Former Messianic Jew Helps Others Return to Judaism
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Penina Taylor's journey from Judaism to Christianity and back again has been a long and complicated one.
Taylor, 38, was raised in a secular Jewish home, and in her troubled teenage years turned to belief in Jesus. Her newfound faith saved her from drug abuse and other destructive behaviors and set her on a spiritual journey that has spanned two decades.
Now a counselor, speaker and counter-missionary, she is devoting her time to helping other Jews return to Judaism.
"I spent 17 years in Christian leadership,” she said. "Now, I want to help other Jews come back to Judaism." In spite of many years of spiritual struggle, Taylor believes that God has been guiding her all along.
After adopting belief in Jesus, she married a non-Jewish man. Early in her marriage, Taylor began lighting Shabbat candles on Friday night, even though she and her husband regularly attended church services on Sunday mornings. That was the first of many experiences that led Taylor to question her religious identity.
But the crisis was temporarily resolved when they were introduced to Messianic Judaism, which they felt allowed them to believe in Jesus while still calling themselves Jews and maintaining Jewish rituals, including the Jewish Sabbath.
"I felt like I had a huge burden taken off my shoulders," Taylor said.
The Taylors, along with Penina’s Parents, ultimately opened their own Messianic congregation in Bowie, MD, but the younger couple moved on after three years.
Eventually, the family joined a Messianic congregation in northern Virginia, which led them to a meeting in Baltimore, where a woman asked if the Taylors wanted to buy a house in Park Heights, the center of Baltimore's Orthodox Jewish community. Intrigued, the family visited the house.
"Something inside me said I was home," said Taylor. With their modest dress - Taylor covered her hair and her husband and sons wore yarmulkes - the family looked like typical Orthodox Jews. Their congregation felt they would be ideal candidates to "reach out" to Jews in Baltimore.
When neighbors heard that a Hebrew Christian family was moving in, they turned their backs to the Taylors, making it clear that they were not welcome.
In spite of this, the Taylors began attending an Orthodox congregation, where they told the rabbi that they were an interfaith couple - she was Jewish but her husband was not. They eventually felt compelled to tell the rabbi about their true beliefs. By that point Taylor was beginning to connect with the Jewish community, and was concerned about the rabbi’s reaction.After a lengthy conversation, the rabbi assured Taylor that she would always be a Jew, no matter what she believed, even though those beliefs placed her outside the Jewish community. The rabbi asked the family to meet with a representative of Jews for Judaism.
Over the course of several meetings, the representative of Jews for Judaism showed the Taylors that their beliefs were based on falsehoods and mistranslations.
"The bricks that held the foundation of my belief were being pulled out," Taylor said. "Once that foundation had crumbled, I was forced to rebuild my faith based on the truth of the Hebrew bible."
Ultimately, her husband converted to Judaism.
Because of her experience, Taylor has some advice for the Jewish community about how to react to Jews who believe in Jesus.
"Being rude builds a wall," she said. "If they are actually Jewish we want them to come back to Judaism."
Instead, she recommends being cordial, but cautious, and contacting professionals for guidance.
"We have a job as Jews to love our fellow Jews no matter what," she said. "Turning our backs, calling them names, only reinforces the Christian myth that Jews don't have a relationship with God."
(Penina can be reached online at Peninataylor@gmail.com)