Fred A. Bernstein

Healing Buildings in the Catskills

The Twelve Tribes in Oak Hill and Coxsackie

Published in The New York Times, July 24, 2005

Published: July 24, 2005

Oak Hill, N.Y.

WITH a rushing stream in the foreground and the Catskill Mountains in the background, this hamlet two hours north of New York City looks like a postcard view of paradise. "I have to pinch myself that I get to live someplace this beautiful," said one resident, Joseph Reilly.

Mr. Reilly is a member of the Twelve Tribes, a religious sect with followers in about 30 cities and towns in the United States. Members don't choose where to live but are assigned locations by the group's leader, Elbert Eugene Spriggs, a former high school guidance counselor.

In Oak Hill, they have opened the town's only restaurant; 15 miles east, in Coxsackie (which locals pronounce "cook-SACK-y"), members have fixed up several dilapidated buildings overlooking the Hudson River, in what had been a seedy, crime-ridden downtown.

Real estate agents say that the renovation efforts have increased property values and helped lure city residents to places like Coxsackie, where the Tribes has a strong presence. In those towns, the search for affordable real estate has created some odd juxtapositions: Jewish residents with neighbors who believe Jews are "cursed" unless they embrace the Twelve Tribes version of Jesus, and gay homeowners alongside a group that pronounces, on its Web site, that "homosexual behavior is immoral."

Wayne West, a real estate broker in Coxsackie, said he knew of only one deal that may have foundered because of the presence of the Twelve Tribes. A potential purchaser who was Jewish cited what she considered to be the tribe's anti-Semitism of the group as a reason for withdrawing an offer on a house, Mr. West said.

But there is no denying that potential home buyers are sometimes nervous about the presence of the Twelve Tribes, whose members are easy to identify. (Men have long hair pulled neatly into pony tails; women wear long dresses. Children are miniature versions of the elders.)

Mr. West, who grew up in Coxsackie, said he was worried about the arrival of the Tribes in the 1990's. "They were a cult, they were coming into town, and I reacted as most people did," he said, "with fear."

Mr. West said that he was particularly concerned that the Tribes would influence his daughter, a toddler at the time. "I warned them not to talk to her," he said.

Now, he sees the members walking around town picking up litter. "They're perfect neighbors - they wave, they smile, but they don't consume your time," he said.

Fixing up decrepit buildings is part of the group's mission, according to Jean Swantko Wiseman, a spokeswoman for the Tribes. Members compare healing buildings to healing their souls. "There were some cracks and flaws in our foundations," the Tribes website says.

Members, who live communally, look for buildings with 10 or more bedrooms. Some buildings are given to the Tribes by members, who are required to renounce worldly possessions. Others are bought on the open market.

Peggy Quigley, co-owner of Century 21 Heart Land Realty in Coxsackie, sold a building to the Tribes, and said their dealings were "completely above board."

In Coxsackie, the downtown had been "scary, with drugs and guns and crime," Mr. West said. By fixing up several large buildings, the Tribes have helped raise real estate prices, according to agents. Ms. Quigley said that the last 18 months have seen "a big surge in prices in Coxsackie, but we're still coming up to where the other towns have been."

That's good news for property owners like Nevin Cohen and Daniel Hernandez, who are renovating a house overlooking the Hudson River. Mr. Cohen and Mr. Hernandez see members of the Tribes every Saturday, the group's Sabbath, strolling past their house.

"As individuals, the members of the tribes seem friendly, " said Mr. Cohen, an urban planner. "But I'm concerned that their religious beliefs are intolerant."

Mr. Cohen and Mr. Hernandez, who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking same-sex marriage in New York State, say they have never been hassled by Tribes members.

The members, in fact, also help renovate houses for nonmembers, including some who are gay.

"We just did a great renovation for two lesbians in Oak Hill," said Ed Wiseman, a Tribes administrator. "We don't approve of that way of life, but we don't discriminate against people."

