A tamborine rattles and feet stomping on timber floorboards echoes down the dark garden path of this strange, old house.
Don’t bring anything, just yourself, were the instructions given by an intense man who stared deeply and refused to blink.
It’s a cold Friday night in the small town of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. Up the road, about 500m, backpackers and weekenders scurry into bars and restaurants to escape the icy air. But a stroll down Bathurst Road along the train line, there’s no one else. That’s when the tambourine rattles.
An electric doorbell is stuck to the side of the old home’s thick front door. The hi-tech convenience goes against the simple notions of the group that resides here. It’s just one of many contradictions.
Yellow light floods the darkness as a young man pulls the door open and loud renaissance music pours out with it. The stomping amplifies.
In the living room, a circle of young people spins around fast. It’s a blur of young men with leather headbands, little kids with long hair and young women covered up in floor-length skirts and baggy white blouses with braids down their backs.
They hold hands and thump their feet on the worn-out floorboards. Older members, also clothed in plain, conservative outfits, sit on the edges of the room and watch.
This is Friday night Shabbat at Balmoral House, one of the Sydney bases of controversial international religious group the Twelve Tribes. Its members are fiercely loyal to the conservative and reclusive practices. But those who have left the group tell a different story.
The group has faced global criticism for its views on race, homosexuality and child discipline teachings, which enforce hitting. In 2013, a police raid removed 40 children from a Twelve Tribes property in Germany after undercover footage captured repeated physical punishment of a number of children. This week, an investigation was launched in New York after an upstate property run by the tribe was allegedly found to be enforcing child labour.
As the circle spins inside the old house, a girl approaches with a tall glass of thick, purple liquid. Everyone stares until it’s sipped.
Rosemary Ilich remembers the day she decided to leave the Twelve Tribes after 13 years inside with her husband and three children.
“It’s like all my brainwashing came down. To realise what a crazy thing I’d been part of — a horrible thing — it’s like a bucket of cold ice thrown at your face,” she tells news.com.au about the day she quit in 2010, a short time after her husband and son left.
Matthew Klein had a similar feeling after he was kicked out in 2001. He managed to get his kids out, but his wife insisted on staying.
“I still remember lying in bed thinking, f**k, I was in a cult. It hit me like a tonne of bricks,” he tells news.com.au.
The group that promised unconditional love, acceptance and forgiveness became a horror that, for years, they couldn’t escape.
“It’s like your whole map of reality gets changed. You become your own enemy,” Mrs Ilich says. “So when you have healthy doubts, you think, no, that’s the devil talking to me. That’s what the teachings are there for. It’s for judging yourself, removing your sin and you become obsessed with that.”
On the surface, the fundamentalist organisation, which began 46 years ago in Chattanooga, Tennessee, offers members community and enlightenment and provides them with a simple, sustainable way of life. Its enforced beliefs are a mishmash of Judaism, Christianity and teachings written by founder Eugene Spriggs — a former carnival showman known to followers as “Yoneq”.
Its estimated 3000 members are placed in tribes across the US, Australia, Spain, Germany, France, Argentina, Canada and the Czech Republic. Tribes live together in self-sustaining communities, with many operating cafes — all named The Yellow Deli Cafe — in small nearby towns.
According to Mrs Ilich those who join the group are made to work tirelessly in the cafes or labour on the farms and in the households without payment.
“Bit by bit, you lose all your critical thinking,” Mrs Ilich says. “I did have red flags coming up but you always think it’s Satan. Because it’s all you hear about is Satan, all day. And you’re also supposed to confess things. You’re cut off from information — you can’t read the papers, I wasn’t allowed to drive, I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere. All there is is heavy repetition. Nothing else.”
Raphael Aron, director and counsellor of Cult Consulting Australia, has worked with former Twelve Tribes members after they’ve exited the group. He says communities like it can target a person’s desire to belong.
“There is no relationship between stability or intelligence and the human vulnerability to recruitment,” he says. “Some of the most prominent members … are highly educated individuals often with multiple college degrees.”
When members join the Twelve Tribes, they’re asked to sell any property or possessions and give all their earnings to the tribe. Inside, no one has savings and electronic items like phones, computers and televisions are not allowed.
“They tell you you can leave, but you can’t,” former member Greg Kelly tells news.com.au.
