Nov 14, 2021

The Cult That Believes in Jesus and Follows a 'Jewish Way of Life'

A visit to a café run by members of the Twelve Tribes movement, nestled in the pastoral hills of New York State
A visit to a café run by members of the Twelve Tribes movement, nestled in the pastoral hills of New York State, offers a rare glimpse of one of the more conservative religious groups in the United States.

Tzach Yoked
Nov. 13, 2021

It’s Sunday around noon, in the town of Coxsackie in New York State’s Greene County. Old, dilapidated stone buildings line deserted streets. Planks of wood have been hammered into the window frames of abandoned houses to prevent looting. Piles of garbage overflow onto street corners. Here and there young couples can be seen sitting on the steps in front of their homes, holding glasses of beer, gazing at the few cars that pass by. Most of the storefronts are empty, the shops they once housed now out business. Outside a domestic-items store that remains open, a dour-looking elderly proprietor sits on a low wooden chair, waiting for customers who don’t come. About 10,000 people live in Coxsackie, but an unsettling aura of a ghost town pervades the streets.

The name Coxsackie, believed to derive from the Algonquin Indian language, reflects the rich history of the region. A two-hour drive from Manhattan, with the Hudson River to its east, bucolic hills to the west – and caught between them a locale characterized most by its shabbiness. The exception is one local establishment, which throbs with life, even as it tells the story of one of the most insular communities in the United States.

The Yellow Deli is a charming place located in a brick building on the town’s main street. The décor is over-the-top yellow; flowers are everywhere. I buy a coffee; the manager draws a flower on the bill he hands me. A jovial, optimistic atmosphere reigns in the deli, which gives one the impression of straddling the seamline between a hipster coffee house and a gathering place for flower children. Only there are no hipsters here, and no flower children either.

The Yellow Deli is actually one of a chain of cafés owned by Twelve Tribes, a religious movement or dangerous cult, depending on the eye of the beholder. There are Yellow Deli branches across the United States, from California to the New York Island, not to mention Europe and even Australia and Argentina. The staff are all members of the group and all the raw ingredients used in preparing the food comes from farms owned by the movement and worked by its members.

I have arrived at this establishment because I believe this may be the only crack through which it’s possible to get an in-person glimpse of the life of the Twelve Tribes, a movement that oscillates between Judaism and Christianity, between capitalism painted in shades of glaring yellow and severe ascetism, between cheerful community spirit and violent internal practices.

Farm to table

Twelve Tribes has no church building, no council of sages or regular prayer meetings – only a thriving chain of 21 eateries and farms. The menus are based entirely on local farm produce: a variety of sandwiches, salads, soups, omelets and a range of desserts. It’s all produced here, it’s all fresh and organic, direct from a nearby farm to your table.

They also bake their own bread. Dozens of loaves of sourdough in different shapes lie in straw baskets, and a cordial waiter boasts that they also grind the flour themselves. “It’s not regular flour,” he emphasizes, pointing to a loaf. “It’s quality spelt flour.”

Like all the branches, the one in Coxsackie is open six days a week. Saturday is the one day the cafe is closed; its website wishes clients “Shabbat Shalom.”

Open gallery view

This is in a town where you’re unlikely to find even one Jewish family, still less a synagogue or any signs of Judaism. Twelve Tribes followers believe in Jesus but in certain outward ways, follow a Jewish way of life: They rest on Saturday, fast on Yom Kippur, blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and refrain from celebrating Christian holidays, even Christmas.

“The holiday the children like best is Sukkot,” says one staffer. An amiable man in his 50s, he has a soft tone of voice and an unchanging, broad smile. Sporting a well-trimmed beard, he is wearing a long, checked, button-down shirt and a blue, knitted skullcap hides his small man-bun. Outwardly, he looks like a cross between a Bratslaver Hasid and a kibbutznik. A quick glance at the other people working here reveals, however, that this style is not a matter of personal taste.

Googling the Twelve Tribes website, I get an immediate explanation. “Our men have beards because men were created with facial hair,” the site states under FAQ. “It is normal and natural for a man to have a beard. Besides, it is not fitting for a priest to crop his hair or to grow long, effeminate locks. In ancient Israel both unbound hair and a shaved head were public signs of mourning or some uncleanness… Priests are concerned about pleasing their Creator rather than chasing after fashions or calling attention to themselves.”

The women, too, are not super-stylish in their fashion sense: They wear baggy pants and long-sleeved shirts that are several sizes too large for them. And, in fact, the answer to the very next FAQ is, “Our women wear the clothes they do because of their desire to be modest.”

Twelve Tribes followers believe in Jesus but in certain outward ways, follow a Jewish way of life: They rest on Saturday, fast on Yom Kippur, blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and refrain from celebrating Christian holidays.