One newly renovated building in Coxsackie houses the group's clothing and housewares store. (Members manufacture shampoo and other products in a factory in Cambridge, 30 miles northeast of Albany.) Sundazed Music and Intelligent Technology Solutions, two local businesses unrelated to the Tribes, also occupy Tribes-renovated buildings in Coxsackie.

Aaron Flach, a real estate developer, said he was inspired to turn an old hotel in downtown Coxsackie into apartments after seeing the work the Tribes had done nearby. All of the apartments in his building, he said, are rented. "I don't think tenants have any problem with the Tribes being across the street," he said.

Nicholas Kahn, who is Jewish and owns a house in Coxsackie, said he has spoken with members of the Tribes, often challenging their views in what he says are good-natured debates. Anyone who doesn't take the time to do that is missing a chance to overcome prejudices, he said.

Mr. Kahn, an artist, bought his building, a former church, five years ago for less than $100,000. Some houses in his neighborhood, just a few hundred yards from the Hudson, still sell for $200,000 or less, Ms. Quigley said.

Tribes members pay taxes, but they don't send their children to public schools. They don't vote, because, they say, the are forbidden to answer to a higher authority than Yahshua (their name for Jesus). Property is owned communally, but marriages are strictly monogamous, they say.

Norman Hasselriis, an artist and gallery owner in Oak Hill, where he has lived for more than 20 years, said the Tribes members "are helping to take care of me, because of my age and my infirmities." Mr. Hasselriis, who is 86, said, "They're good people, and I have great respect for what they're doing."

Originally known as the Northeast Kingdom Community Church, the sect was founded in Tennessee in the early 1970's. As the organization has grown - Ms. Wiseman said there are about 3,500 members overall - it has occasionally attracted law-enforcement attention. Members have been accused of exploiting child labor and beating their children, charges the group denied.

Nevertheless, in 2001, the Sundance catalog, founded by the actor Robert Redford, stopped selling Tribes merchandise after the charges came to light. The New York State Department of Labor has investigated Tribes factories for violating child labor laws. In 2001, two violations were found. According to Ms. Wiseman, "One was a 15-year-old changing a light bulb; another was a 15-year-old pushing a wheelbarrow; they're both under appeal."

A Labor Department spokesman said that the Tribes was fined $2000 and that it is appealing the findings.

Church members admit that their attitude toward their children is different from prevailing American mores. "We don't just send them out to play," said Ziv Shemesh, a member who lives in Oak Hill. "We don't think they have that much to offer each other."

Instead, the children apprentice to their elders. But Mr. Reilly, who teaches carpentry, said charges that the Tribes exploit the children for financial gain are "ludicrous." The children, he said, aren't efficient workers. "The goal of bringing them to workplaces is to teach them trades, and we sacrifice time to do that," she said.

Ms. Shemesh said that the Tribes practice corporal punishment, but very rarely, and never out of anger. "It isn't harsh," she said. "It's done with love."

For years, the group did much of its recruiting outside Grateful Dead concerts. Because proselytizing is one of their duties, members go out of their way to answer questions about their beliefs. And they are eager to see their views reported.

But they can't answer one question that interests local residents: which of their communities will shrink, and which will grow. Instructions come from Mr. Spriggs, the group's leader.

"If we've been in a place for a long time, and there's a greater need for members elsewhere, we might leave," Ms. Wiseman said. Her husband, the Tribes administrator, said there are no plans for the Tribes to leave Oak Hill or Coxsackie. "We are committed to improving those places," he said.

Indeed, it was the poor condition of a building that drew the Tribes to Coxsackie in the first place. According to a history on the group's Web site, when a member drove into town in 1997 looking for a Laundromat, she spotted an abandoned opera house. "Knowing how much our Creator loves restoration," the account continues, "we purchased the building."

Last year, the building was damaged in a fire. The group plans to restore it again and possibly build a crafts marketplace along the Hudson River.

"Real estate and redevelopment are things we really do believe in," Mr. Wiseman said.