Leon Berg remembers a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi knocking on the door of his fraternity bedroom in College Park, Md., one Saturday morning in the 1970s. Berg was otherwise engaged, to use a euphemism, and chased away the rabbi. Undeterred, the rabbi would periodically visit the brothers at Alpha Epsilon Pi — a Jewish fraternity house — in an effort to draw them closer to ritual Jewish life. But during the 1970s the brothers generally had little interest in what he had to offer — or in just about anything else associated with institutional Judaism. But when Berg and some of his fraternity brothers returned to Maryland last month for an AEPi alumni weekend, they found a changed organization. The Maryland chapter of AEPi now hosts Sabbath dinners with Chabad regularly, and two years ago the fraternity asked the director of Maryland’s Hillel to be faculty adviser. When philanthropic events are held, the house raises money for Israeli organizations.
“These guys are better than we were,” Berg said while watching an AEPi philanthropic event that involved a cow defecating on one of the main university greens.
Jewish fraternities were founded in the early 20th century as an alternative to those fraternities that refused Jews entry on religious grounds. When civil-rights legislation made such discrimination illegal in the 1960s, many Jewish fraternities became social organizations in which most of the members just happened to be Jewish. Now, though, AEPi and the two other leading historically Jewish fraternities — Zeta Beta Tau and Sigma Alpha Mu — are returning to their roots, as representatives of all three of the organizations agree.
AEPi is leading the charge back to tradition; two years ago, the fraternity’s national office hired its first full-time employee to deal with Jewish programming. Last month, for the first time, ZBT’s national office engaged a rabbi as national chaplain. SAM began a program this year to sponsor local Hillels.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, with societal pressures, frats became much more entertainment based,” said SAM’s executive director, Aaron Girson. SAM added six chapters this year. “What you’re seeing in the past five years is us going back to why we were founded — preparing men for service to their community.”
While the inside of most local chapter houses still have the beer-worn look made familiar from the movie “Animal House,” the national trend toward more Jewish engagement seems to be drawing students in. At a time when fraternity membership overall is stagnating, the Jewish fraternities have seen a swift growth in membership numbers. AEPi, the most engaged in Jewish life of the three, has grown to almost 6,000 students from 3,000 in 1995. In April alone the fraternity set up chapters on four new campuses.
The success these fraternities have found in emphasizing their Jewish roots signals a larger phenomenon among college fraternities. After a couple of high-profile alcohol-related deaths, fraternities nationwide have seen a forced crackdown on drinking and partying, leading many to look for new ways to engage students. In this climate, those that have shown the most growth are ethnically based (Latino, Asian and Jewish) fraternities, according to Richard McKaig, executive director of the Center for the Study of the College Fraternity.
“When you talk to campuses about the areas in which new chapters are being created, that’s almost always where the new chapters are coming,” said McKaig, who is also dean of students at Indiana University Bloomington.
The proliferation of Latino fraternities was so great that in 1998, a national umbrella organization was founded to oversee the 24 national fraternities. In the Jewish world today, there are three national fraternities that identify as Jewish. By most estimates this includes 11,300 of the 133,000 undergrad male Jewish students in college. Two Jewish sororities — Sigma Delta Tau and Alpha Epsilon Phi — are also ramping up Jewish programming, according to national offices. But it is the fraternities that are leading the pack.
The increasing Jewish engagement at fraternities is not just a top-down move. Many campus observers say that fraternity members have shown a new willingness to be openly Jewish, whether religiously or culturally. Most of the discussion about Jewish life on campus these days revolves around anti-Israel sentiment and the threat of intermarriage. But the fraternities and sororities tell a different story.
Menachem Schmidt has seen this whole development since he arrived as a Chabad representative at the University of Pennsylvania in 1980. During his first year on campus, the rabbi proposed that the AEPi house on campus hold a Sabbath dinner. The idea caused a fistfight at AEPi’s board meeting; AEPi had begun taking in non-Jewish brothers during the 1970s, and many of the Jewish members did not want to offend their non-Jewish brothers by having Jewish programming in the house.
It took 10 years before any fraternity allowed Schmidt to host a dinner in its house. Last month, as part of the Shabbat 2000 event, almost every fraternity and sorority on campus held a Sabbath dinner.
“The resistance to Jewish programming is lower,” said Schmidt, who is now on the executive of Chabad Campus Executive Committee.
Schmidt and others say that Jewish fraternities are still fraternities where the Jewish programming plays, at most, a secondary role. Only on a few campuses are all the members of the Jewish fraternities Jewish. The most common reason given by brothers for joining the frat is, “I liked the guys I met during rush.”
“It’s not a shul, it’s not a Hillel, it’s a group of guys,” Schmidt said.
