January 7, 2002, Sunday


COMMUNITIES; Witches Who Push Brooms

By CAREN CHESLER (NYT) 881 words


WITCHES are alive and well and living in New Jersey. Perhaps that comes as no surprise. But doing pro bono work?

In fact, they are likely to be found picking up litter along Route 37 in Toms River, where a group of them have adopted the highway.

The Mid-Atlantic Pagan Alliance, a group of 550 pagans, most of whom are witches, adopted a one-mile stretch of Route 37 in 1999 as part of a public relations campaign.

''People hear witch and they think Satanist, but that is completely false,'' said Marc Wicoff, the group's 31-year-old co-founder. ''We're people, just like everyone else.''

It was for a similar reason that a group of witches gathered recently at the Brunswick Square Mall in East Brunswick outside a theater showing the Harry Potter movie, which depicts witches in positively.

Last year when the Mid-Atlantic Pagan Alliance marched in the Halloween parade in Toms River -- something it does every year -- members dressed in work clothes instead of pointy hats and capes to show that witches hold jobs like everyone else.

The state Department of Transportation did not even seem to blink when the group wanted to adopt a highway, although Mr. Wicoff said the Transportation Department initially mistook them for members of a biker group.

''Frankly, it didn't matter to us what they were,'' said John Dourgarian, a spokesman for the transportation agency. ''Our concern is that the group be willing to put the time in to pick up litter on that stretch of roadway four times a year.''

The Mid-Atlantic Pagan Alliance is a small segment of the Wiccan community in New Jersey. In all, Mr. Wicoff estimated that there were thousands of practicing witches in the state, although many were still in the ''broom closet,'' as they say in the Wiccan community, out of fear that they would be ostracized if they let their faith be known.

Kelli Marone, a 29-year-old Wiccan from West Orange, said she was in college when her mother found out she was dabbling with witchcraft.

''She thought we were sacrificing things in the basement,'' said Marone, who was raised a Baptist. ''She took me to the crisis center.''

Ms. Marone, who now runs a 22-member coven in Essex County called the Coven of Sherwood, says her mother finally accepted her religious beliefs, though she is met with consternation from strangers. For instance, Ms. Marone said a born-again Christian once told her she was going to burn in hell.

''We don't even believe in hell,'' she said.

Jennifer Bilodeau, a 35-year-old executive assistant from South Amboy, said she preferred the ''don't ask, don't tell'' approach.

It probably did not help that when she was 17 and told her parents that she was a witch, her mother called in a deprogrammer.

Ms. Bilodeau said that these days, many of the newer entrants were teenagers who might have seen a television show or a New Age store in the mall and latched onto Wicca for the wrong reasons.

''They're doing it to rebel against their parents,'' she said.

Others just wanted to invoke the powers of witchcraft to assert some control in their lives, she said.

Ms. Bilodeau, whose e-mail address is listed on several Wiccan Web sites, said she received dozens of letters each week from people asking, ''Can you whip me up a potion to make someone fall in love with me?'' or, ''My boyfriend left me. How do I cast a spell on him to ruin the rest of his life?''

Regardless of the reasons, Wicca has enjoyed a period of rapid growth over the last several decades, with estimates of the number of practicing witches in the United States ranging from 134,000 to three million. Experts attribute the growth, in part, to the religion's worship of a female deity and say it attracted a lot of women over the last 30 years as part of the feminist movement.

Like many Pagan religions, Wicca celebrates nature. There is also an element of magic, known as the craft, and a belief in karma, signified by what they call the rule of three: if you harm another, the consequences will come back to you threefold; if you do good, the rewards will be tripled.

''It discourages people from using witchcraft for less noble purposes,'' said Christopher Wichtendahl, a 30-year-old Web developer from Denville and a practicing witch.

Cynthia Eller, an assistant professor of women and religion at Montclair State University who has written two books on the subject, said people drawn to Wicca today like the freedom of expression, the antiauthoritarian nature of the religion.

''It's the opposite of institutionalized religion,'' Ms. Eller said. ''It's certainly not the stereotype people have, with all the negative associations. Wiccans have little in common with the witch on the broom eating baby children, although they share the idea of magic and working with unseen powers.''


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