Yahweh family promotes its faith

Miami Herald/June 20, 1999
By Curtis Morgan

It's a handsome family portrait -- father, mother, five children, all dressed in white robes and turbans. Along with it are a scriptural citation, names, home address, phone number and two words that make this billboard more than just another roadside advertisement:

The Yahwehs.

In South Florida, the reputation is notorious: A killer cult led by self-proclaimed Black Messiah, Yahweh Ben Yahweh.

Are they back? Not exactly. But at least two, Hadad Baraq Ben Yahweh and his wife Kebar Te'Miymah Bath Yahweh, believe it's time for fellow Yahwehs to "finally stand up again" to extol the kinder, gentler side of the sect depicted in the billboard's family-values image.

The couple paid $22,000 to spread the word for a month, an effort intended to call forth closeted followers and send positive messages about a movement they believe has been unfairly maligned since the 1992 jailing of their spiritual leader on racketeering charges linked to 14 murders.

"A lot of people out there have been wondering, `What happened to the Yahwehs?' " Hadad said. "The Yahwehs are alive and strong."

How strong is tough to say. The billboards -- one on Interstate 95 in Miami, the other off U.S. 1 in Homestead -- are an isolated, unusually public display. While Yahwehs produce national television and radio shows, an Internet site and a Miami-based legal defense fund, most won't talk about their activities.

Outsiders, notably some neighbors in the pastoral slice of Redland suburbia where Hadad and Kebar settled in August, remain leery. While she stresses the family has caused no problems, Karen Richmond, who lives nearby, said residents can't help but be concerned because of the sect's bizarre, bloody reputation.

"It's like, OK, what's going to go on around here?" she said. Sect has criminal image

Yahweh Ben Yahweh, projected for release from federal prison in Ray Brook, N.Y., in January 2002, ranks among South Florida's most controversial figures.

In 1981, he opened the Temple of Love in Liberty City, proclaiming himself a prophet who would lead Hebrew Israelites to the ancient promised land. He won thousands of followers nationwide but made inner city Miami center of the Yahweh universe, boasting Yahweh markets, hotels, restaurants and beauty parlors.

In 1992, a federal court jury convicted him and six followers for conspiracy in a string of slayings of former followers, one found beheaded in the Everglades, business competitors, critics and "white devils" picked at random.

While he didn't kill anyone himself, prosecutors say he dispatched murderous "death angels," preached violently racist propaganda and exploited followers to amass a multimillion-dollar real estate empire.

Hadad, who says he came to Miami in 1987 after years of studying Yahweh's teaching, blamed those past "confusions" on a "few bad seeds" who tarnished the character of a religion practiced by many upstanding citizens. "People don't seem to realize, you had a lot of good people in there, doctors, lawyers, police officers."

Most of the negative perceptions about Yahweh practices rose from myths intended to discredit the sect, said Hadad. For instance, while Yahweh preached about "white devils," Hadad said, he also taught that devils came in all colors and "that the black man was the original devil."

The faith, Hadad said, stresses responsibility and the importance of family -- the image he tried to portray in the billboards, a combination public relations statement and recruitment poster.

"This gives another viewpoint. How can you attack us? What are you going to say, we're a threat to the community?" Suburban lifestyle

The Yahwehs do seem to meet typical suburban success standards. Both 42, they've been married 22 years. Their children are obedient, respectful and quiet. In August, they bought their three-bedroom, three-bath, 2,818-square foot home on an acre-plus for $172,500, a bargain from a couple who dropped the original asking price some $70,000.

It's "our patch of Eden," says Hadad -- The American Dream with Yahweh accents. There's an indoor atrium with waterfall, hot tub, big-screen TV, high-end stereo, exercise equipment, even a pair of collies in the huge yard. There are also Hebrew symbols, framed photos of Yahweh Ben Yahweh, closets full of white clothes, a Yahweh flag fluttering outside and Hadad's wooden staff of life leaning in a corner.

