Twelve Tribes sect denies charges of child labor abuse

Associated Press/April 13, 2001

Cambridge, NY -- The Twelve Tribes community opened Common Sense Farm to the press this week to defend against allegations of child labor, cultism, racism and anti-Semitism.

The communal group, which lives on a 120-acre farm on North Union Street, called a press conference Thursday in response to a Sunday New York Post article that made claims that the group called "false, unfounded and slanderous." The state Labor Department had said it was looking into the alleged child-labor violations.

The meeting was held in the farm's Common Sense Natural Soap & Body Care facility, where until recently the group made products for an Estee Lauder line called Origins.

The company terminated the contract after children were found in the facility during an inspection on Feb. 8, company officials said. Twelve Tribes member Robert Racine said two 14-year-old boys were simply helping out their fathers by opening and taping boxes.

He said the term child labor conjures up visions of filthy and dangerous working conditions, forced labor and depriving children of an education. None of that was happening, Racine said.

Instead, he said, the small cottage industries at some Twelve Tribes communities play an important role in the education of children. The community feels that working and spending time with a parent is better than children in a society who have little parental guidance, he said.

Racine said the group has met with Labor Department officials and will abide by any decision the agency makes. Brian Fenster, another member, said the incident was isolated, and children normally don't help with production.

Several members spoke out against the characterization of their community as a cult. Jean Swantko Wiseman said they do insulate themselves from "popular culture" because there is little about it that they admire, but they are not isolationists. She said they live among their Cambridge neighbors and anyone is free to leave.

The 28 worldwide Twelve Tribes communities have Semitic roots and worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Religion plays an essential part in the lives of the 70 or so members at the Common Sense Farm where the group gathers in daily prayer.

John Stringer, one of several black members, said a New York Post quote that the Twelve Tribes teaches racism is "absurd." Stringer said he was born and raised in the South and knows firsthand what racism is.

Twelve Tribes member Stuart Lavin made a similar argument about the group being anti-Semitic, saying he was raised in the Orthodox Jewish tradition and is "old enough to remember the reality of anti-Semitism in America."

Twelve Tribes members in Cambridge declined to comment on how much money was lost when Estee Lauder terminated its contract, but said it was never considered a long-term business. The Common Sense Farm had made products for Origins since 1995.

"Origins as a corporation cannot assume the risk of association with an entity like ours that comes so close to the limits of the letter of the law," Racine said. "We aren't afraid of that risk, for we understand the spirit of the law," he said.

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