Ithaca College community questions Yellow Deli and Twelve Tribes presence

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It is 6 p.m. on a Friday. The sound of a shofar, an instrument typically made from a ram’s horn, echoes throughout a large house to signal that it is time to gather for the beginning of the Sabbath. In a room with tall ceilings is a circle of wooden chairs. About 25 people, adults and children, make their way in, many sipping tea. One man standing starts playing the guitar and another sitting in the circle chimes in with a tambourine. Some take to the center of the room to join hands in song and dance. 

This is how members of the Twelve Tribes in Ithaca spend their Friday evenings. Formed in the 1970s during the Jesus Movement by Eugene Spriggs in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Twelve Tribes is a religious group that has spread across the United States and the world with about 3,000 members worldwide. Some of the closest Twelve Tribes communities to Ithaca are in Hamburg, Oneonta, Coxsackie, Oak Hill and Cambridge, New York. In the northeast, there are several communities in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and just across the Canadian border in Kingston, Ontario. There are about 40 Twelve Tribes communities across the United States and internationally.

Members of the Twelve Tribes follow the Old and New Testaments, live together like the disciples in the book of Acts, work and worship together. They call Jesus Christ by his Hebrew name, Yahshua, and celebrate Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur, Shavuot and the Sabbath. 

“We see that just as His name has been changed over the centuries, so also many vital aspects of His teachings have been obscured by centuries of mans’ traditions,” their website states. “For us the restoration of His original name goes along with the recovery of the whole truth about His life and message.”

Teachings in the Twelve Tribes are from the Bible and members do not endorse practices and beliefs that contradict their own, according to the Twelve Tribes FAQ page.

In Ithaca, members of the Twelve Tribes live in a house on a 0.7 acre property located on Third Street. The house is 6,720 square feet, according to Trulia. Families have their own rooms with adjacent spaces for children in their shared homes. There are kitchens and living spaces where members eat together. There are about 25 people currently living in the house in Ithaca.

Internationally, the Twelve Tribes run multiple businesses including the Yellow Deli and Maté Factor, which have both had locations in Ithaca. The Twelve Tribes now runs the deli out of the Home Dairy Building on The Commons. The Ithaca Maté Factor opened in the early 2000s and closed in Ithaca in 2017 and the deli opened Jan. 1, 2023, in the same location.

Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, said he cares that the Twelve Tribes are good community partners.

“Their operation seems to be well run and we don’t seem to get a lot of negative feedback about how they operate,” Ferguson said. “Occasionally someone will complain about their beliefs but, like I say, because we are apolitical and we don’t take stands on that, that’s really not our jurisdiction to spend much time working on.”

Stephen Kent, professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta and a cult expert, was featured in the A&E docuseries, “Cults and Extreme Beliefs,” in the episode about the Twelve Tribes. He said there is a debate in the social science world about what a cult is and said that using the term “cult” is appropriate regarding groups that fit his definition. “The groups that I often call cults are ones that use undue influence to create obedience and dependency,” Kent said. “So it’s very simple. It’s groups that put a lot of pressure on people through manipulation, deception, coercion, brainwashing, sometimes through drugs — although not Twelve Tribes — excessive physical activities and so on.”Kent said the Twelve Tribes want to restore early Christianity and that members of the Twelve Tribes are isolated from the outside world.“One of the many reasons people are attracted to Twelve Tribes is that it seems to be a community, it seems to be loving and supportive,” Kent said. “I’ve read accounts that Twelve Tribes will feed anyone who is hungry. So, for some people, the community and the support and the regulation is really helpful, but it’s so restrictive.”

In terms of restrictiveness, there are no TVs in the Twelve Tribes’ homes because TV is seen as a “distraction,” according to the Twelve Tribes FAQ page. Kent said that if members want to leave the religion they may not be able to because of limited contact with people outside of the Twelve Tribes. Kent also said members may not have any money since they do not earn an income.

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