Acts of faith

After 17 years as a practicing Christian, Penina Taylor now works to keep Jews Jewish.

It is easy to imagine that many of the people who heard Penina Taylor’s life story must have exclaimed, “You really ought to write a book!”
Taylor is not a professional author. Had she put her story in the hands of a ghostwriter, the result would likely be more polished. Yet Coming Full Circle is a page-turner precisely because of the firsthand treatment of an extraordinary narrative.
Born in southern New Jersey to parents “who were too young to begin a family,” Taylor describes a childhood that could at best be described as chaotic. Without going into the sort of detail that most publishers would encourage, she tells of sexual and physical abuse she suffered at the hands of a family friend and her mother’s second husband.
Lacking opportunities to gain a grounding in her faith from her traditional great-grandparents, and despite two confused years in a yeshiva day school, Taylor’s ignorance of Jewish beliefs and practice left her feeling like an outsider. That, combined with her emotional turmoil and rudderless upbringing, made her particularly vulnerable to teenage Christian missionaries.
Blessed with a dynamic personality, Taylor succeeded in “converting” her mother and sister. When her father reappeared in their lives, she influenced him as well, and her parents were remarried in a messianic church – to the great discomfort of those Jewish relatives Taylor had persuaded to attend.
Though the instability of her younger days ended when she married the deeply religious Christian brother of her best friend from church, the financial deprivation and constant moves that had marked her early years persisted into adulthood. The one anchor was her faith. Wherever they lived, Paul and Penina Taylor joined messianic churches and took on leadership positions.
One wonders how Taylor found the time and energy to home-school four children and take such an active role in various churches. She learned American sign language so that she could interpret services for the hearing-impaired, and she taught classes and frequently “witnessed” to other worshipers. She became a sought-after speaker at messianic conventions and services.
As time went on, the Taylors began adopting biblical Jewish practices in the belief that they were required of Penina and preferable for Paul. Surely it was an odd sight when the Taylor family entered church, with Paul and the boys wearing tzitzit (but not kippot, as head coverings for men are not biblically mandated) and with Penina modestly adorned in a head scarf that she took to wearing full time – a practice she initially took on after studying a relevant passage from the Christian Scriptures.
Feeling increasingly uncomfortable in the houses of worship they attended, the couple founded their own church together with Penina’s parents and urged followers to explore the Jewish roots of Christianity.
Who better to evangelize religious Jews than a family that visually blended in with them? When a missionary acquaintance offered to sell the Taylors her house in one of Baltimore’s heavily Orthodox neighborhoods in 2000, they readily agreed.
It was soon evident that their new surroundings were less than fertile ground for such efforts. But as Taylor started drifting closer to authentic Jewish observance and synagogue attendance, people slowly began welcoming them. A Lubavitch rabbi introduced Taylor to the local Jews for Judaism representative, who gave her the intellectual ammunition to extricate herself from messianic Christianity/Judaism.
“I had to completely reframe my understanding of the universe and God and faith,” she writes of her religious transformation after 17 years as a practicing Christian. “Okay, if Christianity isn’t true, does that automatically mean that Judaism is?... As a Jew, what responsibilities did I have to the commandments and the rest of the world?”
Within a year, she and her children were firm enough in their reclaimed Jewish beliefs to celebrate the oldest Taylor child’s bar mitzva in a traditional manner. But it would take years before tensions between her and her husband subsided. Eventually, Paul converted to Judaism, and Penina began working with Baltimore’s Jews for Judaism team.
Following several years after Penina’s parents, who also made the journey back to Judaism, the Taylors made aliya in December 2006. A few months earlier, Taylor had founded Shomrei Emet, an international educational and training organization whose “mission was the same as Jews for Judaism’s – to keep Jews Jewish, plain and simple.” She continues this work here, and for a couple of years, she also directed Jews for Judaism-Jerusalem.
Taylor makes many public appearances as the founder and CEO of Torah Life Strategies, offering motivational lectures on religious issues as well as topics including attention deficit disorder. Her personal history of domestic violence and drug experimentation, and especially her spiritual voyages, undoubtedly strike a chord with listeners from many different backgrounds. So, too, will her book.