Single Sister

by *Nom & Malc, via Flickr

At minchah, the nightly prayer meeting, I spot Leah standing in the back of the circle of believers, next to the piano, with her hip jutted out and someone’s baby propped up on it. One arm holds the baby and the other holds a mug of máte up to her chin. She wears a headscarf, like all baptized women. Her adolescent body is tall and curved, the angle of her hip powerful. She stares at the dancers in the circle, listening, motionless, to the singing and lively music. Her round face, big brown eyes, and firmly closed mouth are beautiful but sharp. She is a sister at a farming commune in the cold, hilly boonies of Vermont—part of a global network of communes that belong to a religious group called the Twelve Tribes Commonwealth of Israel.

Members of the community tell me that they were drawn to the group by how ‘real’ the members seemed. People in the group are genuinely committed to both each other and their shared religious purpose, and are very open to talking to others, both inside and outside of the group, about their personal journeys. But to me, their talk of Yahshua (the name they use for Jesus) and their smiles, which linger past the end of conversations, make most of them seem less real than people in the outside world. Leah is the most real to me, the most dimensional. At seventeen, she’s old enough to live separately from her parents, but has more teenage sass than the sisters a few years older than her, most of whom are already married. She twists her soft straw-blonde hair into pigtail braids one morning to go ride the plow horses bareback; another morning, she rolls it up into a messy bun and jabs a pencil through it before swirling through the long list of housework like a dervish. She is a child one moment, an adult the next.

I met Leah on my first visit to the farm. Lebana and Hepsebah, middle-aged sisters, ushered me into the deserted farmhouse and sat me down with tea and banana bread to talk about my project.

Then Leah strode in carrying a basket of laundry. Unlike the other women I’d seen so far, she wore long bloomers, called balloon pants, instead of a skirt.

“Do you mind if I fold in here?” she asked, making firm eye contact with each of us, one at a time.

“Not at all,” Lebana said. “Kelly, this is Leah. She grew up in the community and just came to the farm this spring. She’s—how old now?”

“I’ll be eighteen in December,” Leah said. She sat down on a couch in the adjoining room, half hidden in the dark, and started folding men’s shirts over her lap and stacking them beside her. She kept silent, but whenever Lebana asked her a question—about the farm’s butter production, or when the men were coming back from the construction job—Leah answered immediately. When she finished folding, she picked up the stack of shirts and left without a word.

A week later, I visited the farm during a harvest festival. Hundreds of people from all of the communes in New England, a group of communities that they call “The Northeast Kingdom,” descended upon the farm with tents, dishware, pumpkins, and children. As people set up, I ran into Leah talking to a woman on the gravel drive. Two small children clung to her jumper.

“You’re sure you don’t mind taking them?” the woman asked. The kids wanted to go to the barn to see the bull. “I don’t want to take you away from your work.”

“You aren’t,” Leah said, smiling at the children. She hoisted the little boy onto her back. I asked to tag along and we set out across the lawn.

The barn was dark, the concrete floor slightly damp and brushed with hay. She helped the children hop over the concrete ditches that kept the cows and the horses from running away.

“I hate cows,” Leah said.

“Why?” I asked.

“They’re stupid.”

Though she was blunt, Leah always spoke softly, dipping her head to the side and up again, as if to avoid cobweb strings hanging from the ceiling. As the kids gazed at the animals, I asked Leah if she liked the farm. She said it was hard to get used to, but now she likes it.

“If I could, I would be happy working in the barn all day, just mucking even.” She spends most of her time doing chores in the house.

She walked over to Jim, one of the huge red plow horses. The little boy was petting his nose.

“Do you want to see me get on him?” Leah asked him. Not waiting for an answer, she climbed up on the stall partition and leapt onto Jim’s back. He was so wide that her knees were almost level with her hips as her feet pressed into his sides. She leaned forward and stroked his neck.

“Can I ride him?” the boy asked.

“No,” Leah said, hopping down. “He’s too wild.”