The Miami billboard came down last week. The Homestead one will remain up until month's end. The $22,000 cost for a month's message? A small price fo a lifetime of enlightenment from Yahweh, said Kebar. "No amount would be enough."

Hadad, whose name translates to "mighty deliverer of Yahweh," hopes the billboards prompt followers or those who might have left to contact him and help reassemble the splintered sect.

After Yahweh was jailed, Hadad said, "a lot of us became afraid, just like in the days of Jesus. His disciples, his followers, as committed as they were, they became intimidated and scattered."

In Miami, legal fees cost the Yahwehs their properties, either sold or foreclosed on. The Temple of Love, for one, now holds salvaged parts from wrecked cars. Many followers left but Hadad believes "thousands" kept faith and remain in Miami-Dade, though far fewer wear the white that once made them so visible.

But it's hard to pin down numbers, or much else, with the Yahwehs, deeply suspicious of the media. Aside from Hadad and Kebar, others refused to speak.

One group called P.E.E.S.S., based in Seguin, Texas, outside San Antonio, produces both a radio show and television show, The Universe of Yahweh, which plays Sunday evenings on the public access channel of at least one South Florida cable outlet. The group also operates the Yahweh Ben Yahweh web page, which argues that the jailed leader is the innocent victim of government persecution and, like Jesus Christ, was betrayed by a Judas follower -- star witness Robert Rozier, a former football player and confessed murderer of seven men, who cut a deal to testify. They did not return calls or e-mail inquiries.

The Abraham Foundation, a nonprofit Miami corporation registered as "a legal defense fund for indigent Hebrew Israelites" also did not respond to calls to its office nor the homes of officers in Miami, Durham, N.C., and Seguin.

Citing religious beliefs, Hadad and Kebar also politely but adamantly declined to provide much personal background, including their original names or what they did for a living.

"Yahweh provides," Hadad said. So does the U.S. Postal Service, where neighbors said they worked. The Postal Service confirmed Hadad is a letter carrier, employed since 1990, and Kebar a clerk, employed since 1985. The couple also provided a business card saying they are real estate investors.

After graciously speaking with The Herald for nearly two hours, Hadad and Kebar also asked to have their names and pictures withdrawn. "This appears to be another smear campaign to attack my family's character and continue the assassination of Yahweh Ben Yahweh's name," Hadad wrote in a letter. Prosecutor concerned

While she did not know Hadad or Kebar, Trudy Novicki, a chief assistant Miami-Dade state attorney who helped prosecute Yahweh Ben Yahweh in federal court, had heard about the billboards. After encountering what she believes were Yahwehs preaching in downtown Miami, she suspects the sect may slowly be trying to rebuild its presence.

"I'm concerned that this group still has support in Miami," she said. No matter the message members espouse now, the sect has a deadly history, she said. The case put 22 people in the witness protection plan and prosecutors had to employ bodyguards because of death threats.

"I believe that Yahweh Ben Yahweh and his teachings were very dangerous, that he incited violence in his followers and that any person who follows him is putting themselves in a dangerous position."

In The Redland, the attitude so far has been a wary welcome. Aside from immediately painting their house white, the family hadn't done much to attract attention. The Yahwehs, neighbors say, seem pleasant and family-oriented, playing basketball outside or bicycling but keep to themselves to the point they don't let their children play with other neighborhood kids.

They take good care of their dogs, noted Dot Brady, who was told by another nervous neighbor about who was moving in. "I didn't know a Yahweh from a Hebrew, so it didn't bother me."

Word of the billboard, which includes the home address, caused the first real ripple of worry, said neighbor Richmond. "That's not a good thing only because it's exposing our area to more people. If I see them holding meetings, I would really get pretty nervous."

While he hopes other Yahwehs might use his home as a "contact point," Hadad said there are no plans to turn it into temple. "This is our home, that's all."

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