Spelling lessons

By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  October 31, 2008

Many Wiccans practice "magic," a solo or group ritual effort to effect some kind of change, which seems akin to, oh, I don't know, prayer. As for dressing oneself in robes and flowers in order to perform a secret candlelit ritual, as many Wiccans do, think back to your fraternity or sorority days. See? Surprise! You're Wiccan and you didn't even know it.

Ariana Zarate, 19, a sophomore at Wellesley College, and UMass-Amherst sophomore Joshua Berkowitz, 18, were raised in Christian households, and turned away from church after years of discontent and curiosity.

"One of my friends got into Wicca, and, at the time, I was very religiously Christian," says Berkowitz. "So, I studied Wicca in order to try and persuade her out of it. The more I studied Wicca, the more I respected it."

A few years later, Berkowitz is active in the western Massachusetts Wiccan community, and he's a member of the UMass pagan organization SPIRALS (Students Pagans Integrating Religion and Life Spiritually). He recently founded a new Wiccan tradition, the Avatarian Rite of Wicca, which, he says, will function much like a secret society.

Stop rolling your eyes. William Howard Taft, Senator John Kerry, and that idiot currently running our country are members of a secret society called Skull and Bones. Which is a much, much creepier name than "The Avatarian Rite of Wicca." Plus, no Wiccans ever played Russian roulette with our tax dollars, and lost.

Both Zarate and Berkowitz say that the shift in their respective religious beliefs aligned with their decisions to come out of the closet. "Wicca felt open and accepting. While I was Catholic, I felt a little odd being queer," says Zarate. "I heard so many things about the Catholic community not being accepting of non-heterosexuality. There was no such feeling in Wicca."

Salem State sophomore Judith Valentine, 22, also raised in a Catholic household, found, like Zarate, that a religious doctrine at the opposite end of the theological spectrum was the best solution to her discontent.

"My first religion wasn't a very good fit, so I started looking for something better," says Valentine. "[Wicca] is basically the polar opposite of everything I found dissatisfying about Catholicism."

One would assume that a college like Salem State, so close to the witchcraft Motherland, would host a vibrant community of Wiccans who scatter the campus with Maypoles and garlands and positive energy galore. Not so, says Valentine. Surprisingly, there are no Wiccan organizations on campus, no galvanized community of "Magickal" students.

"During my orientation, we were given forms to fill out, if we so wished, about our religions," she says. "There was no box for Wicca, so I checked 'other' and wrote it in. About a week later, I got a letter from the school's Protestant adviser, inviting me to some group or other. I still think it's a little funny that the closest thing they have to Wicca at my school is Protestant, especially since of all the cities in the country, Salem has, arguably, the best visible representation of the Wiccan community."

Magick money
Student-run groups such as Nemeton or SPIRALS, which are well-organized, well-regarded, and meet weekly on school property, aren't easy to come by on many Massachusetts college campuses. Universities seem reluctant to recognize Wicca as an actual religion, so Wiccan groups generally don't have access to the same resources and funding as, say, a Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim organization. For that reason, students like Valentine, Zarate, and Robinson don't have a galvanized community with which to practice their religion.

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