Monday, April 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Controversial, colorful Israel family moves to more open spaces

Times Snohomish County bureau

ARLINGTON — The exodus of the Israel family is under way — to the wilderness, no less.

While the image of a biblical journey to a promised land is a tempting one, real life rarely is that romantic. And when Love Israel is involved, reality often is entangled with myth and legend.

It has been 36 years since Love Israel, then a charismatic young man named Paul Erdman, began attracting spiritual seekers to his home on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill to experience his revelations about God, love and universal oneness. By 1983, when the family shattered amid accusations about drugs, sex and financial mismanagement, he had assembled a tightly-woven community of more than 300 men, women and children.

Now the remaining 40-plus devoted Israelites have packed up their 300-acre ranch north of Arlington, where they retreated 20 years ago after the breakup, to relocate to a remote corner of the state.

Faced with bankruptcy and overwhelming debts, the family in December sold its secluded paradise for $4.3 million to a national Jewish organization for use as an adult retreat center and youth summer camp.

"This is like a freeing event for me," says Love, 63. "I have no bills to pay off, so I probably feel about 10 tons lighter than I did."

Ultimately, Love hopes to create two focal points for his family: a cultural center in Seattle ("the Experience Hippie Project," he jokes) and a community at China Bend, Stevens County, in the state's northeastern corner, where about 25 family members and friends already live.

His wife, Honesty Israel, owns 52 acres in China Bend, a wooded, rural area along the Columbia River. Their associates individually own an additional 200 acres, including a winery.

After more than three decades of controversy and external transformation, Love's three-pronged spiritual message remains unchanged.

"The truth is we're all one," he says. "Love is the answer. And now is the time."

He doesn't hold himself up as a prophet or a guru or a sole source of inspiration for his followers. But he believes God chose him to lead his family members as they personally experience their own transcendental revelations.

Views vary

Differing perceptions of Love and the Israel family are almost unreconcilable.

Newspaper stories from the mid-1980s paint an unhealthy scene: children forbidden to call their parents "mom" and "dad"; a teen claiming he was given LSD at age 5; the commonplace use of drugs, in part for spiritual enhancement; Love's one-man control over finances and all aspects of life, even endorsing or nixing members' sexual unions.

Love — and other family members — say their earlier experimentation with drugs and sexuality were simply a reflection of what was happening during the flower-powered 1960s, the swinging '70s and the cocaine-flavored '80s.

Now they're older and wiser. They long ago gave up eccentricities such as refusing to give their ages — yes, they believe their souls are eternal, but they do have birth dates for their current incarnations.

And Love is adamant that he never gave drugs to children. He's very proud of his own 11 offspring — nine of them college graduates — and his dozen grandchildren.

Born in Berlin, Love moved to Seattle at age 7 with his mother and four siblings. At 15, he moved to Switzerland, living with an aunt and uncle while attending school. Two years later, he returned to Seattle.

Love married his first wife at 21 and invested some family money into his first business: a small chain of Seattle and Tacoma television stores.

The 'love thing'

Around 1965, Love started to notice "this hippie thing, this love thing."

In 1967, he threw a big party, gave away everything he owned and headed to San Francisco with only $50. Once there, he said, he stopped off at the first church he saw and stuffed all of his cash into a church-fund box.

"You just put it in God's bank and see if it gets any interest."

Love was 27 when he had his pivotal vision, during a drug trip in his Haight-Ashbury apartment. He was sitting on his bed talking with Brian Allen, a casual friend at the time, when he claims he saw Jesus in Allen's eyes.

"I saw love, I saw forgiveness. I saw a million symbols, all in a second," he said.

About a year later, Love returned to Seattle, rented a small house on Queen Anne and began attracting his first followers.

"It was a place to meditate," he said. "If you came there, I expected you to meditate until you saw something."

Life on Queen Anne

The Israel family was a colorful and eventually accepted presence on Queen Anne, at one point owning 17 brightly-painted houses clustered in three groups. Family members ripped down fences between their uniquely renovated houses, creating common areas planted with flowering trees and grape arbors.

Two houses on 6th Avenue West near West Halladay Street were combined to create the distinctive family sanctuary, complete with a solarium and greenhouses. The family operated several neighborhood enterprises — a health-food store, a woodworking shop and an art gallery — and offered free meals and shelter at its Front Door Inn.

While some area residents worried about the family's eccentricities and counterculture habits — including drug use — others praised the group for fixing up eyesores. Family members renovated numerous old houses and transformed empty, weedy lots into gardens.

Family members were easily recognized, with long hair and colorful, flowing robes. Their children — Love didn't believe in birth control — were well-behaved, often seen in supervised groups.

Men ruled all households, loose collections of families and single members who shared meals and other basics.

It was a fun era, family members say. Life was nomadic, with many members cycling between Queen Anne, the Arlington ranch, Eastern Washington and family properties in Hawaii and Alaska.

The 1983 breakup

A group of family elders triggered the breakup in 1983, demanding that Love relinquish his one-man control over the family's finances. He was portrayed as abusing cocaine and living in luxury while the family's home-schooled children lacked basic supplies and farmworkers at the Arlington ranch needed work boots.

Love continues to deny those accusations.

When he refused to share financial control, the dissenters filed a lawsuit seeking the return of assets given to the family by newly disgruntled members — including Daniel Gruener, who had inherited nearly $1.6 million after he joined.

Love agreed to a settlement that gave Gruener — the former Richness Israel — all the family's Seattle real estate, including much property on Queen Anne Hill. Love signed over the family's businesses — a construction company, the grocery/deli — to their individual managers.

Today, he says he has no regrets about his handling of the mutiny. The rebels had no experience handling large sums of money, Love said, who invested much of the family's funds in real estate.

