By Erika Spaet
Suzanne Watin was a Jewish dental hygienist from Union, N.J. She and her now ex-husband had their daughter late in life, moved around a lot and always had enough money; they lived what could be seen as an ordinary, upper-middle class life together. But when fate knocked on Watin’s door six years ago, she decided the comforts of her home and the life were a little too ordinary.
The knock came from two members of the Twelve Tribes, a religious group starting to establish a community in Ithaca. Several years before, Watin, now 66, had converted to Christianity, becoming what she calls a “zealous Christian.” Her marriage had crumbled, and she became frustrated with infighting at her church. She founded a Messianic church in Ithaca but still couldn’t reconcile church politics with the words she read in the Bible about peace and love.
So when the Tribes’ evangelists appeared on her doorstep, Watin was ready to listen.
The Twelve Tribes live according to Acts 2:42-46, in which the apostles sell all their worldly possessions to live with one another:
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need … They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.”
The hippie counterculture of the 1970s had a Christian element known as the Jesus Movement. During the 70s and early 80s, dozens of Christian denominations were created, one of which was the Twelve Tribes. Its name comes from the Twelve Tribes of the Old Testament — the descendents of Jacob’s 12 sons. Today, it’s a religious sect that has formed roughly 40 “communities” all over the world. Each geographic region where communities can be found — from Australia to Argentina — belongs to a tribe, and collectively they form the “Commonwealth of Israel.” The community in Ithaca is just one of several that comprises the Yehudah tribe, and, just like every other community, it practices a lifestyle that emulates that of Jesus’ — Yahshua in Hebrew — disciples. They reject both Judaism and Christianity in favor of this lifestyle. They work together — at their café, the Maté Factor on the Commons — pray together and, most importantly, live together.
“With our way of life, as we learn how to serve each other, we’re becoming true disciples,” says Yedediyah Jedd. “We’re keeping the things that Yahshua taught.”
More than 30 disciples live in their communal home on Third Street. They’ve turned an old fitness center into a magnificently humble mansion with fireplaces, handmade tapestries on the wall and a cottage-like lighting scheme of which Martha Stewart would be proud. The whole community, and usually several visitors, gathers every Friday night in the great room to celebrate the Sabbath with group prayer, Israeli dances and a home cooked Kosher meal. They don’t attend church, and there’s no particular organization to their worship.
“We aren’t a religious people,” Watin says.
Instead, the Twelve Tribes emphasize a simple, communal lifestyle. They only wear clothes made of organic fibers; much of their produce is grown at another community’s farm; and their income is earned from their café, a construction company owned by a nearby community, and, of course, the added incomes of new members.
So many Ithaca café-goers have embraced the Twleve Tribes as twenty-first century flower children — many of their members are recruited at jam band concerts, and they even practice fair trade. But Jedd, a former Deadhead himself, makes it clear that their community is very much separated from the rest of the city.
“What Christ taught was a very radical message: abandon your own pursuits and establish a kingdom of love. But the status quo of mainstream Christianity is not very radical,” he says. “You can’t even tell if someone’s a Christian or not. But in every aspect of our lives we are a demonstration of love.”
In his prayer one evening, Jedd spoke about a gate God has placed between the Twelve Tribes and the “outside world.” He compared this world to a snarling dog, ready to pounce on passersby. All gathered in the circle that night said an “amen” to that distinction.
But recently that gate has been challenged. Some concerned citizens in town have formed Ithacans Opposed to the Twelve Tribes Cult. The group has a blog featuring testimonials from former members of the Twelve Tribes and is encouraging a boycott of the Mate Factor. These definitely aren’t flower children, argues John Sullivan, one of the founders of IOTTC.
“A cult can be identified by an excessive devotion to some person, idea or thing and the unethical employment of manipulative techniques of persuasion and control,” says Sullivan. “If you listen to what former members of the Twelve Tribes have to say about their experiences, you’ll see that the group fits this description very well.”
Whether or not the Twelve Tribes truly is a cult is subject to interpretation, but public suspicion has spurred several investigations into the behaviors of communities over the years. Charges of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia and child abuse have all surfaced. In one 1984 case, 90 state troopers and 50 social workers raided the Island Pond, Va. community and took 112 of the Tribes’ children under child labor and abuse allegations. The judge dismissed the case, calling it a “grossly negligent misuse of state power,” but concerns still remain, especially here in Ithaca.
“The kids are beaten and not allowed to go to public school. They’re not allowed to read anything that wasn’t written by a Tribes member. How can you possibly make an informed decision about the world when you only have one point of view?” says Wendy Hyman, assistant professor of English and IOTTC co-founder. “That’s the most chilling thing to me.”
Children do work alongside their parents in the café and at home, and their contact with outside intellectualism is, if not banned, severely deterred. “Child Training” is a very important part of parenting in the community, so apart from home-schooling the children, Tribes’ parents believe in strict discipline, starting when the children are still infants. And, according to Twelve Tribes teachings, a rod should be used to do the disciplining.
