood with the hope they would evangelize Jews. Their plans were not embraced by the community. But one Shabbat a Lubavitch rabbi came to their home and insisted that though Taylor’s beliefs were not Jewish, she and her children were. He urged them to continue attending his synagogue.
The rabbi also introduced her to Mark Powers, then the director of the anti-missionary group Jews for Judaism. During many meetings that lasted hours, Powers countered Taylor’s beliefs in Christianity and messianic Judaism.
“That was the watershed moment for me that convinced me that Christianity wasn’t the truth,” she said. “The biblical verses on which Christian belief was based were either misquotes or mistranslations of the original text. It made me realize that it was all deception.”
Powers gave her the ammunition she needed to pull herself away from Christianity.
Taylor and her children became Torah-observant Jews. As for her husband, “It took him a while – nearly five years – to work through what he had been taught as a Christian and realize Judaism was the truth,” she said.
The Taylors moved to Israel four years ago and were joined by Penina Taylor’s parents (who also have became observant Jews). Taylor’s children, aged 17 to 22, live in Israel and are all observant Jews. In 2006, Taylor established Shomrei Emet, an international organization that trains and educates Jews to fight missionaries.
When yeshiva students come to the family’s home for Shabbat, she said, what impresses them most is Paul, now known as Pinchas. “They are amazed by his relationship to HaShem.”
All Jews, she said, can learn from baalei teshuva (returnees to Torah observance), from their passion for observance, and for making everything a meaningful experience. “For baalei teshuva, everything is new and exciting,” she said. “People who are frum from birth need to (feel that way) too.”