Although new members were required to turn over all their possessions and bank accounts to Love, he laughs at accusations that he lived off those resources.

"People didn't usually bring much to me. By the time they got to me, they didn't have anything left."

Gruener's wealth was a glaring exception to the rule, he said.

Love fled to Los Angeles in January 1984 with Honesty and their children, whom they feared might be taken by the state Child Protective Services.

Family scatters

With Love gone and loyalties split, about two-thirds of the family scattered into the outside world. About 40 Love supporters — including many children — moved to the Arlington ranch and another 30 followed him to Los Angeles. About 18 months later, they all regrouped in Arlington.

Many who left in turmoil decades ago still treasure their continuing family friendships and hold true to the Israel spiritual ideals.

Carnation artist Bruce Edwards, 58, who went by Imagination Israel during his 14 years with the family, remains cynical about the way Love exercised power. But he doesn't regret his own experiences and says nobody was "brainwashed."

"I don't think there were any victims," Edwards said.

"There are people who argue with me, (but) I had both eyes open. I did what I did there with pretty high intentions."

Serious Israel, a family elder since the Queen Anne era, stressed the participatory nature of the family's spiritual beliefs: Members don't blindly accept Love's teachings; they personally experience them.

The two principal leaders of the 1983 rebellion, Brian Allen and Neil Vonhof, both declined to be interviewed for this story. Allen, the son of comedian Steve Allen, managed the family's Seattle businesses and went by the name Logic Israel. Vonhof, formerly Strength Israel, ran the Arlington ranch.

Today, Allen owns 10 Windermere real-estate offices in Portland. Vonhof is a manager at Morgan Stanley's Seattle investment-banking office.

Gruener, 58, who lives on a small ranch near China Bend, remains bitter about Love. He's cynical about the family's latest bankruptcy, which he blames on Love's personal extravagances and financial decisions.

He is conflicted about his experiences with the Israel family and with Love. He says his experiences were meaningful, but he continues to feel ripped off.

"When people joined the family, they didn't join because of Love Israel. They joined because they found people who were loving and caring and beautiful and magnanimous," he said. "They devoted their lives to a family, and in exchange they weren't satisfied. I guess there was a hole in the tub."

Life in Arlington

At the Arlington ranch, Love lived in relative abundance while some members of the family still lived in small cabins and untraditional housing, such as single-story wood frames topped with yurts. The ranch's sanctuary — a lovingly converted barn — doubled as Love's home.

The main gathering space was a beautiful, high-ceilinged room with cherry-wood-inlaid maple flooring and ornamental beams of fir, arched to create a churchlike feeling. Area rugs were scattered artistically around the floor. Banners symbolizing the tribes of Judah hung from the walls.

Drapes at one end of the room opened to reveal Love's bedroom; above the doorway hung a mammoth, symbol-laden painting depicting the departure of Moses from Egypt. Musical instruments were everywhere: a grand piano, an antique harp, electric guitars and noisemakers such as drums, tambourines, maracas and bells.

An expensive Danish sound system filled the room with music. During his final weeks in the sanctuary, Love kept the same six discs randomly playing — light jazz, Pavarotti, The Band.

"That house represents all of us deciding to make Love's home our cultural center, where we put our finest craftsmanship, our most beautiful artwork, our music," Serious explained. "It's not like Love is this rich man living on the hill. It's where our action is. It's where we have all of our parties, all of our meetings. He has no privacy, really."

For years the Israel family struggled with Snohomish County to legalize its existence. Family members dreamed of creating something called Jordan Village, with homes scattered in a casual way on the hillside and around a central marketplace featuring organic produce and crafts. Cars would park on the village perimeter.

But that vision, a throwback to medieval days, didn't mesh with modern growth-management rules. The ranch is zoned for one home per five acres; most of its 10 existing structures were built illegally.

Love blames the county for the family's bankruptcy. While working to legalize Jordan Village, the family sank deeper and deeper in debt, borrowing money from several banks. Finally, the debts mounted too high and it all crashed.

Bob Drewel, who just finished 12 years as Snohomish County executive, is pragmatic about the family's development problems. It was a simple matter of obeying the rules, he said, adding that nobody deserves "special treatment."

The greater Arlington community has mixed feelings about the family, which for several years operated a popular gourmet restaurant in the city's small downtown.

The area's more conservative faction viewed the Israels with suspicion and dislike and assumed the ranch was a bastion of drug activity.

Others admired the family's commitment to an idealistic lifestyle.

"I've had very inspiring interactions with both the adults and the students there," said Irene Simpson, an Arlington High School teacher. "I feel very supportive of them as very creative and enlightened people. You won't meet any adults there who aren't intriguing."

She and Drewel, who lives outside Arlington, both stressed that Israel kids tend to be well-behaved and respectful. And both singled out a current high-school senior, New Israel, for praise.

New recently starred in the school's production of "Footloose," which Simpson directed. He also plays guitar and sings in the school's Jazzmine group.

One of Love's sons, Clean Israel, starred on the school's football team, later playing for the University of Washington.

The move east

The move to Eastern Washington entails another family split. Two households — with 10 adults and six children — are staying behind. But the Israel community is at peace with that decision.

"There's no bitterness like there was in '84," Serious said. "Even the people who are choosing a different path aren't doing it with any kind of negativity. It's almost a karmic healing process. It's bringing that divorce chapter to a close."

As he prepared to leave his home of the past 20 years, Love was stoic about his Israel experiences.

If he had to do it all over again, including the Queen Anne mess, he wouldn't change a thing. He said he's a different person now — "much more gentle" — so the question is meaningless.

"From our point of view, nothing went wrong. It all went right. We got rid of all the people who didn't believe," he said. "The ones who are still here when we have white hair and white beards, they're the ones that won the game."Diane Brooks: 425-745-7802 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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