Feb 25, 2014

Former Yahweh followers speak out

Atlantic City Press, March 6, 2005
By Andrew Johnson, Staff Writer

For bitter irony, Diane McCafferty's story ranks high. She claims that what seemed at the time a harmless Bible study contributed to her first husband's death at 41. Almost as bad, she says, it is now costing her a relationship with her oldest daughter, and keeping her from knowing her granddaughter. "I've seen her once," she says of granddaughter Hannah. "The day she was born."

McCafferty's daughter Jennifer is in the Restored Israel of Yahweh, a Hamilton Township religious sect that was started three decades ago.

Senior member Kevin McKee said recently by phone that his group is about a "beautiful reading of the Scriptures" - nothing more, nothing less. He says that the media, particularly this newspaper, has painted a falsely sinister picture of the group over the years.

Five former members of the group who sat down for an interview at The Press of Atlantic City's newsroom this week disagreed. All said the group had broken apart families, dividing those who were still in the group and those who had left it. All said they had experienced deep pain because of their involvement with the group, which they never considered when joining a Christian sect.

"After this (speaking with The Press), she'll probably never speak to me," McCafferty says about her daughter. But she doesn't know what else to do, she says.

McCafferty wants her daughter to leave the group. But her daughter won't talk to her. Their relationship was severed when McCafferty left the group after 23 years in 1996.

Federal prosecutors, in a tax-evasion case last year involving three members, characterized the Restored Israel of Yahweh as a cult.

On April 1, McKee, 47, Joseph Donato, 46, and his wife, Inge Donato, 44, will likely face two years in prison for tax evasion, failure to file taxes and conspiracy to defraud the government in U.S. District Court in Camden.

McKee disputed the characterization of a cult in the courtroom. "I can show you the houses," said McKee, noting that members' homes looked nothing like a compound.

Whatever it is, the group started as a Bible study class held on Pine Avenue in McKee City 32 years ago. What it evolved into was an exclusive religious community in which children attend school among other group members, separated from non-Yahwehans.

Nicole Czechowski, a former member, is convinced the group is a cult. Because she believed the group was harmful, at least to members themselves, she reported the group to an Internal Revenue Service investigator in 1999. The group, on its own Web site, says it does not pay federal taxes because it does not support war.

"Joe and Inge were my best friends, and I'm responsible for them going to jail," Czechowski says of the likely possibility her former friends will now go to prison. "But maybe it's better than losing your mind," she says.

A sense of extreme isolation and group pressure is what makes a cult, according to a group that studies sects, the International Cultic Studies Association. Czechowski, of Mount Laurel, says the isolationist mindset, and why it's bad, is hard to fathom unless you experience it first-hand.

For Czechowski, it took her 13 years, until she saw TV images of death and destruction from Waco, Texas, in 1993, to have it hit home.

"Oh my god, I'm in a cult," she says she recalls thinking as she watched the 51-day Branch Davidian stand-off.

She left the group the same year.

Debbie Czechowski, 48, is Nicole's sister-in-law. She believed she was in a cult, she says, even before 1993, but decided the time to leave was with her brother Kevin and Nicole. She says the effect of leaving the group was traumatic. "I was a 35-year-old woman and I was scared I was going to do something wrong," she says.

According to the former members interviewed by The Press, their involvement with the Restored Israel of Yahweh didn't start out with acrimony. It started with happiness.

McCafferty, who lived in Somers Point at the time, says she attended some of the first local Bible classes in 1973. Her then-husband, Jim, brought her. The 52-year-old Bridgeton woman says the group's original message was very much in step with what had been happening in the 1960s. It was based on Christianity and living a thoughtful life, she says. "Who wouldn't want a peaceful world?"

Those peaceful thoughts didn't last.

McCafferty says she soon learned that following the group's desires could have devastating consequences.

One rule of the group was that you didn't see doctors or go to hospitals, she says. If you were sick, it meant that you were not right with Yahweh. She says her husband was told exactly that. "He wasn't good enough, he wasn't strong enough."

McCafferty says Jim complained of heart disease symptoms, but wanted to remain faithful to the group's beliefs. "I can remember him crying on the bed, saying 'What's the matter with me, am I wicked?'" She says her husband dropped dead one day.

McCafferty blames herself for her husband's death as much as anyone, but says she and her husband were brainwashed.

McCafferty says she suffered a near nervous breakdown after her husband's death, and admits she became a bad mother to her four children. She says she simply lost control of her life. McCafferty blames herself for her oldest Jennifer, staying in the group.

In a way, McCafferty says, she understood why Jennifer stayed. She was 21 when she joined the group. Jennifer was also in her early 20s when McCafferty left.

Debbie Czechowski has two nieces in their early 20s, who stayed behind in the group. Like McCafferty, she does not talk to them.

The group believes that Yahweh - a Hebrew name for God - will destroy the Earth and set up a Holy Kingdom of saved souls, the Restored Israel of Yahweh. About 25 members attended December's trial in Camden.

Over the last 30 years, the group has avoided serious trouble, save the most recent conviction.

In the last three decades, the group has prepared for their new kingdom by building houses on and near Third Avenue in the remote Weymouth section of Hamilton Township. What McKee told the jury in December is correct. The group's houses look nothing like the cultlike "compound" prosecutors described to jurors. They are ordinary houses. According to former member Dave Moran, there are six houses, although there were originally plans for 42. The future kingdom was referred to as "The 42," he says.

At least 50 people have left the group in the last 12 years, according to Czechowski.

The houses are key to understanding why there is so much disenchantment experienced by some group members, Czechowski says.

The houses reflect the mental pressure placed on members to stay in good standing with the group, she says. If you pleased group founder Leo Volpe, and did everything he and his partner Esther asked of you, you were promised a house in the kingdom. Czechowski, like many, never got a house.

The ones who did are: the Donatos and McKee, whose business McKee Donato Construction Co. built the houses. The Tamuts, Virginia and Claire, also have houses. The Tamuts are the family of Esther McKee, the current wife of McKee.

Not everyone left because of the way the group operated. Others found fault with the group's beliefs.

At the December trial, current Atlantic City Rescue Mission CEO Bill Southery said he left the group because he no longer believed what group founder Volpe said.

Volpe died in 2000 at the age of 83. The Atlantic City native claimed to be the prophet Jeremiah. He claimed he would live forever and lead the new restored kingdom in Weymouth.

Moran, who left the group in 2002, says the group in recent years modified its beliefs to make sense of Volpe's death. Volpe is now watching over them in Heaven, and was too pure for this world, but is still Jeremiah, the group now believes.

Of the five members who spoke with The Press, Moran says he was the only one kicked out by the group, and did not leave. The reason he was kicked out, Moran says, is that others in the group didn't think he would stand up to the IRS enough during their investigation.

Moran describes his new life as difficult but easier than the one he spent 25 years living. That, he says, was: "One foot after another, hoping you don't fall off a cliff."

To e-mail Andrew Johnson at The Press: AJohnson@pressofac.com