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reed magazine logoSpring 2008

Reed’s Christian Fellowship, begun in 1970 by self-described devout hippies who performed baptisms in the canyon, has now been supplanted by Oh For Christ’s Sake. It’s a stand-alone group that gets support from a young married couple who are on the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an international campus ministry. There are currently fewer than ten students in the group, which meets weekly for Bible study and prayer, and gathers to sing Christmas carols and celebrate holidays. “I wish there were more people,” says Jessica Gerhardt ’11, “but they are so bogged down in work—or religious and spiritual apathy—they can’t come.”

A 9-foot electric menorah graced the entry to commons this past Hanukkah, courtesy of Chabad, the outreach arm of the Lubavitch Hasidic sect. Lev Navarre ’11, who leads the student group on campus, hoped the menorah would help foster more Jewish community at Reed, where he feels he is “on the forefront of Jewish observance, such as it is.”

That makes the 25 Reedies who showed up for a Shabbat dinner last fall sound like a big crowd. Largely because of the efforts of Celia Gellman ’09, there was also a cozy Hanukkah get-together, and an all-campus dance party for Purim (musical style: klezmer meets cabaret) in the student union, care of Chaverim, the main Jewish group on campus.

“Two years ago,” says Gellman, “there were no Shabbat dinners to which rabbis were invited, no film screenings [Young, Jewish and Left played on campus this semester], and no countless listserv emails put out about Portland Jewish happenings.”

It’s a different kind of outreach than Chabad, a potential competitor for Jewish participation. A rabbi and his wife recently moved into a house near campus to start a Reed-focused offshoot of the outreach ministry of the Lubavitch Hasidic sect. So far, only one Reed student, Lev Navarre ’11, who grew up secular in the Boston area, has signed on—joining three or four other Reedies at the family’s home for Shabbat dinners. Navarre doesn’t keep kosher, but he helps the rabbi arrange events on campus, such as lighting a 9-foot menorah outside commons, playing dreidel games, and organizing Torah study sessions. Nor does he see Chabad as recruiting students, though the rabbi and his wife are perceived by some as evangelical, quick to call students with invitations to study and worship with them.

“There’s a pretty large Jewish population on campus,” says Gellman, “but they tend to be the kind that doesn’t want to be engaged with it anymore.”

Religion by the Numbers
Every year, the Princeton Review publishes an irreverent student survey listing what it calls the “Best 366 Colleges” in the United States. While Reed abstains from the U.S. News rankings, students are free to participate in the Princeton Review online surveys. Brigham Young University is generally ranked No. 1 in the “Stone Cold Sober” category. Reed is noted for its students’ tendency to wear Birkenstocks, and, all humility aside, the college ranks No. 1 in “Best Classroom Experience: Students Never Stop Studying.”

Chabad rabbi Dov Bialo at the Hanukkah candle-lighting in front of commons

Reedies also regularly rank at or near the top in the category “Most Likely to Ignore God.” They have been in that position since Princeton Review started compiling the survey 15 years ago.

Jon Rivenburg, Reed’s director of institutional research for 20 years, notes the same sort of consistency in the data he collects from the freshman questionnaires Reed sends out as part of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program. His data comport with the Princeton Review, and present an ongoing statistical snapshot of Reed freshmen—66 percent of whom indicate “no religious preference” on their surveys. That percentage has also been showing a gentle upward trend; in 1973, the split was 50–50.

Those numbers contrast sharply with nationwide norms, which show only 19 percent of freshmen at all baccalaureate institutions, and 24 percent of those at four-year nonsectarian colleges, check “none” in the religion category. And while roughly one quarter of freshmen nationwide identify as Roman Catholic, fewer than 6 percent of Reed freshmen do. In fact, if Reed is overrepresented in any religious category, it’s Judaism: currently the rate is about 7 percent, while nationwide it runs from 2 percent to 5 percent.

Reed’s religious mix plays out in unpredictable ways. Michael C. Webb Jr. ’09 comes from a devout Southern Baptist background in Texas. He ran for student senate a few years back and lost. The second time around, he tried a new tactic: he labeled himself the “black, conservative, Christian” candidate—and won. It’s plausible that his victory was due to his faith-based campaign strategy. “My faith is really important to me,” says Webb, “I can’t live in a community where I have to hide it.” And he thinks Reed students do feel they have to hide their faith to fit in. Webb just spent a semester at Howard University, where he was comfortable being as devout as he liked. There were five churches adjacent to campus and daily Bible study sessions to attend.

reed magazine logoSpring 2008