Inside the tribe’s dimly lit Yellow Deli Cafe in Katoomba this Friday afternoon, it’s all dark nooks and heavy varnished timbers. The strong smell of stewed meats and spices cloud the space. Tribe teachings and symbolic murals are painted on the wall. A small phrase is painted in cursive writing: “Eternity is a long, long time.”
A tall middle-aged man with greying hair walks up the stairs to the tiny second level. He leans over the railing next to the table, stares intently and introduces himself. All the other customers in the cafe are in groups. But at this small table sits a lone customer.
The man doesn’t blink. He stares deeply and talks slowly. He’s intense but welcoming. And almost insistent that the invitation to the tribe’s house be accepted. The mention of friends gets him excited. “Bring them!” he encourages, before off-loading a loaf of olive bread and a green super bar, specially made by the tribe.
A few days later, Mrs Ilich will explain the tribe’s obsession with bringing in new members.
“If people are not getting added to the community then it’s your fault. The problem is always with you — it’s never the leaders, because they represent God,” she says.
After the sun sets in the mountains and the temperature plunges, that’s when the tambourines and the purple juice and exotic smells ambush the senses.
“I’m so glad you came,” the man from the deli beams, pulling up chairs on the perimeter of the spinning circle.
Staring at the young people dancing, he explains a lot of them have been in the tribe since they were kids — some of them born into it. It’s hard to tell how old anyone is. The girl with the purple juice looks about 16. But the man says she’s in her 20s or 30s.
It’s difficult to identify or remember people. And everyone has a Hebrew name.
“They change Hebrew names all the time,” Mrs Ilich later explains. “I think it helps with confusing everyone. When you try find someone in there there’s five (people named) Emunah, Anav, Daveed, Israil. It’s easy to mask people.”
One of the young men here gave up his farm in Gunnedah to join the tribe. He met his wife here and, after marrying, they had a child. Their little blonde girl is not shy like the others and has cheekiness in her eyes.
You can only marry within the tribe, the man explains. If an attraction forms, the man and woman are required to go to the leaders (there’s three, but one main leader, it’s later said) for approval. Meetings are organised between the pair to talk. They’re not allowed to touch. These meetings can go for months until they decide they want to marry. It’s only after the wedding a couple can kiss.
“They don’t have birth control and they try to get the ladies to have as many (children) as they can,” Mrs Ilich later explains. When she decided to leave in 2010, her oldest daughter had just become engaged to a boy who grew up in the tribe and insisted on staying at the group’s Picton farm. Mrs Ilich hasn’t been allowed to meet her three grandchildren or see her daughter, now 27, since 2013.
Silence falls at the end of each song and the dancing bodies turn lifeless until a strum of the guitar tells them it’s OK to move again. About an hour passes before the circle disbands and everyone finds a place in the living room to sit reverently. One by one, five people stand up to deliver an improvised sermon about what they’re thankful for.
Suddenly the group launches into vigorous song.
“There’s gonna be thousands of these everywhere!” the intense man yells over the music.
You can make the “commitment”, he urges later while standing in the front garden of the old house. It’s cold, dark and quiet.
I “put out the message” and you “received it”, you were open, he says. Friends are always going to abandon you, he explains. But not the tribe.
He offers a bed at Balmoral House. Come for a weekend, he suggests. “You can work in the cafe,” he says.
Three weekend stays is all it took before Mrs Ilich and her family moved into the tribe’s farm.
“We unknowingly put ourselves in the process of recruitment,” she recalls. “It’s called love-bombing — they shower you with love and affection and make you feel like family.”
She added: “We didn’t know what hit us. We fell in love with them. They kind of rewrite your past for you and you start thinking about your past in a dark light. They started making me look at my life like my family is trying to control me. They try to separate you from each other.”
While Cult Consulting Australia’s Raphael Aron does not classify specific groups as cults, he says clients are “very quick to point out the cult-like characteristics” of the Twelve Tribes, which include shunning family members who leave the group.
At a long communal dinner table, the intense man from the deli happily tells his story while picking at a plate of stewed beef, vegetables and noodles. He asks about family relationships, living situations and car possession.
Specific questions about how the tribe works draw vague answers from him. When external criticism is brought up, he changes topic.
The circle is spinning and the stomping resumes while a girl blows softly into a recorder. A young woman brings over a mug of warm liquid. She stares blankly when thanked.
“Look around!” the man says. “Does this look like a cult?”
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