From Jesus to Jewish
By Debbie Shapiro
Penina Taylor is a woman with a mission – to fight missionaries. She's an expert in the field. She knows their tactics and understands their philosophy, because, prior to her commitment to a Jewish life, Penina's greatest passion was to convert Jews to Christianity.
Penina grew up in a single-parent home. Her Jewish mother struggled to make ends meet while studying to become a registered nurse. Left on her own much of the day, she became the object of abuse. Traumatized and miserable, she fell in with the "wrong crowd." It wasn't long before she was smoking and drinking, and failing school. "I was tumbling head over heels straight into the abyss," Penina explains. "I had lots of existential questions, but absolutely no answers."
At age 15, Penina talked with one of her schoolmates about the direction her life was taking. Her friend spoke about putting her trust in God and developing a relationship with Jesus. "The strength of her belief resonated with me. I was searching for something deeper than myself, and this was the answer."
Penina began attending church with her friend, and soon became a born again Christian. "Now that I was living for something higher than myself, I stopped smoking and drinking and began to do well in school," Penina said. "I was empowered with a sense of purpose, and that, in itself, is life-altering." Penina's mother, who had helplessly watched her daughter slipping away, was amazed at the dramatic change and assumed that something so powerful must be true. Both she and Penina's younger sister converted to Christianity.
After high school Penina attended Bible college where she was trained as an evangelist. She also fell in love with her best friend's brother, Paul, and became engaged to be married.
Over the years Penina had lost contact with her father, but now that she was about to get married, she wanted him to walk her down the aisle. "The winter before my wedding he came to Florida to spend two weeks getting reacquainted with me and my sister. During that time he fell in love again with my mother and wanted to remarry her. But there was one problem: he was Jewish. So I talked to him about Christianity and he converted."
Penina got married to Paul and started a family. She had a busy life – as a counselor for the Billy Graham Crusade, and a popular Evangelical speaker in her own right. It’s all chronicled in Penina’s memoir, Coming Full Circle.
Fast forward 10 years. Penina was in the midst of her daily prayers when she had a distinct feeling that God wanted her to light Shabbat candles. "I couldn't understand why I felt this way. It wasn't as if I had seen it at home. My mother never lit Shabbos candles; my grandmother never lit Shabbos candles. When I told my husband about it, he responded that if this is how I believe God wants me to worship Him, then that is what I must do."
Although Penina knew that Jewish women light candles to usher in Shabbat, she had no idea how to go about it. "The only Jewish memory I had was of the Passover Seder at my grandparents' house. My grandfather would hand out the worn Maxwell House Haggadahs and, after reading a paragraph or two, we'd sing ‘Dayeinu’ and begin our meal.” Years earlier, Penina had asked her grandmother for one of these Haggadahs. Now, with the inspiration to light Shabbat candles, she was glad to find that the Haggadah included the transliterated blessing for lighting candles.
A few months later Penina's husband remarked how the Jewish Bible (“Old Testament”) says that Jews are prohibited from eating shellfish and pork. Paul, sincere in his service of God, wanted to ensure that his Jewish wife and Jewish children don't eat those things.
So Penina stopped eating pork and shellfish.
A few months later, while Penina was studying the New Testament, she came across a ambiguous passage that seemed to imply that a married woman must keep her hair covered while praying. "I called our pastor to ask him what it means. He explained that although married women should keep their hair covered while praying, he does not teach this since he knows they will never listen,” Penina explains. “After that, I started covering my hair during prayer, and since I was praying off and on throughout the entire day, it wasn't long before it was covered all the time."
Observing these mitzvot had a tremendous impact on Penina's soul. Deep within her, she felt herself being drawn to Judaism, yet she fervently believed in Jesus. "Then my parents came for a visit. One of their suitcases was packed with tzitzit and kippahs and all kinds of Judaica. 'We now belong to a group who combine their Jewish heritage with a belief in Jesus,' they told me.”
That was Penina's introduction to Messianic Judaism.