But on some campuses, the Jewish fraternities have come to resemble exactly those things. At Drexel University, the AEPi brothers have a student-led service most Friday nights. Another chapter had formed at California Polytechnic State University — a place with no full-time Jewish professional — in December 2003, and it has become the backbone of Jewish activity on campus. The current master of the chapter, Jeffrey Pathman, said that at the time, “it was very hard to find Jewish people on campus — people didn’t want to say they were Jewish.”
Since its founding, the chapter has grown to 40 brothers from 21, and attendance at most Hillel events has grown almost 500% to some 40 or 50 people. AEPi has started Hebrew classes, and it also does much of the heavy lifting for the local Jewish Community Center. Recently the fraternity helped the center to build a shelter for its air conditioning unit. And when pro-Palestinian speakers come to campus, the AEPi brothers are the resistance on call.
Pathman told of how during one speech, “we showed
up, we asked questions. We antagonized the guy a bit — it was good.”
Many members, though, say it is exactly because Jewish fraternities are not explicitly religious — and because they allow in brothers with any level of Jewish involvement — that so many young men feel comfortable joining. And once they do, the calm atmosphere can ease brothers into greater Jewish engagement. AEPi’s director of Jewish programming, who has served in that post for the past two years, said he sent out 27 congratulation cards to brothers who had had their bar mitzvahs.
Jewish fraternities are not the only ones to catch on to the marketing possibilities here. The national Catholic fraternity — Phi Kappa Theta — lost much of its Catholic character after the 1970s. But four years ago the national office began working with Newman Centers, the Hillels of the Catholic world, in order to start new chapters.
“We have to have some type of identity,” said Craig Melancon, executive vice president of PKT. “Otherwise what makes us different from any other frat?”
PKT is growing, but it still has only 47 chapters nationwide. Jewish fraternity chapters, by contrast, exist in much larger numbers; AEPi alone has 128. The disparity can be attributed to the fact that admissions committees at certain schools were more lenient when it came to Jews than most of the social groups at those schools.
The earliest Jewish fraternities, including ZBT, were founded by wealthier German Jews. AEPi was founded in 1913 by more religious and less wealthy Russian students who were attending night school. Until the 1950s, most Jewish fraternities actually had clauses restricting their membership to Jews. The end of those clauses came at a time when Christian fraternities also began accepting non-Christians for the first time. This initiated a process of mixing that led to a blurring of the religious lines that originally defined fraternities. It also began a period of sharp decline for Jewish fraternities, which suffered, like all others, from the anti-establishment sentiments stirred up by the Vietnam War. Over the course of one summer in the 1970s, AEPi’s chapter rolls were cut in half.
The decline eventually stopped, but it has been only recently that many have become wistful for the days when all the members of Jewish fraternities were Jewish.
“There were many people who recently began feeling that it had gone too far in the other direction,” said ZBT’s executive vice president, Jon Yulish. Zeta Beta Tau is also a Hebrew acronym for Zion Shall Be Redeemed With Judgment. “We need to recognize our history and be who we are,” Yulish said.
Today there are some chapters of ZBT, such as Monmouth College’s, that have no Jewish members at all, and fraternities at public universities are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion. However, the national Jewish fraternities have said they are making a push to reach out to more Jews on campus.
This has not always been met with uniform glee on the local level. At Penn the AEPi chapter is about 20% non-Jewish, and the leadership at the house said that the fraternity frequently feels pressure from the national office to bring on more Jewish brothers.
“They want us to turn people away,” said Michael Vaupen, the master at Penn’s AEPi chapter, “and we won’t do that.”
Campus experts emphasize that each campus is its own universe, and each year’s batch of brothers brings a new attitude. At Penn, where 25% of the students are Jewish, and Jewish life thrives outside of the fraternities, the need for AEPi to be Jewish is less urgent. But at Maryland, with a similar percentage of Jewish students, the Jewish engagement has been intense. The Chabad rabbi was recently made an honorary brother of the ZBT chapter.
At Drexel University, which has a campus that is physically contiguous with Penn’s, the AEPi chapter has been similarly charged. All five male members of Drexel’s Hillel’s executive board are from AEPi. Drexel’s Hillel director said that her organization and AEPi work as a “tag team” on all things Jewish on campus.
As some of the brothers prepared to head off to services at Temple University one recent Friday night, a few of them were crowing about their victory in an inter-fraternity bowling league a few nights earlier — the first intramural championship they have won in their 10-year existence. The events they brag about most are the Jewish ones — the lighting of the 8-foot menorah, the success of bringing a Hasidic rock band to campus.
For college guys, they keep the house remarkably clean. Sam Zitin, a senior, said that the old fraternity hijinks they have left behind are not missed: “Why do you need hazing to bring you together when we have this common bond called Judaism?”