Bankruptcy may be Love Israel family’s salvation

Hippie community, lured into rat race, seeks true path again
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mar. 1, 2003
http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/
By JENNIFER LANGSTON, SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER

ARLINGTON — The cavernous greenhouse near the entrance to the Love Israel family’s ranch held great promise when they borrowed money to build it.

These former flower children, who once refused to touch dollar bills, would grow and sell organic cucumbers to help save their debt-ridden communal home.

But like so many other of the counterculture group’s business ventures — from a white tablecloth bistro to an ambitious wood milling business — the profits disappeared. Blight infected the cucumbers, and their entire crop withered.

Faced with those failures, the man known as Love Israel and the family’s corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this week in a last-ditch effort to prevent two banks from foreclosing on their Snohomish County ranch.

They’ve been unable to pay back $3.2 million in loans taken out to settle old debts, wage legal battles, launch cottage industries and pursue development plans.

The bankruptcy filing is the latest twist in the odyssey of a religious family that got its start on Queen Anne Hill in the 1960s and moved to Snohomish County after an internal breakup that members still refer to as “the divorce.”

Now, after efforts to preserve their lifestyle led them into the rat race they had tried to avoid, the aging hippies who remained together say the financial implosion may have set them free.

“What we created was a culture where everyone got in their cars to go to jobs that made no money,” said Ammishaddai Israel, who has raised five children on the 300-acre ranch.

“We’d rather lose everything than stay on the treadmill we were on. It was killing us.”

Culture centered on love

The Love Israel clan — roughly 55 family members bound together by decades of shared experiences — lives in canvas yurts, cabins, homes and a renovated barn connected by gravel paths in the woods.

They have names like Honesty, Brotherhood, Calm and Pure, symbolizing their belief that each person has the potential to represent an aspect of Jesus Christ. Each assumes the last name Israel.

Love Israel, born in Germany as Paul Erdman, founded the community in the heyday of flower power on Queen Anne hill, where likeminded hippies created their own culture centered on love and shared spiritual revelations.

In the late 1970s, they bought the Snohomish County ranch, where family members homesteaded in Army tents, tepees and buses. They made their own clothes and plowed the ground with Belgian draft horses.

A wave of disillusionment swept through the family in 1983, when key members accused their leader of cocaine use and selfish spending on luxuries after a new member turned over a large inheritance. Loyalists believe those perceptions were exaggerated.

“I think everyone had plenty of everything,” Love Israel said. “When we had a lot of money all of a sudden, that really soured people’s attitudes.”

In a painful split, most of the family’s 350 members chose to leave. Others retreated to the hills southeast of Arlington after losing their homes, a cannery, a horse ranch and other properties to settle a lawsuit.

The family has long wanted to create a self-sustaining village there, a 1960s-inspired Williamsburg where visitors might watch craft-making, get a massage, buy fresh herbs, eat dinner or hike around picturesque Butterfly Lake.

While struggling with Snohomish County over zoning issues, a group that once so disdained money that it paid rent in jewels launched an entrepreneurial assault from Arlington to Seattle. They started restaurants and cafes, coffee shops and vegetable stands.

As a result, the place where the family created an alternative universe based on three principles — we are one, love is the answer and now is the time — seemed like a ghost town some days.

The family still had celebrations and weekly meetings where everyone sat in a circle, listened to Love Israel and sang songs inspired by everything from Buffalo Springfield grooves to biblical psalms. They saw each other far more often than your average suburban neighbors.

But they say they had lost the rich daily interactions of work that had made communal life so rewarding.

Now family members have returned to the greenhouse that was largely ignored, turning it into a place where they can grow food and work communally, regardless of whether the profits pencil out.

They’re also looking for developers and donors to help preserve all or parts of the ranch, valued at $6.5 million. Bankruptcy will give them more time to seek donations, sell off lots or find investors to help them address the debt.

“It’s almost like this was meant to happen to get us back to ourselves,” said Love Israel, the 62-year-old former salesman turned spiritual leader. “All of a sudden, this great wound opened up and everything started bleeding money. It was the day the cash flow died.”

Starry-eyed plans

For years, the family juggled old loans and borrowed money for new ventures, hoping something would pull them out of the red. Nothing worked.

Business at their downtown Arlington restaurant — an upscale bistro renowned for fine wines and gourmet food — dropped dramatically in the economic downturn. The family sold it earlier this year.

They built custom houses on outlying lots and wound up with an $850,000 home with maple floors, a gourmet kitchen, jetted tubs, exposed beams and a wraparound porch that’s still on the market.

A wood milling business designed to take trees off a property and convert them to homes went belly-up after Canadian manufacturers flooded the market with cheaper wood.

“It was a pretty audacious thing to try, but we like doing things really well as a people,” said Serious Israel, a longtime family spokesman. “We’re learning that the hard way — learning how to be more practical.”

Even smaller enterprises seemed doomed: a shop selling coffee roasted on the ranch lost its lease several years ago after a grocery chain decided to convert to Tully’s franchises.