Meanwhile, the head cook notices that I’ve been perusing the menu for some time. “You have nothing to worry about, our meat is clean,” he asserts, after I have identified myself as an Israeli. “There’s no way you’ll find pork or any other non-kosher meat here.” Another employee relates that the workers here don’t have televisions in their homes. After my experience with members of the movement who declined to speak to me, I am careful not to ask too many questions. Here, too, the website helps out: “We see human relationships as the central focus of our lives; we are learning on a daily basis to be friends and pay attention to each other’s real needs. TV would be a distraction and would be detrimental to learning, loving, and being ‘normal.’”

After some time, I manage to strike up a conversation with one of the workers, who tells me about the community’s approach to the Sabbath. “We try to observe Shabbat to the best of our ability. We definitely do not work and do not use the heavy equipment on the farms. We do not cook on Shabbat and we make sure to prepare all the meals before the Sabbath starts. On the other hand, if needed we turn on the electricity, and if there is no alternative, we also drive, but in general we try not to.”

The café is packed, and the 30 or so clients don’t give any sign of being troubled by the fact that the chain not only supports a messianic movement but is also a platform for missionary activity. On a table near the door are informational materials that are meant to attract the attention of visitors. I read that there must be something beyond the necessity to work at a job we hate only in order to pay for our children’s preschool while we are at work, and all of it so that one day we will end up in a Florida nursing home and wonder why we are alive.

Twelve Tribes’ recipe for the good life includes working the land and raising livestock, following a Jewish lifeastyle, collective ownership of property, home-schooling, avoiding the internet, singing in a choir and a love of children. The group has its own interpretation of that last item, in the spirit of the verse from Proverbs, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son.” Indeed, they also declare openly on the website, “We love our children and consider them precious and wonderful. Because we love them, we do spank them. We teach them to listen to what their parents say and to obey their parents and teachers. When they are disobedient or intentionally hurtful to others we spank them with a small reed-like rod, which only inflicts pain and not damage. Desiring to be good parents, we do not hit our children in anger, nor with our hand or fist.”

But reality turns out to be grimmer than what one might imagine when one thinks of educational “spanking.” People who have left the movement have testified that children are not allowed to play, to own toys, to whistle or to read fantasy books. Some related that any quip or nonsensical act by a child could lead to corporal punishment, because youngsters are expected to work alongside adults and to behave like them. “I was beaten with a stick from neck to toe,” a woman who left stated about her Twelve Tribes childhood. “I was covered with bruises.”

Open gallery view

Fertile ground

It all began in the 1970s, when many young Americans began to snap out of their dreams of world peace, of free love and sex, and of the habitual use of psychedelic drugs. It was a period, for some, of a renewed search for an alternative lifestyle, a time of transition that constituted fertile ground for the growth of movements and cults. Twelve Tribes was founded by Elbert Eugene Spriggs, a Tennessee teacher who sought to forge a new religious order whose lifestyle would be based on the early years of Christianity. He opened the first branch of The Yellow Deli in 1973, and the chain expanded from year to year until it grew morphed into an international phenomenon.

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Sinasta Colucci wrote a book about his life in the movement, where he says that “new members are required to turn over all their property to the group. If you have a house, a car, money, you are required to turn over all of that. In addition, members are required to work long hours, six days a week, and to sever previous ties with relatives and friends. Anyone who changes their mind and wants to leave, is left with nothing.”

“The whole method is based on cutting members off from everything that happens around them,” Patrick O’Reilly, a psychiatrist and expert on cults from the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, tells Haaretz. “When someone joins they get all the support they could wish, but immediately afterward the emotional manipulation begins that renders them helpless. If you leave you will lose everything – and go to hell.”

According to Prof. O’Reilly, Twelve Tribes is “a dangerous cult with clear characteristics of racism and antisemitism. They blame the Jews for the murder of Jesus and view the Jewish people today as bearing responsibility for Jesus’ murder. I grew up in a Catholic family, and no one ever taught me that. They also believe that Black people are destined to serve the white residents of the United States. They justify slavery, condemn Martin Luther King, Jr., and admire the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. But the biggest problem is the physical punishment of young children. I am talking about physical punishment which begins as early as the age of 2, and often young children not even 10 years old work on the farms from morning to night.”

In general today, says cults researcher Arthur Goldberg, “Messianic Judaism is gathering momentum, with hundreds of thousands of members around the world.”

And when it comes to pious Christians who seek to add Jewish elements to their religious identity, inasmuch as Jesus was himself a Jew, “We are talking about a broader phenomenon, particularly among American evangelicals,” says Goldberg, “20 percent of whom believe in the fusion of a Jewish way of life and [live in] the anticipation of the resurrection of Jesus the savior. And even among all these streams, Twelve Tribes is a notably extreme case.”

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