As she toed at the stray oats on the floor, she told me she’s only lived at this farm for a couple of months. She grew up in a Twelve Tribes community three hours north of here. Her parents still lived there with her two younger sisters, thirteen-year-old twins. She has an older sister and three older brothers.

“Two of my brothers left earlier this year,” she said. They were both in their early twenties. “I think they wanted to prove that they could make it on their own.” She was the first community member who had mentioned apostasy to me without brushing past it very quickly. The Twelve Tribes believes that they are building a society to help usher in a millennium of prosperity in the Kingdom of Heaven, so parents are expected to raise their children to carry on the community’s mission. Each generation should improve on the last. Losing a child to the world is a failure, no matter how much the family loves each other.

“Do you think you’ll leave at some point?” I asked.

“No, probably not,” she replied. “But I can see how some people would feel like they aren’t free here, and want to be able to do what they want to do and not listen to anybody.” She takes the boy and the girls’ hands and leads them to the milking shed to wash their hands in the sink.

“It’s hard because we don’t see each other anymore. Once you leave and go out in the world, it’s sort of like that. You don’t have much in common anymore with the people here.” She paused.

“I miss them.”

Leah’s parents, Ruth and Jeremiah, got married in the world and joined the community together. Jeremiah is a musician and used to be in a successful band, but didn’t want the fame. He wanted God. Leah told me that her parents had a lot of conflicts as she grew up, mainly because Ruth did not want to submit to Jeremiah’s authority. I met them once, at a wedding. Jeremiah had a jolly, booming voice, and Ruth looked like an older, tougher version of Leah. The two performed a song for the bride and groom, Jeremiah playing guitar and both of them singing.

“My husband wrote this song,” Ruth told the wedding party. “It has meant a lot to us as we’ve overcome struggles in our own marriage.”

Leah said that her mother recently told her that sometimes you have to submit to your husband’s authority even if you know it is fallible.

“They seem to get along much better than they did,” she said. “Maybe because they’ve been through a lot. Or because there’s less children now.” I wonder if the community sees them as a broken family—a challenging marriage, two children gone, Leah with a bold streak.

One morning I sat across from Leah at breakfast as she ate granola and rice milk. She looked tired: almost tipping sideways out of her chair, her hair curled up around a pencil like a sleeping cat. I asked her about her life growing up. She told me that she would hang out with the older kids. Like the Jews do, the community holds bar and bat mitzvahs to mark a child’s maturation into the group’s religious life. When all of her older friends were preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs at age sixteen, thirteen-year-old Leah did too. Though she was young, the community elders must have seen Leah as ready for the intense Bible study and discussions on faith and ethics with her parents. Each commune and regional group of communes have designated elders, who were described to me as respected men who have ample experience in the group and coordinate decisions—like opening a new restaurant or deciding to move a member to a different location—with the rest of the Twelve Tribes.

Still, her early teenage years were tough. Leah wanted to wear the clothes that people her age wore in the world, and she didn’t like being told what to do. When she finished training (home schooling) at fifteen, the elders moved her, alone, to a community near Boston, for her apprenticeship. All teenagers undergo an apprenticeship at the end of their education, in which they receive vocational training in one of the community’s businesses. She worked in the group’s café for a year, serving a bustling clientele, before returning to her parents’ community in upstate Vermont. Her oldest brother and sister were married by then; her second brother, Isaac, was at the farm and the third, Jeremiah, was still at home. As teenagers, Isaac and Jeremiah listened to Three Doors Down and Nickelback, forbidden music from the world. They both wanted to work with their father building instruments, but were placed on the community’s construction crew instead.

Leah decided to get baptized. When new members join the Twelve Tribes, they acknowledge their sins and are washed clean of them by being dipped in water—at the farm, they perform the ceremony in the river that runs along the edge of the property. Normally, for people born into the community, just a bar or bat mitzvah will do. But Leah felt like she hadn’t meant it the first time—she had just wanted to please her parents then. I asked her to tell me about baptism.