A bank that’s owed $1.6 million successfully sued the family to stop them from selectively logging the property, one option the family had used to raise quick cash.

Such utopian and alternative communities have always struggled to finance their idealism.

Some have been wildly successful — like the religious communities of the 19th century that gave birth to Amana refrigerators and Oneida silverware. Others have supported themselves by weaving rope hammocks, making soy products or delivering rural mail.

But alternative communities tend to attract people who think mainstream options don’t work for them, said Laird Schaub, executive secretary for the Fellowship for Intentional Communities.

“A lot of the things people are reacting to include commercialism and materialism. But unfortunately, the requirements of making a living in the world mean you’ve got to come to grips with it on some level,” he said.

Some alternative communities have developed spas or resorts — a concept that the Love Israel family wants to pursue.

They’re encouraged by recent conversations with the county suggesting that a retreat center could be a solution to their intractable zoning problems. They’re seeking partners to finance land improvements, with family members acting as caretakers, cooks and entertainers.

“We decided to focus on our strengths, which is hosting. We can throw a hell of a party,” said Ammishaddai Israel, a graphic designer.

The financial crisis is forcing the family to rethink its priorities, including a return to a simpler life with fewer expenses. They want to revive community projects reminiscent of the Queen Anne days — organizing litter patrols, helping elderly shut-ins or sponsoring food exchanges.

“We’d like to go back to the original idea of faith and helping people, whether we got paid or not,” said Love Israel. “I want to not be involved in all that red tape and all the things people can get stuck in.”

Housing problems

The family’s protracted land-use struggles started with a letter the county sent in the late 1980s saying that members’ unorthodox homes lacked building permits and violated zoning codes.

They wanted to continue to live in a tightly clustered community, rather than spread out on subdivided lots, as the rural zoning required.

Their legal challenges failed — but the housing stalemate persists more than a decade later. Family members have lived illegally in everything from renovated duck coops to one-room cabins to homes in various stages of construction.

“If (the county) could have come out here and looked at how we had to live because of that, they would have been ashamed,” said Rejoice Israel, one of the family’s most devoted gardeners, who helped raise five children in a 450-square-foot canvas yurt.

“Living in crowded conditions with little kids is OK. But you can only live in a one-room tent with teenagers for so long.”

The inability to build legal homes has meant that second-generation children who would like to live on the ranch can’t. The number of people living on the property has dwindled from a high of about 80.

Family members maintain that rules made for commercial developers don’t work for such a community. The county didn’t agree and never approved the family’s application to create a rural village under an experimental housing program.

“There was a difficulty there in matching the vision of what they wanted to do and what the county would allow,” said Susan Scanlan, a planner for Snohomish County.

‘A charmed existence’

A strong sense of family is central to the Israel culture.

Each Saturday morning, dozens gather for their version of church, sitting on pillows in a wide circle, playing instruments, singing from the family songbook. A giddy toddler turns somersaults in the middle.

Love Israel, dressed in sweats, a black turtleneck and socks, talks a mile a minute in a big sanctuary streaming with light from a window shaped like the star of David.

He preaches the value of forgiveness, of permanence of family, the uselessness of holding grudges and the importance of sticking together.

Later, talk turns to the mundane details of which kids will wash the motor home that afternoon and who’s attending an informal pruning class in the orchard.

Robert Balch, a University of Montana sociologist who studied the family’s early days and breakup, isn’t surprised that people who were once so committed to the present moment that they renounced clocks didn’t thrive in the business realm.

But the family has always lived a charmed existence, he said.

“I always called them the Teflon cult, because nothing ever stuck to them,” he said. “Somehow they always managed to skate through, which I always saw as one of the cool things about the Love family.”

Family members say the bonds that come from living with other people for decades, knowing their breaking points, having the fights and working through issues serve as their own social security. They have little doubt a core group will stay together.

Most believe Love Israel will find a way to keep everyone on the land. These days, he’s busy meeting potential investors, bankers and lawyers.

“The best result is that someone who thinks like us and has money could step in and help create a beautiful organic community,” he said. “Right now we may be low on substance, but we’re deep in faith.”

Commitment Israel is a 14-year-old who grew up on the ranch. Out in the orchard, shears in hand, she says it’s the times when the family comes together that she loves the most.

The days when they harvest the apples, run them through a press and make endless gallons of juice. The Easter celebrations when the kid who finds the golden egg gets to be king of his own party. Afternoons when family members just hang out, blow bubbles and fly kites.

No matter what happens, she believes the children who grew up together will always find their way back to each other.

“I think this family is pretty solid. The family is together and I think we’re together for good. We’re pretty good at going with the flow,” she said.

COMING UP … The Love Israel family lives an unconventional life. With names like Calm and Honesty, roughly 55 family members live in yurts, cabins and houses in Snohomish County. Saturday mornings, dozens gather to sit on pillows in a wide circle, playing instruments and singing from the family songbook.

P-I photographer Meryl Schenker spent time at the Love Israel ranch over three years, capturing the family’s ceremonies and celebrations along with daily life. We share her impressions and images in Tuesday’s Lifestyle section.

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