An 'immortal' leader has a very mortal end

The Press Of Atlantic City, Sunday, May 21, 2000
By Elaine Rose

The Restored Israel of Yahweh believed their leader was immortal. Lionel "Leo" J. Volpe was said to be the resurrected biblical prophet Jeremiah, who would lead them and the rest of the world into God's kingdom. They were wrong.

Volpe died on April 13 at Shore Memorial Hospital, according to his death certificate filed with the city of Somers Point. He was 83. Volpe suffered a stroke in late 1992 and was sent home after a brief hospital stay, former group members said. The men in the Restored Israel of Yahweh set up a rotation schedule to nurse him around the clock. The group was visible in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s as they set up pickets on the Atlantic City Boardwalk and other locations around southern New Jersey. In recent years, they kept a low profile and refused interviews with the media.

The Restored Israel of Yahweh also accumulated earthly assets. More than 250 acres of land in Hamilton Township, assessed at nearly $1 million, is deeded to "Yahshuah Mawsheeach" - Hebrew for "Jesus the Messiah" - with Volpe as his "supreme earthly representative," according to records filed with the Atlantic County Clerk.

The group had 52 baptized members in 1990, when The Press of Atlantic City ran a story about the Restored Israel of Yahweh and its beliefs. Former members say that number is even smaller today. Which leads to the ultimate question: What happens to the group now that its "immortal" leader proved to be mortal after all?

Current group members refused to comment.

"You're trespassing," was the only statement made by Esther Volpe, the late leader's wife, when a reporter went to the Pine Avenue headquarters seeking an interview.

"There's no hard-and-fast rule," said Robert Helsabeck, a professor of sociology at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, who teaches a class on the sociology of religion. "In general, groups don't necessarily give up when their 'immortal' leader goes or their prophecy fails. They find some way of incorporating that into their beliefs and going on." On the other hand, if the group was losing membership, the death of the leader could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back, Helsabeck said.
"It depends on the group and how close-knit they are and how well he controlled them," said Carol Giambalvo, director of recovery for the American Family Foundation, a nonprofit research center that studies cults and related groups.

The group could choose another leader or the members could become discouraged and disband, Giambalvo said.

Humble beginnings

"It really started off as an innocent little Bible study," said Bill Southrey, who left the Restored Israel of Yahweh about 20 years ago and now is director of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission. "That built and grew and it took on a life of its own."

At the time, some religious communities were interested in eschatology, or study of the end of days, Southrey said. Volpe seemed well-versed in Scripture dealing with the end-times, such as the books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation.

Then Volpe started calling himself a prophet and later said he was the resurrected prophet Jeremiah, Southrey said.

He said he began to notice inconsistencies after a couple of dates that Volpe had predicted for Armageddon came and went without incident. Southrey left the group when it was clear that Volpe was not a true prophet because his predictions didn't come true.

Southrey said he has no regrets about the time he spent with the Restored Israel of Yahweh.

"That part of the journey was an exodus to where I am now. Even though it wasn't right, God used it for his own purposes," he said. In earlier interviews, Volpe said he hadn't paid federal income taxes since 1948, because it was an immoral war tax. In 1983, he served four months in federal prison for tax evasion.

The group paid local property taxes because they had no problem with supporting municipal services.

Volpe twice predicted the end of the world. In 1969, and again in 1985, God was supposed to destroy all temporal governments and establish his kingdom, with Volpe and other prophets as leaders. Membership of the Restored Israel of Yahweh would swell into the millions and the faithful would be granted everlasting life.

When Armageddon failed to occur on schedule, Volpe said he had another instruction from Yahweh to begin building a holy society of God here on Earth. The group acquired properties in the Weymouth section of Hamilton Township and built a sawmill and several homes. Members did the construction work and Volpe allowed faithful members to live in the homes rent-free.

Deserters of the kingdom

Members who questioned Volpe's prophecies or leadership were ordered to leave the group, former members said. Others said they left because they no longer believed Volpe's teachings.

In either case, they became outcasts and were not allowed to contact current members, even if they were close relatives.

That ostracism extended to Volpe's own son.

Dan Volpe, who has a business in Weymouth Township, said he had a brief association with the Restored Israel of Yahweh about 20 years ago. But he was ostracized from the group when he began to question inconsistencies in its teachings.

He became estranged from his father around the time the elder Volpe took sick in 1992, Dan Volpe said. Although he visited his father several times in the hospital, the Restored Israel of Yahweh members made it clear they didn't want him around.

"When he was sent home, the group sent me a letter stating that they did not want me to visit," Dan Volpe said. "After many years of conflict, I finally gave up and let them have their way."

"I learned of his death through (former members) two weeks after the fact," he added.

Earthly assets

In addition to the spiritual lives of the remaining members, there is the question of what will happen to Volpe's earthly acquisitions. Volpe controlled 253 acres of property in Hamilton Township, with a total assessment of $870,200, according to records on file in the Atlantic County Clerk's Office.

Former members said they were expected to do construction on the buildings and donate money toward payment of property taxes, but the land and homes remained in Volpe's name.

On May 2, Esther Volpe signed an affidavit with the county surrogate stating, "At the time of his death, my husband had no assets in his name." The owner of the parcels is listed as "Yahshua Mawsheeach, the king of the Restored Israel of Yahweh, Yahweh's only begotten son, now and forever reigning from the heavens, represented on Earth by Leo J. Volpe, the resurrected prophet Jeremiah, Yahshua Mawsheeach's supreme earthly representative" - or a similar wording - according to deeds on file with the Atlantic County Clerk.

Eight of the properties were given to "Yahshua Mawsheeach" by group members for free or for a consideration of $1, according to the deeds. Several lots were purchased in 1990 from the National Land Corporation for $58,000, and also were deeded to "Yahshua Mawsheeach" with Volpe as his representative. Four of the properties have houses, one is zoned industrial and the others are vacant, according to tax records.

The five-acre headquarters in Egg Harbor Township, assessed at $244,900, belongs to Esther Volpe, after the Restored Israel of Yahweh deeded it to her in 1990, according to county records.

Meanwhile, Southrey said he hopes the remaining members of the Restored Israel of Yahweh don't become disillusioned and forsake God altogether.

"I hope that the people who have clung to them for so long don't become jaded and deny the existence of a loving God who really does care for them," he said

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