Does anyone remember the missionary couple that moved to Strathmore Avenue in the summer of 2000? Ever wonder what happened to them? I discovered the Taylor family living on a hilltop in Gush Etzion, in the yishuv of Bat Ayin. It was in this small settlement inhabited by simple people who contain wellsprings of greatness that Pinchas and Penina, formerly missionaries and now observant Jews, found a place to call home.
Pinchas and Penina graciously agree to share their fascinating personal story in order to inspire and strengthen others. They welcome me warmly, and I ask them how their story begins. Although most stories have a beginning, they respond, their own is elusive for the simple reason that their search for truth is beyond the scope of words and time.
Penina was born in 1967 into a secular Jewish home in Lakewood, New Jersey, which at that time consisted of mostly farmland and a small Torah-observant community. “Judaism meant nothing to me,” says Penina. She had a traumatic childhood, and when she was only four years old, her parents divorced. By the time Penina reached high school, she had many existential questions. So, when a born-again Christian classmate introduced her to Christianity, she dived right in. Convinced that her new-found faith was the only way to save one’s soul for all eternity, Penina influenced her mother and sister to be baptized as well.
While in college, Penina met her soulmate Pinchas (known as Paul back then), who was her good friend’s older brother. Before she celebrated her own wedding, Penina reached out to her father, who had been uninvolved in their lives, and convinced him to remarry her mother. After her marriage, she and Pinchas, a pastor, entered the lay ministry, serving in the church without taking the lead role. Penina played the guitar, sang, and led women’s prayer meetings.
Pinchas describes himself as being “frum from birth” – in Christianity, that is. He says, “G-d was always a part of who I was and where I was headed. I was always seeking a close relationship with Hashem, and so, at some point, when we were living in England, we wanted an authentic Christian expression.” They stopped eating pork and shellfish, which, as they discovered, was forbidden in the Old Testament. They started celebrating Jewish holidays with a Christian twist, and Penina began to light Shabbos candles Friday night. But they continued going to church on Sundays. After reading a passage in the New Testament that a woman should cover her head, Penina began covering her hair while praying, eventually keeping it covered all day. “We had the perspective of wanting to do what G-d wanted,” says Penina. Looking back, Penina refers to this stage in her life as her “spiritual identity crisis.”
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Within a year of marriage, Pinchas and Penina had their first child, Daniel. A couple of years later, their daughter Rachel was born, and a few years down the line, Yoshi and Aaron joined the family. The Taylors moved quite often for religious and job reasons, and I wondered how the children managed in the various school systems. Penina explains that there was no problem because she homeschooled her kids. In Evangelical Christian society, homeschooling was quite common. In addition, Penina had her mother-in-law as an example of someone who had succeeded in homeschooling. Pinchas’s younger brother was a genius but too socially immature to enter a higher grade. As a result of being homeschooled, however, he actually blossomed socially. He wasn’t being bullied and didn’t have to deal with social pressures. Rather, he had the benefit of being part of homeschooling groups. Since Pinchas and Penina’s son Danny was similar to his uncle (although Penina says that he has now matured into a social butterfly), the idea of homeschooling especially appealed to her.
“It also occurred to me,” says Penina, “that when you send your child to school, you are delegating the responsibility of educating him to others – not just the academics but also their values – even if you send them to a school that ostensibly agrees with your values. We decided we didn’t want to delegate those responsibilities, and that’s primarily why we decided to homeschool all our children.”
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Several years after their remarriage, Penina’s parents moved to Maryland, where they discovered the “messianic Jewish movement.” It didn’t take long for Pinchas and Penina to follow suit, and in 1991, they too came to the D.C. area to be closer to the messianic congregation. Penina explains that messianic Judaism is Christianity with a Jewish wrapping. Jesus is called Yeshua, the services are on Saturday instead of Sunday, and they read both a piece of the Torah portion and the New Testament during the service.
Caught between the church and the messianic congregation, Pinchas and Penina began to explore the origins of Christian rituals and realized that many of them were based on pagan practices. They let go of the Xmas tree and other things that are not part of biblical Christianity. When the pressure of being members of both the church and the messianic congregation became too much, they let go of the church on Sundays and became full-fledged messianics.
After becoming aware of some inconsistencies in the movement, however, Pinchas and Penina were disappointed and decided to join Penina’s parents in spearheading their own congregation. In order to bring more Judaism into their movement, they entered the world of Orthodox Judaism in Maryland. They learned Hebrew and spent Shabbos and chagim with frum families who had no idea whom they were hosting!
“If you would have seen us on the street,” Penina says, “you would have thought we were an Orthodox family.” She was covering her head with a scarf and dressing modestly, while Pinchas wore a kippa and tzitzis. They soon became very knowledgeable in halacha and Jewish practices, combining all they learned with their belief in the Christian “messiah.”
