Typically, community visits are reported through an interview with a member. Unfortunately, the people at Preserved Seed Farm were too busy to reply to my requests. So, please keep in mind that the information shared here is filtered through my personal experience and perspective.
By now, you’ve probably figured out that I have a real ‘thing’ for communities. Specifically, smaller groups of people living together with some kind of shared commonality. Occasionally, the public decides that a community has crossed into the realm of cult. Such is the case of the Twelve Tribes.
Personally, I prefer to reserve any and all judgement until I have visited a place in person (much like when I went to Austria to see if Vienna really has no soul). Which means there are a lot of quirky or controversial places to go…
I first heard of the Twelve Tribes when looking for intentional communities near my 2017 hometown of Prague, Czech Republic. When I learned that one of the friendly merchants at the local farmer’s market were the very people living in this commune, I was able to request a short, two-day visit with the Preserved Seed Twelve Tribes Farm.
Who are the Twelve Tribes?
The Twelve Tribes was begun in the 1970s in the US. There are over 35 communities spread throughout the world. According to the official website of the Twelve Tribes, they are “a confederation of twelve self-governing tribes, composed of self-governing communities. We are disciples of the Son of God whose name in Hebrew is Yahshua. We follow the pattern of the early church in Acts 2:44 and 4:32, truly believing everything that is written in the Old and New Covenants of the Bible, and sharing all things in common.”
I’m not really here to tell you all the details, though. For that, the Wikipedia page about the Twelve Tribes has done a really thorough job!
Religion of the Twelve Tribes
As a guest, I participated in several of the community’s meetings and was there on the day of their sabbat. Each morning and evening, the group comes together for circle dancing and bible reflections.
Individuals who are “taking a break” from the community simply don’t wear the headband and stand back from the prayers. For me, this was interesting to observe. Really doesn’t seem like much of a break.
Music is also strictly regulated. One woman shared with us that this was her biggest challenge when younger. Members can’t listen to non-religious music. She loved all kinds of music. Today, she’s made her peace with the rule—preferring to stay in the community than lose her family over music. She plays the flute during the rituals.
Why the Twelve Tribes are Controversial
The Twelve Tribes have their own interpretation of the Christian bible. The largest controversy circles around how the children are raised. That is, the community fully supports and encourages corporal punishment. They very much believe in the old adage “spare the rod, spoil the child.”
Many members of Preserved Seed Farm previously lived in the Germany. There, the German government conducted a raid to take the children away after video footage of beatings was captured. Arriving early in the morning, dozens of kids were taken into protective custody. While most were eventually returned, there are still a few who remain in foster care. A few adults also left the Twelve Tribes and reintegrated into German society in order to be reunited with their children.
The people I talked to were still very scarred from this experience and wanted to share more about it. One of the young women (16) who had been taken in the raid spoke with me and another guest about her experience.
Besides the physical punishments, children are discouraged from being taught any history besides that which is approved by Twelve Tribe doctrine. Even if they are attending a local school, the group asks teachers to respect this decision. In the Czech Republic, it seems this is respected and the community is considered good neighbors by those in their village.
How do they sustain themselves financially?
Besides sharing all personal assets communally (meaning: people give all their money to the group once they join), the Twelve Tribes are fairly capitalist-minded. They enjoy working and branching out into new initiatives. For example, there are communities that run hostels or restaurants. When the Tribe needs funding, they often send their young men to do construction work—notably things like installing solar panels, like many of the men from the Czech community I visited.
This particular group laughingly refers to themselves as the farmers-market tribe. They raise their own food, as well as crops grown for selling at market. Additionally, they make things like pesto, granola, and fruit juice to sell.
Essentially, the Twelve Tribes live communally without identifying as “communist” at all. They are very proud of their roles within capitalism and ability to finance their work.
What are the Roles within the Twelve Tribes?
