By 7 p.m. on Monday, most people are winding down from a long day. But for the Twelve Tribes community of Ithaca, it’s time to celebrate. About 20 community members gather in a circle, hand in hand, while others fire up a CD player and offer homemade cookies and tea to those sitting in handcrafted chairs and sofas. Tonight is “M-Night,” a weekly event that takes place at their home on Third Street in Ithaca and whose name stands for Mondays, merrymaking, mirth and music. At this celebration, music and Israeli-style dancing are always on the agenda.
To an observer, the scene looks like a reenactment straight out of a History Channel documentary. But for about 40 members of the Twelve Tribes in Ithaca, this is life. A Christian denomination born out of hippie counterculture during the 1970s, the Twelve Tribes was named after Jacob’s sons from the Old Testament. Their beliefs derive from traditional Judaism and Christianity. Members of the Twelve Tribes are known as “disciples,” who worship God and Jesus Christ but refer to both by their Hebrew names, Yaweh and Yahsua.
“By calling them by their true, Hebrew names, it allows us to worship in a more pure, real way,” Twelve Tribes member Zahar Hazday said.
There are about 40 Twelve Tribes communities in nine countries. Since members practice a communal lifestyle and remove themselves from mainstream culture, Rick Ross, founder of the Rick Ross Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to the study of destructive cults and movements, said the religious sect has earned a cultlike reputation. Junior Aaron Terkel used to frequent Maté Factor, a Commons café owned and operated by the Twelve Tribes, but stopped after becoming wary of their negative image.
“They’re really nice and all, but sometimes I feel like they’re too nice,” he said. “It’s like they just use their delicious food to recruit people to their cult.”
Naomi Couch said she became a disciple while struggling to find herself during her early 20s, five years after “instantly connecting” with a Tribes disciple in Virginia. She said she is all too familiar with the public’s negative perceptions of the community.
“When people say negative things about us, I just tell them that ‘cult’ is short for ‘culture,” Couch said. “Lots of times, it takes people a while to realize that we’re not brainwashed and that we absolutely want to be here.”
Members of the Twelve Tribes live, work and pray together in an effort to live according to Acts 2:42-46, a biblical passage from the Old Testament in which the apostles sell their worldly possessions. Bank accounts and cars are shared among the community members, while strong personal opinions are left at the door.
“It’s not really a matter of giving things up, because that implies you’ll miss them,” Hazday said. “You’re actually voluntarily sharing what you have with the community for its greater good, and it’s no big deal because you’ve found something better.”
Hazday, an ex-reggae musician, said he felt compelled to search for a higher spiritual purpose once he became a father and realized that his “drugged-out, selfish lifestyle” wasn’t what he wanted for his daughter. Ready to trade his Rastafarian life for something more spiritual, he found the Twelve Tribes.
“I was hearing and learning things here that I had never heard or learned anywhere else, and pretty soon I just fell in love,” he said.
Hazday said they make an effort to foster open communication with the Ithaca community. The Twelve Tribes hosts weekly “Rap Sessions” in the café, during which anyone can discuss religion or politics. Also, the community welcomes the general public to weeknight gatherings at their enormous home on Third Street, which they converted from a fitness center about eight years ago for the 40 members from Ithaca to live in.
“The way we live is very simple and straightforward,” Hazday said. “It’s beautiful, and we want people to know that we have nothing to hide and that we welcome friendships no matter where they come from.”
Male disciples devote themselves to the community’s businesses, either working for Commonwealth Construction or at Maté Factor. Typically, women prepare food at the café or at home, as well as educate children. With a specific Twelve Tribes’ curriculum, schooling is known as “training” to become good disciples.
Ross said the Twelve Tribes exploits its members for labor, causes estrangement among families and has been accused of brainwashing. Ithacans Opposed to the Twelve Tribes Cult, a blog, agrees with Ross’ statements and cites these specific examples of Twelve Tribes as points of contention.
Child labor laws come into question because children begin working as preteens and parents are encouraged to spank their children with a reedlike rod — intended to cause pain with no injury or damage — when they disobey. Couch said children are first told what they did wrong and then receive guidance and encouragement afterward.
“You never just punish a child and let them go on their way,” she said.
Twelve Tribes members also believe women are “equal, but not the same” as men. Hazday said his wife is not equipped to make the decisions he does, but she nurtures the children in a way he never could.
Though there is controversy, the disciples said they are confident in their own way of life and do not take judgments — which they said are often raised by people who never visit them — to heart. Andrew Peter, a disciple, said just one visit can change a skeptic’s mind. He said he is happy living with 40 of his closest friends, and all his needs are met — including singing, dancing and praying daily.
“Many people walk into our home and are like, ‘Wow, people really live like this?’ and then they understand,” Peter said.