It could have been any Saturday night fraternity homecoming party — almost. Rutgers University’s football team had lost to Pittsburgh that October afternoon, but the students were still in a celebratory mood in New Brunswick, N.J. There was dancing, and booze was being swilled from large red-plastic cups.
To the uninitiated, the only thing that seemed somewhat out of place was the Torah scroll being paraded around the house.
Soon after the dancing started, the fraternity brothers and their yarmulke-clad guests carried the Torah through the Rutgers University campus to the Chabad house. Yes, it was homecoming, but it was also Simchat Torah.
Such are the joys of the brotherhood at Alpha Epsilon Pi, known as AEPi.
The fraternity was founded in 1913, according to the late Charles C. Moskowitz — who helped found AEPi’s first chapter at New York University — although rumors persist that it started as early as 1911. It is described by some as the last of the Jewish fraternities. Most of the traditional Jewish fraternities — like Sigma Alpha Mu, aka SAMmy, and Zeta Beta Tau, aka ZBT — have been editing the Jewish clauses out of their fraternity constitutions or taking the Jewish rituals out of their secret rites. Some have been actively recruiting non-Jewish students.
“In one ZBT chapter they actually had a quota against Jews,” said Marianne Sanua, author of the recently published “Going Greek: Jewish College Fraternities in the United States 1895-1945” (Wayne State University) and a professor of Holocaust and Judaic studies at Florida Atlantic University.
AEPi, however, “strengthened our mission as a Jewish fraternity,” said Sidney Dunn, executive vice president of national AEPi and a Wayne State University alumnus.
AEPi has kept the Star of David, the Lion of Judah and the menorah on its crest. The secret rites (which the brothers wouldn’t think about revealing to a reporter — even a Jewish reporter) have retained their Jewish character. And the fraternity has been actively recruiting Jews at its 121 chapters around the country.
During pledge week, the fraternity hosts barbecues, video game nights and formal dinners, and the brothers head out to court potential new members. This strategy appears to be working.
AEPi has been experiencing record growth even as fraternities and sororities nationwide have been losing members — according to the North American Interfraternity Conference, fraternity membership has dropped 12.5% since the early 1990s, to 350,000 from 400,000. Since February 2001, 21 new chapters of AEPi have opened up in North America, including Harvard, Emory, the University of Chicago and even Catholic Georgetown — a 20% spike in the number of chapters. Last year was AEPi’s second-best initiation year, with the fraternity recruiting 1,804 pledges, bringing the number of active AEPi members to slightly more than 4,000.
Even on unwelcoming campuses — such as colleges that have been attempting to disband fraternities — students have been itching to start up AEPi chapters.
During the late 1990s Dartmouth College president James Wright announced that the school was going to start phasing out fraternity life. Since then the administration has been at war with the Greek system — fraternities have been kicked off campus for what are sometimes relatively minor infractions of the rules.
This has not discouraged AEPi.
“We’ve been organizing at Dartmouth,” Dunn said. “There was interest of about 15 students. The problem is Dartmouth cannot pledge freshmen, and we can’t recognize” a chapter that doesn’t pledge freshmen. But, Dunn added, a “representative of Dartmouth [was invited] to our convention.”
Why is AEPi doing so well?
“The AEPi philosophy has been to pursue Jewish men and discourage the pledging of non-Jews,” Sanua said, “not only because of [AEPi’s] heritage, but because that’s what’s in the best interest of the fraternity. They couldn’t hope to compete unless they developed their own niche.”
“There’s a need for Jewish men who go to college — their first time away from home — to look for something familiar,” Dunn said. “Parents [also] are seeking this home-away-from-home concept.”
Dunn added that college campuses can be extremely lonely places for Jews, especially at a time when anti-Israel sentiment crops up so frequently on campuses.