“I’m not the best person to ask about religious stuff, really,” she said. “I believe in it but there’s still a lot of spiritual stuff I don’t understand why it is the way it is. Mostly I’m just focused on my daily tasks and helping people.” Later, when I interviewed Leah formally, I asked her to elaborate.

“I believe that if this is the only way to be like Yahshua—to have this community—then I want to do that,” she said. “But my natural inclination isn’t toward the mystical.” Multiple older members of the Tribes had emphasized to me that their beliefs are not mystical: their actions and future salvation are all concrete, physical realities. I wondered if Leah meant that she had trouble connecting the group’s beliefs to reality.

“Has that been difficult for you growing up here?” I asked.

“I’ve talked to people about it, about how there are things in the religion I just don’t get. But they tell me that this is okay.” She paused. She looked neither relieved nor frustrated. “They say you will eventually get the revelation if you’re willing to try.” In the Tribes, revelation is the understanding of the community’s purpose in ushering in the millennium of peace. This understanding is constantly developing in the community, as the religion itself is still quite new– it was founded in the 1970s.

As part of the first generation of children to be born into the community, Leah has never lived in the world. But she did talk to many outsiders while completing her apprenticeship at the cafe.

“Every day you’re talking to people. I really enjoyed it. You get to know people’s lives and what they go through,” she said. “And I like Boston. There are a lot of people, so the city’s pretty well kept. I don’t like the country very much. People live in awful houses.” I looked around the farmhouse, full of drafts and scuffed floors. Outside rain was pouring down, flooding the fields and forest.

Last spring, when Leah was back with her parents, her brother Isaac left the community. Just prior, he had wanted to go on “waiting period” with a girl in the community. Instead of courtship, men and women in the Tribes request permission from the elders to go on a “waiting period,” a span of a few months to a year where they spend more time together than the average brother and sister, before they and the community decide whether they should marry or not. For Isaac, either the girl’s parents didn’t want her to go on waiting period with him, or she didn’t want to, because it didn’t happen. Leah suspected that this was the final straw for him.

When I talked to Isaac on the phone a few weeks later, he didn’t say anything about this. Right before I hung up, however, he added that he had met a girl in Boston and they’re living together now.

“We’re probably going to get married,” he said.

A couple months after Isaac left, Jeremiah left too. Then, at the beginning of the summer, Leah learned that the elders were moving her to the farm. She went two days later. It isn’t unusual for community members to move from commune to commune as needs arise. Children are often moved from their parents as young adults so that they can start functioning as a part of the community on their own.

But Leah had a few other theories about why they moved her, which she shared with me. Perhaps the elders wanted her to experience something different from working in cafés. Or her brothers’ departures might have had something to do with it—she will be 18 soon, the age that a person can legally choose to leave the community, since she will no longer be a minor. Her parents figured that the elders wanted her to meet a husband at the farm.

In October I stayed at the farmhouse for the weekend. Thursday night, after all of the older members had gone to bed, Leah and a fourteen-year-old named Miriam were moving loads of laundry down the stairs. The younger generation was staying up to prepare for the start of the Sabbath the next day, and had been working furiously since minchah ended two hours ago. When they finished the laundry, Leah announced that she wanted to make popcorn. They clomped up the stairs, Leah first and Miriam running after. Miriam is the oldest daughter in a family of seven. When her family returned to the farm a month ago, she immediately befriended Leah, the only girl close to her age.

I found them chattering by the stove a few minutes later, eating popcorn straight out of a huge saucepan with their hands. Leah leaned on one leg so that her hip jutted out under her long skirt, and Miriam mimicked her. I thought of a slumber party. It was warm in there from the stove and the yellow ceiling lights, even with the front door banging open and closed. Other young men and women bustled in and out of the kitchen, washing things, pickling things, cleaning things, snacking, all with big grins on their faces and loud voices that I had never seen come out during the workday.