As a vocal feminist, I admit that the patriarchal structure of the Twelve Tribes was difficult to be a part of, if only for two days. The challenging parts were mostly during discussion. Members are happy to tell you about their political views—such that any country led by a woman is invariably doomed. As with any new cultural interaction, I was there primarily to observe and learn. Rather than getting upset about these beliefs, I focused on asking questions.
Men are considered to be the heads of the households. Whatever he says, is law. However, in the Preserved Seed community, most women had particular roles of importance to play. For example, the eldest was essentially in charge of ensuring communal peace. If there was a conflict or hint of a conflict, she was first to address the issue.
While people give up their old lives entirely, the community tries to dictate roles according to personal preferences and skills. For example, one woman who used to enjoy shopping prior to joining the community, was in charge of all purchases. If you need new shoes, you have to consult with her.
Rest, Relaxation, and Parties
Being there on the weekend meant that I was around for sabbat dinner and the weekend fun. All confirmed adult members eat sabbat dinner in the communal room, but behind a curtain. They try to recreate the feeling of Christ’s last dinner.
Children and guests eat separately. Kindly, one adult volunteers to sit in a separate room with the guests to answer any and all questions about the community.
After the dinner, a CD player with the group’s favourite Hebrew songs is turned up and the younger people throw themselves into fast circle dances.
Throughout the working day, there is plenty of time for swimming in the pond, reading, or just relaxing between work and meals. For those not in charge of the day-to-day, it’s a pretty relaxed environment.
Love, Dating, and Marriage
Of course, one of the questions I asked was about marriage. I mean, anywhere that one partner has complete domination over the other….well, I hope this is seriously considered. The women of _______ were adamant that all romance is discouraged until at least 19. When asked about possibilities of domestic abuse, they did not shy from answering.
This is a situation that is deeply discussed before two people are married. Are both individuals capable of a peaceful relationship? Any strife within a marriage is dealt with by the community as a whole. In any instance where a man is abusing his power (as the head, brains, and everything), the community must step in. So, they have a duality—the man is all-powerful to the point of having the right to beat his wife, but the community doesn’t want to deal with any abusive bullshit.
Excommunication Isn’t a Thing
One thing which surprised me about the Twelve Tribes is that they are not as closed-off as I originally thought. Family members who have left the community are visited and letter-writing is kept up. The members of course would like people to return, but only of their free will. I failed to ask if that was true of people identifying as queer—perhaps the situation hasn’t yet arisen.
In My View….
Frankly, I still think this communal arrangement is great. Absolutely, I disagree with the patriarchal ruling and the bigotry. However, if every person who felt the need to beat their wife or hate on gender-queer was moved into a community where their violence was moderated and contained….well, then the rest of us could run the country as we wished.
As for child labor, kids should absolutely be receiving education and playtime. I’m also pro-chores and contribution. My limited perception was that labor was fairly light and no worse than what one might expect from kids raised on a farm.
Besides all the controversy, it’s a pretty sweet retirement plan if you’re broke. Just give what little you have, promise to shuck peas, and participate in the religion…boom, all expenses and healthcare provided!
If you Visit the Twelve Tribes Preserved Seed Farm
The Preserved Seed farm is a short 45min train ride from Prague. The community is very welcoming and willing to answer literally any question you can think up. I will note, that LGBT+ individuals will probably feel really uncomfortable, as the Tribe is pretty certain that you’ll burn in hell. In fact, anyone who can’t stomach the ultra-religious attitudes might prefer to spend their time elsewhere.
On a sunnier note: Their organic cooking is arguably the best free meal you’ll ever eat. You’ll help with light chores of harvesting vegetables or feeding goats. You’ll have one of the most unique cultural experiences for less than $5 (the cost of the train ticket).
Disclaimer Time: I visited the Twelve Tribes Preserved Seed Farm for just two days, with minimal amounts of factual research done ahead of time. All information from this article is based off of my personal experience and interactions with members of this farm.