It is 6 p.m. on a Friday. The sound of a shofar, an instrument typically made from a ram’s horn, echoes throughout a large house to signal that it is time to gather for the beginning of the Sabbath. In a room with tall ceilings is a circle of wooden chairs. About 25 people, adults and children, make their way in, many sipping tea. One man standing starts playing the guitar and another sitting in the circle chimes in with a tambourine. Some take to the center of the room to join hands in song and dance.
This is how members of the Twelve Tribes in Ithaca spend their Friday evenings. Formed in the 1970s during the Jesus Movement by Eugene Spriggs in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Twelve Tribes is a religious group that has spread across the United States and the world with about 3,000 members worldwide. Some of the closest Twelve Tribes communities to Ithaca are in Hamburg, Oneonta, Coxsackie, Oak Hill and Cambridge, New York. In the northeast, there are several communities in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and just across the Canadian border in Kingston, Ontario. There are about 40 Twelve Tribes communities across the United States and internationally.
Members of the Twelve Tribes follow the Old and New Testaments, live together like the disciples in the book of Acts, work and worship together. They call Jesus Christ by his Hebrew name, Yahshua, and celebrate Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur, Shavuot and the Sabbath.
“We see that just as His name has been changed over the centuries, so also many vital aspects of His teachings have been obscured by centuries of mans’ traditions,” their website states. “For us the restoration of His original name goes along with the recovery of the whole truth about His life and message.”
Teachings in the Twelve Tribes are from the Bible and members do not endorse practices and beliefs that contradict their own, according to the Twelve Tribes FAQ page.
In Ithaca, members of the Twelve Tribes live in a house on a 0.7 acre property located on Third Street. The house is 6,720 square feet, according to Trulia. Families have their own rooms with adjacent spaces for children in their shared homes. There are kitchens and living spaces where members eat together. There are about 25 people currently living in the house in Ithaca.
Internationally, the Twelve Tribes run multiple businesses including the Yellow Deli and Maté Factor, which have both had locations in Ithaca. The Twelve Tribes now runs the deli out of the Home Dairy Building on The Commons. The Ithaca Maté Factor opened in the early 2000s and closed in Ithaca in 2017 and the deli opened Jan. 1, 2023, in the same location.
Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, said he cares that the Twelve Tribes are good community partners.
“Their operation seems to be well run and we don’t seem to get a lot of negative feedback about how they operate,” Ferguson said. “Occasionally someone will complain about their beliefs but, like I say, because we are apolitical and we don’t take stands on that, that’s really not our jurisdiction to spend much time working on.”
Stephen Kent, professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta and a cult expert, was featured in the A&E docuseries, “Cults and Extreme Beliefs,” in the episode about the Twelve Tribes. He said there is a debate in the social science world about what a cult is and said that using the term “cult” is appropriate regarding groups that fit his definition.
“The groups that I often call cults are ones that use undue influence to create obedience and dependency,” Kent said. “So it’s very simple. It’s groups that put a lot of pressure on people through manipulation, deception, coercion, brainwashing, sometimes through drugs — although not Twelve Tribes — excessive physical activities and so on.”
Kent said the Twelve Tribes want to restore early Christianity and that members of the Twelve Tribes are isolated from the outside world.
“One of the many reasons people are attracted to Twelve Tribes is that it seems to be a community, it seems to be loving and supportive,” Kent said. “I’ve read accounts that Twelve Tribes will feed anyone who is hungry. So, for some people, the community and the support and the regulation is really helpful, but it’s so restrictive.”
In terms of restrictiveness, there are no TVs in the Twelve Tribes’ homes because TV is seen as a “distraction,” according to the Twelve Tribes FAQ page. Kent said that if members want to leave the religion they may not be able to because of limited contact with people outside of the Twelve Tribes. Kent also said members may not have any money since they do not earn an income.
“Now I don’t know that the people using [the term cult] have a lot of background about Twelve Tribes, but if people want to call the group a cult, I’m not going to object,” Kent said.