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The next twist in Pinchas’ and Penina’s life happened in 2000, when a messianic event led them to Baltimore. A woman at the event who was conversing with Penina randomly offered to sell them her house in Park Heights. Not sure of what to do, they returned to their own congregation and asked them to pray to G-d to see if they should buy the house. The congregation unanimously agreed that they should make the move, “because who better to convert Orthodox Jews to messianic Judaism than messianic Jews who look and act like Orthodox Jews.”
“We moved into the Baltimore community with the agenda of being a witness and hopefully bringing Orthodox Jews to messianic Judaism,” Penina says. “In the end, G-d had the last laugh.”
Penina describes their entrance into the Baltimore community as being “kind of awkward, because no one knew what to do with us.” The Taylors didn’t realize that the woman who sold them the house, a missionary herself, had told the neighbors that a missionary family was moving in! Penina says that, although they were hoping to subtly bring up the subject of Jesus to their Orthodox neighbors, they had no intention of missionizing aggressively.
When their first Shabbos in Baltimore came around, Pinchas and Penina were in a dilemma. On the one hand, they wanted to go to a Messianic service; on the other hand, they didn’t want to be seen driving by their frum neighbors. They decided to join an Orthodox synagogue prayer service and walked into Rabbi Lisbon’s Bais Lubavitch, where they were warmly welcomed.
Here, Penina explains the greatness of her husband. Christian messianic Jews often call them themselves “Jews,” rationalizing that they have the status of “new Jews,” a concept taken from the New Testament. However, Pinchas is so full of integrity that when he was offered an aliyah in shul, he admitted that he was actually a gentile. That is how the shul members learned that Pinchas wasn’t Jewish and Penina was, but they never imagined that they were messianic!
In addition to their new-found friends from shul, the Taylors began forming relationships with other homeschooling families. Penina began to feel comfortable and happy with herself in a way she had never felt before. The problem was that the couple still believed in Jesus, and because of Pinchas’s integrity, they felt compelled to share their beliefs with the Rabbi so as not to deceive anyone.
During their fateful meeting with Rabbi Lisbon, he told them in no uncertain terms that Penina and the children were considered 100 percent Jewish and were welcome to continue in their shul but that, in the meantime, Pinchas was not. The other stipulation was that she would have to speak to someone from Jews for Judaism.
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So began the next chapter in the Taylors’ journey of discovery. The meeting with Jews for Judaism rocked Penina’s boat and stirred her conscious about the Christian beliefs she had held for 17 years. The man presented Penina with clear proof of how Christianity had mistranslated the Torah to bring proof that Jesus was the messiah. She went into a frenzy listening to recorded debates between rabbis and Hebrew Christians and trying to get answers from her family and friends. But the truth of Judaism was becoming more apparent – and truth was the value that she held most dear.
Gradually, Penina started to wholeheartedly accept Torah Judaism as her religion and taught the kids about their heritage and beliefs. To her dismay, though, Pinchas was left struggling with the alien notion that Judaism is the truth and that all the tenets of Christianity in which he believed were being abandoned by his wife. Penina fought hard to hold onto their marriage, and Pinchas exhibited great inner strength in tolerating the rejection the community showed him at that time.
Months passed in tension and hurt. Their former Christian friends not only rejected them but outright denounced them and warned their congregants to stay far away. The Jewish community was only beginning to accept them. Finally, a breaking point came when Penina’s parents followed her lead. They rejected Christianity and returned to their own heritage. After much deliberation and struggle, Pinchas, too, came to the decision that Christianity was false. But the question that remained for him was whether Judaism was the truth or whether the wool would be thrown over his eyes once again.
Pinchas became a Ben Noach and started attending classes in Etz Chaim, turning to Rabbi Shlomo Porter with questions, mainly pertaining to the Oral Torah. The family began attending Rabbi Goldberger’s shul, where they were treated with warmth and acceptance. Finally, Penina’s patience bore fruit, and in January of 2005, Pinchas converted in front of the Beis Din in Baltimore. That evening bore another celebration as well; he and Penina celebrated their Jewish wedding at Etz Chaim with all the friends who had accompanied them on their journey.
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Continuing the narrative, Penina recalls the catalyst that led them to aliyah. Actually, the idea of aliyah was first ignited in their hearts years earlier, after meeting a messianic couple that described the beauty of life in Israel. They applied for aliyah but for various reasons decided not to go. After becoming religious Jews, Penina’s parents took the next step in their journey and decided to make aliyah. Her father had a website and at one point posted an article that ended with a prayer that his kids would actualize the meaning of the words that are said in the seder: “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
Well, that year, at the Taylor’s seder table, when they started singing, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” Penina stopped, turned to Pinchas, and said, “Why are we singing this? Do we really mean it, or we’re just saying it because it’s in the book?” As it happened, they were looking to relocate, because Pinchas’ commute to work in Northern Virginia was two hours in each direction, and so the idea of aliyah resurfaced.