Dr. Rachel Wagner, assistant professor of religion, points to Proverbs 13:24 as the source of that teaching. “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.”
“We spank our children…but we never, ever raise our voices with our children. I’ve seen child abuse out in the world where mothers are screaming at their children who disobey. We don’t do that,” says Watin.
“If you just come and watch us with our children, you wouldn’t think they were abused; you would think we were good parents,” says Jedd.
The Twelve Tribes also rarely uses public health services; women give birth with the assistance of midwives, and unless there’s a serious illness or injury, herbs are used to treat illnesses.
“They believe that beatings are not sufficient until blue marks are left on the child’s flesh. Doctors rarely see the children, so there is little opportunity for outsiders to spot signs of abuse,” says Sullivan.
Though some writings that are believed to be penned by Eugene Spriggs, founder of the Twelve Tribes, tell parents to beat their children this severely, black and blue marks are not evident on any children in the Ithaca community.
“Children who are abused have a fear about them; they’re very quiet. You don’t see that in our children; we have happy children,” says Watin as she holds one small, smiling disciple named Dodavah.
Children take a variety of classes during the day including geography, music, math, spirituality and art; they’re responsible for decorating the table at night with their drawings and egg carton caterpillars but they will never be given the opportunity to get their G.E.D.’s or attend college. As strong advocates for the separation of church and state, disciples wouldn’t think of handing their children over to public schools every day.
“We want to know what’s going on with our children; we’re responsible for them,” says Dodavah Jedd, Yedediyah’s wife.
And there’s one lesson disciple children would undoubtedly miss out on if they were enrolled in public schools.
Spriggs also teaches that Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah’s three sons, are the ancestors of three races: Caucasians, Blacks and Asians, respectively. Canaan was the son of Ham, and God condemned him: “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers,” says Genesis 9:25. Thus, according to Twelve Tribes belief, blacks — descendents of Ham — were commanded by God to serve other races.
Watin says she can never really remember the story that well, but she knows one thing. “We believe that, just like in the Bible, the descendents of Ham are spiritually fulfilled when they serve. They are set free when they become servants.”
IOTTC point to this as one of the more egregious aspects of the Twelve Tribes belief system.
“This same kind of rhetoric was used to justify slavery and the Holocaust,” says Sullivan.
Dr. Wagner agrees. “That interpretation isn’t inherent in the text,” she says, because nowhere in the Bible does it say that those ethnic groups are descendents of Noah’s sons. “It sounds like a pre-determined argument that shapes interpretation to serve a particular agenda.”
Watin admits that some slave masters were cruel. But others “had the kind of relationship that God intended for both servant and master. When you see a black person serving, you can see how fulfilled they are. It’s beautiful.
“We love black people. They’re our equals. And they are meant to serve,” says Perats Hunt, a disciple, graduate of IC and former church pastor. But when pressed on the issue, he becomes reticent. “You know, I’m a strong supporter of the first amendment and free speech, but sometimes people ask too many questions,” he says.
The Twelve Tribes are also criticized for their treatment of women and homophobia. For a group living “radically,” their approach to both women and homosexuals isn’t far from traditional Judeo-Christian practices. In the Tribes, some women work in the café during the day, but most stay at home where young girls learn to bake and sew with their mothers. They aren’t allowed to participate in more laborious tasks for fear that it will hurt their uteruses and their ability to have children. In addition, only men can receive revelations from God. As for homosexual or trans-gendered individuals, Watin takes a live and let live approach.
“They wouldn’t want to live with us,” she says. “We don’t support that kind of lifestyle, because it doesn’t bear children; it isn’t fruitful. But it’s their choice.”
So why can’t IOTTC take that same approach when it comes to the curious behaviors of the Twelve Tribes?
“I find it morally incumbent upon me to not just laugh at it, but to really look at it,” says Hyman, “even if they’re perfectly nice.”
“As long as they live within the law, the Twelve Tribes are free to believe what they like and promote their own beliefs, no matter how hateful,” says Sullivan. “We simply want to inform Ithacans about what the Twelve Tribes are and what they stand for so that people can make informed decisions about where to spend their money.”
Watin, who can usually be seen working the register making sandwiches every day at the café, has just gotten her breath back after dancing a few numbers during the Sabbath celebration. She’s had quite the faith journey, and it shows in her weathered skin. She’s had to give up a lot to be here, including her now grown daughter who doesn’t understand the choice her mother has made. But she’s glad to have finally arrived on Third Street. with her new family of fellow disciples.
“When I was out in the world, I could never have imagined this for myself. And I’m so thankful.”
Erika Spaet is a sophomore journalism and politics double major who enjoys the mate, but thinks the chocolate tastes funny. Email her at espaet1[at]ithaca.edu.