Charles Stow, who goes by the Hebrew name Hushai, has been a member of the Twelve Tribes since 2009. He was born in Albany and attended SUNY Oneonta before dropping out shortly before joining. He said that he asked himself questions like, “What are people supposed to do?” and found the Twelve Tribes when he was living with his cousin.
“We believe that human beings were originally created to love,” Hushai said. “And that original pattern has kind of been remorphed and shaped into what we have today, which is a system in a society that’s based on individual success, individual failure, individual pride or worthlessness, individual fear, individual security … but it isn’t really a life knit together in love.”
Many of the Twelve Tribes’ beliefs and interpretations differ from what is stated in the Bible. Ithaca College senior Nick Daniel, an executive board member of Ithaca College’s Cereal Ministry group, which is a club dedicated to building an on-campus Christian community, went to see the movie, “Jesus Revolution” at Regal Cinema early in Spring 2023. Daniel said that after the movie, two members of the Twelve Tribes were standing outside the theater handing out flyers.
Daniel said he stayed to speak with the members because he wanted to know more about what they believed. He said the Twelve Tribes took a passage from the Bible that discussed the establishment of the church and how followers shared their belongings.
“They took that basis of their faith and then they expanded by cherry-picking out of the Christian Bible and making their memoir, which, as a Christian, is the worst thing you can do: creating a religion from what is truth and bending it to what someone else declared as their truth,” Daniel said.
Hushai said members of the Twelve Tribes believe in what the Bible says, but the Bible is a confusing book and there are many interpretations.
“For us, believing in the scriptures means actually doing what they say,” Hushai said. “And that changes who we are at a fundamental level and ultimately brings us back to what love is, because we believe that God is love. And so that means for us, our life is knit together like we share what we have, we live together, raise our families together, we form almost an extended family unit.”
Senior Kamille Smith said she had been walking in the neighborhood surrounding Third Street near the Twelve Tribes’ home in early Fall 2022 with a friend when they were approached by an older member.
“He asked us if we were college students and we said yes and he got really, really interested after that,” Smith said. “He started talking about his wife who died and how she made all the clothes for the people that live with him. He pointed to this giant house across the street and he was like ‘… this is our home and they’re all going to work at this restaurant that we’re opening.’”
Smith said the man told her the group hosts an open dinner at 6 p.m. every Friday and invited her and her friend to the next dinner. She said the man also invited them into the house and continued to try to engage them in conversation. Smith said that after her encounter she began to look up the Twelve Tribes and learned about the controversies surrounding the group.
“I think if I hadn’t had that interaction with them before [the Yellow Deli] opened I probably would’ve tried [the deli],” Smith said. “It’s definitely uncomfortable walking through The Commons. … It’s definitely not great having them established in Ithaca, I think.”
Daniel said he believes Christians and the community should steer people away from the Twelve Tribes.
“I don’t want people to think this is the truth and then their life get turned on its head and then have no way of getting out,” Daniel said.
Daniel said that through his own research, he has heard stories of how children and women have been mistreated inside the Twelve Tribes and believes that they are misleading outsiders.
On the Twelve Tribes FAQ page is the question “Do you spank your children?” and the response begins with “Yes, we do.” The website states that children are spanked out of love with a “reed-like rod” and spanking is done only as a way to inflict pain, not physical damage. Children are not spanked out of anger and are not hit with hands. Multiple proverbs are listed under the FAQ about spanking, including Proverb 13:24 from the Bible which states, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”
“We know that some people consider this aspect of our life controversial, but we have seen from experience that discipline keeps a child from becoming mean-spirited and disrespectful of authority,” the website states.
The FAQ also says that this practice is not abusive and that parents are told to spank their children whenever they disobey in an effort to teach children respect and that “discipline is consistent and fair.” In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended against spanking children as a form of punishment. The World Health Organization said that corporal punishment, which includes spanking, can lead to a range of negative outcomes and that parents who engage in corporal punishment have a higher risk of perpetrating maltreatment.
Hushai said that in terms of corporal punishment, there are times when a child will be spanked.
“That’s not like extreme beatings,” Hushai said. “It’s just this blown out of proportion concept, which is again, totally within our legal rights, but it’s also very healthy and cleansing. … Children need love, children need their needs met.”
