I, like many of my Stern College peers, walk down 35th Street every day.
Though it is only my second year on campus, I have come to know the block like the back of my hand. However, after reading an article by the New York Post, I learned that there is more lurking behind the scenes of this frequented street than I had initially thought. In her 2014 article entitled “Inside Manhattan’s Secret Cult,” Kate Briquelet goes on to describe an alt-right-esque group “claim[ing] its followers descended from a ‘master Aryan race’” that at the time, operated only one block from Stern College at 160 East 35th Street and Lexington Avenue.
Members of “The Light” believe that they are descendants of Atlantis and hold weekly meetings to recount incidents of their past lives. Believers claim to remember parts of their souls from as far back as 10,000 years. The cult is extremely insulated and forbids relationships with “know-nots” (people outside of The Light). The cult condemns homosexuality and encourages corporal punishment while keeping their women uneducated and brainwashed. The article notes that, to maintain their insularity, “young women, denied higher education, are often married off to older men in the group.” The Light’s leader, Tom Baer, uses complete control tactics to maintain his following. As an ex-member recounted on his blog, “While he doesn’t claim to be all knowing he does claim to have access to the most information. He is the sole keeper of the writings of The Light that were passed down for years. No one in the group can independently read these.”
The group goes beyond just talking about apocalyptic endings and reincarnation. True believers are trained to shoot and load M14 automatic rifles for their eventual confrontation with “know-nots.” “The belief is that Planet Earth will be ending soon, and we would have to defend our people and safeguard our food and supplies,” said an ex-member, who was privy to one of these weapons training sessions, to Briquelet. “Everybody is brainwashed in this thing. They’re conditioned to think and behave in a certain way, and it starts in childhood. Children are taught to fear.”
Though the group’s extraterrestrial beliefs seem out of this world, many cults have promoted similar ideologies for years. Famous celestially-oriented cults have included Heaven’s Gate, Jonestown and most recently, Scientology. Each one of these groups began the same way: a few exceptionally charismatic men attracted attention after claiming that they had been sent to Earth from a different planet, quickly gaining members and forming a following. “The Light” got its start in the same fashion. Dating back to the early 1960s, members began meeting in midtown Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood in the 1970s. Though many sources indicate that the Light continues to operate out of Murray Hill, some ex-members who claim that the cult has moved to Upstate New York. Like other cults registered as charitable organizations, the IRS states that The Light, legally recognized as the Congregation for the Light Inc., “is not required to file an annual tax return with the IRS because it is a church.”
With Light roots grounded for years in Murray Hill, the NYPD has never had an issue with Light members interacting problematically with non-members. They are so insular, in fact, that Stern security had not heard of them until The Commentator questioned them about the cult in October 2018. Though the group’s lack of disruptions helps qualm some safety concerns, the ideology of “The Light” is no less frightening. As Sy Syms junior Rachel Kahen stated about the New York Post article, “At first, I thought I was reading a work of fiction, but then I reminded myself that these are real people who are practicing this real faith! It’s crazy to think people who you might encounter in your everyday lives could believe in such barbaric and fabricated religion. It almost reminds me of a more foolish, less extreme version of the Nazis. It’s comforting to hear that some people left ‘The Light’ and realized how brainwashed they were.”
The notion of an operation this bizarre running out of an apartment just one block from Stern is incredible. But even more incredible is that not many know it exists.
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