Several years later, Penina, Paul, their children and her parents moved to Maryland where they opened their own messianic congregation. Paul preached, Penina played guitar, and Penina's father took care of all the administrative work. "Here I was the head of a so-called Jewish congregation, yet I knew almost nothing about Judaism. I knew I had to learn more, so I began frequenting the local Jewish book store. The first book I read used the term 'Torah observant.' Both my husband and I latched onto that. We decided to become 'Torah observant messianic Jews' and started incorporating more and more Jewish observance."
It wasn't long before the Taylors were keeping Shabbat and kashrut – and heading a messianic congregation. Penina helped create a Messianic Passover Haggadah.
Eventually the Taylors bought a house in the heart of Baltimore's orthodox community. "We saw it as a great opportunity to convert Jews. After all, with my husband wearing tzitzit and a kippah and me dressed modestly in long sleeved shirts, skirts and a headscarf, we thought we'd fit in perfectly."
Their first Shabbat, the Taylors were about to jump into their car to drive to their messianic congregation when they suddenly stopped. "We couldn't drive; that would blow our cover. Everyone would realize that we weren't what we pretended to be. So we decided to attend one of the shuls within walking distance of our house."
The shul warmly welcomed the Taylors. When the rabbi wanted to honor Paul by calling him up to the Torah, Paul explained that although he was dressed like a Jew, he's not. "That was an act of incredible integrity on his part,” Penina says.
After a few weeks Paul felt that it wasn't fair to be dishonest with the congregation. "When we invited the rabbi to our house, he assumed that we wanted to talk to him about converting. When Paul told the rabbi what we believe in, the rabbi almost fainted from shock. From the expression of horror on his face, I understood how other people viewed what we were trying to do. I had visions of posters against us plastered all over the neighborhood, and I was frightened that we'd be forced to leave our beautiful house. But the rabbi quickly composed himself and responded, 'Although what you believe is not Judaism, you, Penina, are a Jew no matter what, and you and your children are more than welcome to continue coming to shul.”
The rabbi also insisted that Penina meet Mark Powers, then director of the anti-missionary group, Jews for Judaism.
Over the course of numerous meetings, Mark showed them how the biblical verses upon which their Christian belief was based, were – when examined in the original Hebrew – were mistranslations and taken out of context.
"I was shaken to the core,” says Penina. “So much of my belief hinged on these verses – and I was left with many, many unanswered questions. I spent the next few weeks challenging Mark. I discovered that my faith was built on a lie. Slowly but surely, the building crumbled until it totally disintegrated."
Penina, together with her parents and four children eventually became Torah observant Jews – though Paul remained a Christian. "Some people thought I should ask for a divorce. But my husband is one of the most sincere and honest people I've ever met, and I loved him. I knew that eventually he'd come around."
It took four years, but Paul persisted in his spiritual struggle and eventually converted to Judaism. A few hours after Paul, now Pinchas, emerged from the mikveh as a Jew, he and Penina were married in a Jewish ceremony. The entire community – who were like family to them – joined in the celebration.
Two years later, in December 2006, the Taylors took the big step and moved to Israel, where today they are living as observant (non-messianic!) Jews. What does Penina see as the biggest difference between Judaism and Christianity?
“Instead of the main motivating factor the fear of burning in Hell forever, there is the positive motivation of fulfilling the purpose for which I was created.”
For her part, Penina has devoted her life to helping Jews caught in the web of Christianity find their way out. "I see so many young people who are searching, yet pulled by foreign beliefs. They’re being offered a feeling of warmth and community that they may have never gotten growing up in Jewish circles. So the soul is yearning, and they mistakenly thing that this ‘Christian love’ will fully satisfy them. They're being given falsified ‘proofs’ and meaningless answers. They’re not leaving Judaism out of conviction, but rather from ignorance. The Jewish community desperately needs educational programs to counteract this.”
In looking back on her Messianic years, Penina reflects: “My biggest regret is that I facilitated a few close family members becoming Christians, and they have not yet returned to Judaism as the rest of my family has. In trying to turn people around, I don't argue; I just try to educate and let them come to their own conclusions. If they're sincerely honest, the truth will prevail."