Leah and Miriam were debating what to do about the pile of boxes in the basement. A family who suddenly moved away from the farm left them there. Popping kernels in her mouth one at a time, Leah asked with a sly grin, “Did you ask the community organizer?” Miriam laughed.

“Who’s the community organizer?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s not really,” Leah explained. “We’re talking about Samuel.” I knew that Samuel was a single brother, about twenty years old. “He just acts like he’s in charge sometimes, so we tease him about it.” She started dumping the popcorn into small bowls, one for each of us. “Do you want some?”

“I asked him yesterday!” Miriam said. “He told me he’d help and then he didn’t.”

“Let’s go ask again. He’s out there with the truck now.”

The girls took their popcorn out of the kitchen, out the back door, to the patio overlooking the dark fields. Down the hill, someone was trying to back a pickup truck up to the entrance of the basement. The truck started and stopped, zigzagging painstakingly. The girls looked at each other and laughed.

“Samuel!” they cried, walking down the hill. Samuel poked his head out of the driver’s window. He had ruddy skin, dark hair, and very white teeth.

“What do you want?” he asked. Leah started asking about the boxes.

Miriam, caught up in her own merriment, interrupted. “If you don’t let us do it we’ll just pile it all on your bed!” Samuel laughed and continued to back up the truck into the basement’s loading dock.

“You shouldn’t try to get somebody to do something by threatening them,” Leah told her, irritated. They followed him to the basement. Watching them discuss the pile of boxes and banter over the rumble of the laundry machines and freezers, it occurred to me that perhaps Leah and Samuel are going to marry.

But Leah doesn’t want to get married. She told me this after we had returned to the kitchen, as I looked through another sister’s wedding album, which she had left on the counter for me. The sister, Phoebe, got married at 19. Now she’s 21, with two kids. I learned later that Phoebe is Leah’s ‘covering.’ When young adults move away from their parents, they get assigned to a covering in their new home, someone they can go to for help. The covering is also a role model.

“You don’t ever want to get married?” Women are not forced to marry, but all of the women born into the community that I met were married or planned to marry.

“At least not for five years or so,” she replied.

She told me later, in an interview: “Not every youth girl thinks like this, but life’s not about just getting married and having children. The community’s great for that, but I have other things I want to do first.” She wants to build a guitar with her father. She wants to study with a violinist in the Australia community who went to conservatory before she joined.

I bailed out around 1 a.m., exhausted. The vegetable-pickling operation was still going full-speed on the back porch, and young men and women were popping in and out of the kitchen to devour the ice cream someone had found in one of the freezers. Leah had disappeared upstairs to finish sewing a shirt she was making for her mother—the community makes much of its own clothing by hand. Before I went to bed, she came downstairs to show it to me by the light of her desk lamp. The calico tunic had angled shoulders and very neat seams. She still had to put on the buttons.

I slept in Leah’s room, which was filled up by a bunk bed, bureau, baskets, heavy curtains, and an oriental rug. She was leaving the next morning to visit her parents. I heard her creep into bed around 3:30 a.m., and then rise again around 5:30. She lit a candle on her bureau so that she did not have to turn on the lamp to get dressed. In my half-asleep state, I squinted at the candle and her turned form. I found it strange that she wore a black bra and hot pink underwear, like any other teenager. I wondered if I was dreaming. She pulled on her balloon pants, a t-shirt, a zip-up sweatshirt, and rubbed creams on her face. When she picked up her bag and blew out the candle, I was already asleep again.

In her absence, Leah’s dimly lit room became my hideout. I looked at the pictures of horses, the cards from community members, the basket of lotions on her dresser, and a small, hardbound notebook with a Bible quote on the cover and a flowery picture. I wondered if it was her diary. What does a Twelve Tribes girl write about?

I wondered if she wanted to leave. If she asks me to drive her away, would I take her? I imagined Leah in her dark blue zip-up sweater and her too-short balloon pants sitting in the passenger seat of my car, clogs pressed together. I would drive her to my college campus, put her up in my room while she found a job. I wondered if she would be alarmed by my boisterous housemates, or if the culture shock of a liberal college would panic her. Part of me wanted her to experience “the world,” as they call it, though she had already told me that she did not have plans to do so. When I interviewed Leah a few weeks later, I asked her if she is curious about living in the world.

