Feb 9, 2023

Everything You Need to Know About Yellow Deli’s Controversial Owner

Jonathan Mong
Cornell Daily Sun
February 7, 2023

The Yellow Deli, operated by the Twelve Tribes community, opened in the Commons on Jan. 1 at the same location as their previous establishment, Maté Factor.

According to their website, the Twelve Tribes, also known as the Commonwealth of Israel, are a religious group where families and individuals live together in communities. They have a worldwide presence, scattered throughout every continent except Africa. 

Founded by Gene Spriggs in 1972 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Twelve Tribes encourages members to live as adherents to the early church, emphasizing its communal aspect — the Denver Post reported in 2022 that new members must sign over ownership of all of their possessions to the group’s limited liability companies.

The Ithaca branch has been present for about 20 years, according to Marcel Campbell, a worker at the Yellow Deli and a lifelong member of the Twelve Tribes. As the branch is located on 119 Third Street, their presence has attracted negative attention from the Ithaca community for years. 

“It is also my understanding that generally most Ithacans are at least somewhat aware that the Twelve Tribes is a religious cult and thus the appeal [of the Yellow Deli] would be more to university students, visitors and tourists who are only here temporarily,” said Ian Stewart ’23, a student who has lived in Ithaca for 31 years.

When the group arrived in Ithaca in 2003, they held an open forum to address concerns about their presence, but twenty years later, the group still remains. 

“Choosing to go commercial on the Commons is basically an unannounced front for a cult,” said Pastor Steve Felker of Christ Chapel in Ithaca to The Sun in 2006. “I felt like it was important to [shed] light on what they stand for, so that the community understands what they are spending their dollars on at the commons.”

Similarly, Stewart’s early memories of the Twelve Tribes were negative.

“They casually strew pamphlets and brochures around the café that laid out their beliefs in the coming end times, or other such concepts,” Stewart said. “They were never overt in their more disturbing opinions and it is my own belief that this was deliberate, as a means of getting outsiders interested before explaining the more unsavory beliefs, much like other cults.”

However, Ithaca is not unique in its distaste for the Twelve Tribes, who have also attracted controversy from localities across the United States for their views and labor practices. 

In an investigation, the University of Colorado Boulder’s newspaper the CU Independent found accusations of child abuse after interviewing former members of the organization. A publicly accessible copy of the Twelve Tribes’ “Child Training Manual” specifically encourages parents to use physical dominance to assert dominance over their children in various ways. It is unclear whether or not this document applies to the Ithaca branch of the Twelve Tribes.

According to the manual, “a child needs to learn that his disobedience results in receiving his parents’ disapproval. The parents’ controlled use of pain is not cruel and will not cause the child to fear his parents personally. He will only learn to respect their word and the authority they possess … The minor discomfort a child must experience in order to learn to obey his parents’ commands will save him much pain in the future.”

A fundamental tenet of the 348 page “Child Training Manual” is that pain ought to be the element of control over a child.

“A wriggling six month-old baby who intentionally refuses to let you put on his diaper can be taught the meaning of ‘no’ in one or two simple lessons. When he tries to crawl away while changing his diaper, he can be told ‘no,’ pulled back and held in place for a moment. The next time that he tries to crawl away, he should be spanked lightly,” said the manual. 

The Twelve Tribes also believe that being LGBTQ+ is sinful and mortally dangerous.

“We do not approve of homosexual behavior,” the Twelve Tribes website said. “We do not regard it as a genetic variation, a valid alternative lifestyle or a mere psychological quirk. We embrace what God says on this subject without regard for political correctness. Homosexual behavior is immoral and can be mortally dangerous.”

The Guardian also accused them in 2000 of describing Jews as murderers while recruiting, which the Anti-Defamation League highlights as anti-Semitic behavior.

“We believe in the Bible and what it states. Nowadays the Jews have really fallen away from what is right,” Mikal Yophi, member of the Twelve Tribes, said to The Guardian. 

However, the website says that it is laughable that some label them as anti-Semitic, since they say that they observe several Jewish customs.

According to the website, “it is amazing that anyone would consider us anti-Semitic, when we honor the Sabbath, follow the dietary guidelines in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and have approximately the same proportion of Jews in our Communities as in the general population. We don’t hate Jews, we love Jews.” 

Even the Federal Bureau of Investigation has looked into the Twelve Tribes for various felonies. In 2013, they opened an investigation into the North Carolina community, following an ex-member’s allegations of sexual exploitation of children. 

The Twelve Tribes also has been accused of practicing child labor, with the Denver Post reporting that children work in the factories from the age of 13, shirking their education along the way. However, as someone who was born into the Twelve Tribes, Campbell said that he was glad to have worked alongside his family. It is unclear whether or not Ithaca’s branch also uses this practice.

“We don’t make apologies for our children being with [their parents]. My best times were working with my father,” Campbell said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, through The Intelligence Report, has accused the Twelve Tribes of being a Christian fundamentalist cult.

“We’re different, so people call us all kinds of things,” Campbell said. “If you look up the word ‘cult,’ it’s not such a bad word. The definition is basically people who practice a religion in a nontraditional way.”

This did not sway Ithacans like Stewart, however.

“I’m surprised that they were able to reopen,” Stewart said.



Jonathan Mong '25 is a staff writer for the Daily Sun, covering off-campus events that have connections to the Cornell student body.


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