In the United States, corporal punishment is not prohibited in all settings like homes, private and public schools.
Hushai said loving and giving children a purpose is a large part of child training. However, he said discipline is there to restore situations like rebellion.
“I’m not just going to beat on you, that’s really wicked,” Hushai said. “That’s really evil. And people like that are going to face their judgments.”
In a March 2022 article from The Denver Post, former members described instances of child abuse and beatings. Former members told The Daily Beast of similar child abuse allegations. In the A&E docuseries, “Cults and Extreme Beliefs,” Samie Brosseau, a former member, detailed her experiences with abuse during her time growing up within the Twelve Tribes.
The Denver Post also obtained a 2000 version of the Twelve Tribes 348-page child training manual. The manual states that parents can re-establish authority by using the “rod” and the rod is used for correction.
“When parents use the instrument specifically designed by God as the symbol of His delegated authority, it triggers a response within the soul of the child,” the manual states. “No amount of hitting or spanking with the hand or any form of physical abuse will have the same effect. … The use of the rod is best because it is a natural object separate from the hand.”
In 2013, German authorities removed children from families in the Twelve Tribes to protect them from child abuse. And in 2018 the European Court of Human Rights upheld the decision. Two communities were raided and 40 children were taken and put into foster care after hidden cameras showed instances of caning — a type of physical punishment where a person is hit with a cane typically made of rattan. The Twelve Tribes no longer have a community in Germany where corporal punishment has been illegal since 2000.
The New York State Department of Labor investigated four Twelve Tribes locations and found multiple child labor violations at Common Sense Natural Soap in Cambridge. The NYSDOL collected $9,000 in civil penalties through a plan that was paid off in January 2020, according to the NYSDOL in an email to The Ithacan. There was no evidence of child labor at the other three locations in New York state and staff members at all locations were educated about child labor laws. There are no active investigations into any Twelve Tribes business in New York, according to the NYSDOL.
“One time in Cambridge there was a legitimate issue that came up several years ago,” Hushai said. “Legitimate in the sense that we technically shouldn’t have been doing what we were doing. However, it was extremely blown out of proportion.”
In 2018 hidden camera footage from Inside Edition showed young children working in the factory in Cambridge. Hushai said that sometimes children will accompany their fathers to work for a few hours but that it is a way for them to spend time together. He said he grew up helping family members in a pizza shop by folding boxes and said that this kind of interaction growing up is probably familiar to many people.
“It wasn’t like some sweatshop or whatever kind of crazy concept, but it gets blown out of proportion,” Hushai said. “There was somebody who was pretty venomous toward us who wanted to make something out of that.”
Hushai said the Twelve Tribes are not trying to break any laws and that scriptures tell them to be law-abiding citizens.
“Whatever we do, it would be 100% from the heart, 100% love, and we would be careful as long as the law doesn’t go against God,” Hushai said.
Hushai said those who work in the deli are considered volunteers. In New York state, volunteers working at a nonprofit are not considered employees and do not have to receive payment. ProPublica lists the Twelve Tribes Communities as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and is classified as a Christian (Religion-Related, Spiritual Development) group.
Kent said workers need to be paid if there are expenses for the business and if it competes with other businesses in the community. The Twelve Tribes FAQ page says that “shared earnings” go toward paying for food, phones, electricity, car insurance, property taxes, health care and clothing. The FAQ also says that some money may go to other communities that “are not yet self-supporting.” Hushai said the Ithaca Yellow Deli had not been able to keep up with payments because it was not busy at the beginning. So, the community in Hiddenite, North Carolina, which Hushai said has a very popular deli, was able to send money up to Ithaca.
Another article from The Denver Post says that former members never received a paycheck. Hushai said sharing belongings is something that comes from scriptures.
“That actually came from commandments that the Son of God gave … but that doesn’t really make sense to a government so we just created an LLC where basically all the money goes into the LLC account and then that’s our money,” Hushai said.
Hushai said there are many sensational stories about the Twelve Tribes that contribute to many people’s negative feelings surrounding the group.
“Just come and talk to us, we’re not scary,” Hushai said. “We’re nice people, we like to talk to people.”