“It’s hard to have parents who say that they went through it but not actually experience it myself,” she answered. “When I make a decision I like to see both sides of the story, taste both.” Pause. “That makes it hard to completely trust somebody.” I think I trust Leah because she doesn’t hide this difficulty from me. The older community members pull each other out of my earshot when they get a certain telephone call, or step lightly when I ask about people leaving the community. Leah censors less.

She mentioned that she has her two brothers’ phone numbers—the ones who left.

“Do you think they’d be willing to talk to me?” I asked carefully.

“Oh, they’d definitely be willing. They probably wouldn’t have much good to say about the community, though.” Pause. “But you probably want both sides.”

I nodded. In this way, we are hunting for the same thing. She smoothed her balloon pants over her knees and leaned closer to me on the couch.

“If you talk to my parents or my sister, don’t tell them that I have my brother’s numbers. They’ll think I talk to them every day. Which I don’t. I choose not to.” Pause. “But they are my brothers and I want to be able to contact them.”

Isaac is the only ex-Tribes member I’ve been able to contact. We spoke as he drove home from work one evening.

“You’ve been visiting the farm? I lived in that fucking place for two years,” he told me. “No one who has left likes to talk about it. I don’t like to talk about it. I’m only talking to you because my sister suggested it.” When I told him that she didn’t want anyone to know she had his number, he said that he thinks Leah is scared, like everyone else in the community: “She’s scared that if someone finds out, she’s going to get in trouble—that they’ll have a meeting with her, or cut her out of the group.” He explained that the community raises its members to believe that if they leave, they will go to Hell.

Isaac can’t contact his siblings either. He has to call the farm and pretend to be someone else and hope no one recognizes his voice.

“I miss my family,” he said. “My mom will text me things like, ‘Please come back’ and ‘are you alive?’ But I don’t miss anyone else.”

I wonder if there will be a time when Leah will start calling Isaac more often, or stop calling him at all. I asked her if she’s fully emerged from the difficulties she had as a young teenager, when she started to struggle with the rules in the community and to notice how teenagers in the world dressed and behaved differently.

“I don’t know that I’m completely over it,” she said. “It’s a struggle every day. But there’s definitely a point where you have to make a choice about what you’re going to do.” She wants to do what Yahshua intends for her; she wants to commit herself to helping people.

“Out in the world,” she told me once, “People don’t even know what they’re living for.”

What was Leah living for at the farm? She had liked working in the café, wishes she could do barn chores all day, and dreams of traveling and making instruments. Yet, like her brothers, she was assigned to something else—housework.

In November, Leah began a new job: teaching training. Most members are assigned to teach training at some point as young adults, and I knew that she was looking forward to trying something new. I visited the farm on her first day. I watched Leah out the window, down by the fields with a half dozen elementary-aged kids. They were running along the dirt path in the rain, Leah in the lead, all of them muddy as if they had been playing in the barn. The children skipped circles around each other and every so often Leah would look back and give a little skip herself.

A month later, I drove up to the farm to attend a Sabbath dinner. When we gathered for minchah, Leah was gone.

“Where’s Leah?” I asked a woman.

“She went back to be with her parents,” she said. So Leah did leave the farm, but not as I suspected. I do not know the depth of her ties to the community, but I know that her ties to her family, themselves split between the community and the world, run deepest.


Author’s Note: Two years later, upon publication of this piece, I attempted to contact Leah and learned from her mother that she had left the community. She did not wish to give me additional information.

Kelly Wehrle lives in New York City, where she works in housing and eviction prevention. This piece is an adapted excerpt from her undergraduate thesis on the Twelve Tribes, which she completed at Hampshire College in 2011. She has previously written for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Western Massachusetts.