After a one-week pilot trip, the Taylors made aliyah in December of 2006 and began life in the Holy Land. They settled in Kochav Yaakov to be close to Penina’s parents. Before making aliyah, however, Pinchas and Penina had sat down with each child separately to discuss the move, and all of them were in favor. “If any of our kids would have said they didn’t want to go, we would not have gone,” Penina says simply. Danny and Rachel were more idealistic about their reasons for aliyah, and the two younger boys, Yoshi and Aharon, were excited about the adventure and novelty of the move.
People often question Penina about how they successfully made aliyah with their teenage children. “You can make aliyah with teenagers,” she says emphatically, “but you had better not do it if they are not interested. Sometimes, they’re really ‘gung-ho’ about coming and then discover that the reality is different.” She recommends that parents ask their kids to write an essay about why they want to make aliyah, and if they have a hard time acclimating months later, they should hand the paper back to them and remind them why they are there.
Danny joined the army the summer before the family moved. Rachel was studying at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington and stayed in the States to finish her last two years of high school before joining her family. In fact, she was the only one who went to school in the States; the boys were all homeschooled until coming to Israel. Upon arrival, Aharon went to YTA (Yerushalayim Torah Academy), an incredible boys high school in Bayit Vegan, geared to students coming from Anglo backgrounds. Yoshi, too old for the first class at YTA, went to an Israeli school for one year, which was a disaster. He ended up doing home studies to complete his SATs and GED the following year and taught himself graphic design and guitar too. Later, he used his graphics skills during his military service in the air force.
Of the whole family, Rachel had the easiest transition because she began life in Israel as a seminary student in Afikei Torah before actually making aliyah. She met her husband soon afterwards. For Pinchas, learning Hebrew is a struggle, and the ulpan the couple initially took did not help him enough to get a job right away. After about a year-and-a–half of living on their savings, Pinchas trained as a technical writer, which enables him to use many of the skills he had been using in his previous computer job. Currently, Pinchas commutes every day to his company in Givat Shaul.
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Like all olim, Pinchas relates an “only in Israel” story that happened recently when he boarded a bus whose payment machine wasn’t working. The bus driver waved the passengers down the aisle to be seated. A few minutes later, the driver announced that the machine was working again. “I noticed a steady stream of passengers going up and down the aisle,” says Pinchas, “because Jewish people in Israel pay; they don’t just try to get a free ride.”
Honesty was one thing that Penina admired very much when she entered the frum community in Baltimore. “Here in Israel,” says Penina, “the culture epitomizes those Jewish values. Whether you are religious or not, people will get off the bus and run after you to return a wallet you left behind.
“Everyone here is family and treats each other as such. It’s just normal family dynamics. We have to realize that means that sometimes we are going to fight, and sometimes we are going to measure others from head to toe to see where they belong ‘in the family’ and if we might recognize them or know them from somewhere.”
Pinchas adds, “But at the same time, when the rockets start flying, folks over here will invite whole families whom they have never seen before to camp out in their living room for a week.”
Penina sums it up: “If I had to explain Israeli culture in one sentence, it’s that they’re going to push you when getting on the bus, but when you fall, they will stop and help you up. When I first made aliyah, people said sometimes you just have to yell at the clerk to get something done. But I have discovered, after being on the edge of crying and explaining that I need their help, that inside every Israeli, whether male or female, is a bubby just looking to come out. So, you don’t have to yell at anybody, it’s not necessary.”
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All four of the Taylor children are now married and have integrated into Israeli society. Aharon’s wife Libby had an inner pull to live in Chevron but settled in the connected Jewish community of Kiryat Arba. Penina’s mother also lives in Kiryat Arba (her father passed away three years ago). Rachel and her family live in Kiryat Arba as well but plan to move back to Alon Shevut in the near future. Danny is in Efrat, and Yoshi, the last child to get married, celebrated his wedding at Mearas Hamachpeila and now lives in Givat Shmuel.
Penina works as a life coach and gives lots of classes online. She has written two books and is currently engaged in more writing, in addition to going on speaking trips in the States. Much of her teaching is about why we do things in Judaism and the internal meaning behind the mitzvos.
After coming full circle back to Judaism, Penina became active in counter-missionary activities. She worked for Jews for Judaism while in Baltimore, and upon making aliyah, started an organization that she named Shomrei Emet Institute. It later became known as Jews for Judaism Israel, which, except for Yad l’Achim, was the only other counter-missionary organization in Israel. For various reasons, including lack of funding, Penina is no longer affiliated with Jews for Judaism. Instead, for the last 10 years, she has traveled to share her story with audiences of all kinds.
This summer marks 17 years that Penina has been frum, which will be longer than the amount of time she was a Christian. The search for truth does not end though. Pinchas and Penina are forever growing and constantly seeking closeness to Hashem. They have reached the truth of Torah, have come home to the Land of their dreams, and have at last found their makom (place) in Bat Ayin. When Israelis ask Penina why they moved to Israel, she says, “Israel is the only place in the world that doesn’t just tolerate its Jews; it wants us. It’s our inheritance, our history, our future.”
If you are interested in bringing Penina to speak to your organization, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.