Rutgers has been in the thick of debates between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups. Last month New Jersey Solidarity, a pro-Palestinian organization, originally planned on having its conference at Rutgers. (The group finally moved the conference to a nearby Ramada Inn after university administrators refused to let the event proceed on campus, citing a failure to submit the necessary paperwork.) In response a number of Jewish students organized “Israel Inspires,” a yearlong program of pro-Israel activities on campus. The battle climaxed — or anti-climaxed — when three fraternities and the Rutgers Hillel were vandalized: A large swastika was painted on the sidewalk outside of the AEPi house; racist graffiti also appeared on the Hillel house.
Pointing to an extremely faint outline of a swastika on the sidewalk just in front of the AEPi house, Benjamin Honig, the AEPi chapter president at Rutgers, said, “You can see it right there.”
Honig, a brown-haired 21-year-old statistics major, looks like the typical fraternity president. He wears a T-shirt, a baseball cap and the scruff of a college student too preoccupied to shave. Honig doesn’t seem too distressed by the swastika.
After leading a reporter into the fraternity house TV room, he proudly points to 15 large wooden paddles hanging on the wall engraved with the names of all of the new pledges. Each year, he said, more names are added to the paddles. This year more than two dozen names were added.
The brothers at Rutgers AEPi are a mild-mannered, happy-seeming bunch. “Last year we had the highest GPA,” or grade point average, of all 25 fraternities at Rutgers, Honig said with a grin, gladly feeding the stereotype that Jewish fraternities are the brainy houses on campus. (This stereotype found its way into the quintessential fraternity spoof, “Animal House,” when a fraternity president rushes into his house saying, “I just checked with the guys at the Jewish house, and they said every one of our answers on the psych test were wrong.”) Their house — a brand-new building that AEPi moved into two years ago — is salmon-pink. It is shockingly tidy. There are no cigarette butts on the floors or noticeable stains on the carpets, although a faint whiff of stale beer lingers in the air and posters of scantily clad young models decorate the bathroom stalls.
Honig knew he would join AEPi long before he was accepted into college. Both his brothers (his parents’ other sons, that is) were AEPi members at Rutgers, and he had been visiting the old AEPi house there since high school. (Just so one doesn’t assume that the AEPi boys are too goody-two-shoes, the old house — on the same spot as the new house — was condemned for not meeting safety regulations.) Coming from the heavily Jewish town of Cherry Hill, N.J. — where everyone knew someone or had a relative who was an AE* member — it was not a difficult choice.
“People join a frat to live with each other, to eat with each other, to play with each other,” said Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel, a few blocks away from AEPi. Many of “the students who are attracted [to AEPi] feel, ‘If I’m going to be in a fraternity, [then] I want some semblance’” of Judaism.
When not raising the roof, dancing with Torah scrolls or playing XBox on the large-screen television, AEPi members do volunteer work with the local B’nai B’rith youth organization or raise money for Magen David Adom, the Israeli emergency medical service. Many of AEPi’s brothers were involved in Israel Inspires, and a sizable chunk of the 70 brothers dine at Hillel for the Sabbath. They also help out at secular organizations, including Rutgers University Center for Exercise and Aging and the Franklin Park School.
In many ways, Jewish fraternity life is very different than it once was.
During the late-19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish fraternities played a much more integral role in the lives of Jewish college students than they do now. Students sometimes had difficulty finding a room in towns where locals wouldn’t rent to Jews. As for kosher fare, that was even scarcer.
Today, fraternities are more of a social option, which explains the religious diversity found in the Greek-lettered world today.
Russ Hogdahl is one of a handful of non-Jewish members of the Rutgers AEPi.
“I felt it had the most brotherhood of any fraternity” on campus, Hogdahl said. Hogdahl liked the brothers in the house, so he pledged. And although many of the secret rituals are incredibly Jewish, Hogdahl does not seem to mind. In fact, he seems to revel in them. When his brothers go to Hillel a few blocks away for Sabbath dinner, he often joins them. He has even begun taking a Jewish philosophy class.
On Yom Kippur, Hogdahl fasts with his brothers. “I don’t want to eat in front of them,” Hogdahl said. “It wouldn’t be a brotherly thing to do.”