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Is a Jewish Fraternity Like AEPi Only for Jews?

No one seemed to care that Eun Bae was Korean American and Christian.

When the Ohio State University freshman started hanging out with the Jewish brothers of Alpha Epsilon Pi, members of the fraternity quickly bonded with the affable engineering student. They didn’t engage him in talks about his faith or his ethnicity; they invited him to watch football games and eat chicken at Buffalo Wild Wings.

By rush season of January 2014, Bae unhesitatingly chose AEPi, a historically Jewish fraternity, as the house he wanted to join. And the chapter’s 110 young men — all of them Jewish — were quick to welcome him in.

Brothers — But Then, Not: The close friendship between Eun Bae (left) and AEPi member Robbie Pearlmutter moved Bae to bid AEPi at Ohio State, which admitted him — until pressure from national AEPi officials forced the frat to rescind the offer. Image by Courtesy of Eun BaE

But Bae’s non-Jewish background met a very different reception when news of it got to AEPi’s national headquarters in Indianapolis. Soon after his admission, Grant Bigman, director of chapter operations at the fraternity’s national organization, paid a visit to the Ohio State house’s executive board and laid out the possible consequences. If the chapter insisted on admitting a non-Jew, Bigman told them, it could face a membership review.

“It’s really detrimental to a chapter when this happens,” one person familiar with the episode said, stressing how emphatic the message was. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the incident even today.

The Ohio State brothers had good reason to know what a membership review might mean. In the past, AEPi houses that underwent such investigations had seen their officers or even most of the rank-and-file brothers stripped of membership.

An unofficial poll of Ohio State’s AEPi chapter members after Bigman’s visit showed that 60% of the house still favored bidding non-Jews. But the executive board felt its hands were tied.

“Eun, this is not what we wanted to happen, but I’m sorry,” Bae recalled the house president telling him in a difficult phone call.

Jonathan Pierce, a spokesman for AEPi’s national office, declined to comment on the Ohio State chapter’s exchange with Bigman. But in an email to the Forward, he wrote: “Let me be clear: AEPi is loudly and proudly a Jewish organization with a Jewish mission (Developing Leadership for Jewish Communities). We are nondiscriminatory but, like any other organization, want our members to work towards fulfilling our mission.”

Lately, the tensions generated by AEPi’s stated commitments to both nondiscrimination and Jewish identity seem to be bubbling over. In addition to the Ohio State episode, the AEPi chapter at Tufts University in Boston disaffiliated from the national organization last year, citing its differences with the national office over admitting non-Jews. The year before that, AEPi’s Brown University chapter disaffiliated for the same reason. And in 2009, the fraternity’s national office locked all the members of its University of Virginia chapter out of their house over what it said was a hazing allegation, but house members called retaliation for their election of a non-Jewish president for the second straight time.

Members of other chapters around the country have also reported pressure from the fraternity’s national office to bid only Jews.

“It was to the point where we felt threatened enough to feel we had to fabricate our numbers,” said Brown’s AEPi chapter president, Ben Owens, in an interview with the Forward, referring to the data on Jewish bids that his house sent in to the national office.

Pierce angrily dismissed the contention that AEPi penalized its chapters for admitting non-Jews. “We have no idea how many of our undergraduates or alumni are Jewish, if they consider themselves Jewish or how to classify someone as Jewish,” he wrote in his email. “I continue to personally resent that question and the historical implications in it.”

In an era accentuating the values on campus of ethnic pride on one hand and diversity and social justice on the other, AEPi’s once seemingly easy straddle of both in its public stance has become increasingly hard to negotiate. Interviews with millennials now living in AEPi fraternity houses and statements by officials setting the organization’s national policies suggest a real generational divide over how Jewish AEPi should be. Moreover, how this particular fraternity resolves this divide really matters.

With upward of 10,000 students in seven countries on some 188 campuses, and revenues of $2.2 million in 2015, AEPi is America’s ninth largest fraternity and, by far, the country’s largest Jewish fraternity. And in a way, like Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which established a state at once both Jewish and publicly committed to equal rights, AEPi’s mission statement, with its claims to be both Jewish and non-discriminatory, contains within it an inherent long-standing tension.

Like Israel’s declaration, the fraternity’s mission statement is clear in affirming its secularism. Religion is not a criterion for admission.

“Our basic purpose is to provide the opportunity for a Jewish man to be able to join a Jewish organization whose purpose is not specifically religious, but rather social and cultural in nature,” the mission statement says. “Alpha Epsilon Pi is a Jewish fraternity, though nondiscriminatory and open to all who are willing to espouse its purpose and values.”

Yet AEPi is deeply involved in Jewish life in a way that the few other Jewish fraternities still in existence are not. Among other things, it maintains official partnerships with powerful organizations like B’nai B’rith International, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Birthright Israel, Chabad-Lubavitch and BBYO. It is also a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — the only Jewish fraternity that has this perch in the umbrella group where national communal policy on issues related to Israel and other foreign matters are hammered out.

In 2013, AEPi chapters collectively donated $700,000 to a total of seven different Jewish and Israeli philanthropies. The next year they gave $1 million to 10 philanthropies.

“One of the reasons we’ve grown over the years is our emphasis on Jewishness,” said Pierce, who is himself an AEPi alum from Vanderbilt University.

Studies have shown that a correlation exists between adolescent involvement in Jewish social networks and the level of an individual’s engagement in Jewish life in adulthood.

“If you look at people’s Jewish friends as teenagers, that affects their Jewishness in later years,” said Steven M. Cohen, co-author of the study “Who You Knew Affects How You Jew.”

AEPi seems to understand this.

“We’re larger than the vast majority of the goyishe fraternities,” said Andy Borans, AEPi’s executive director, in a speech at the Chabad Partners Conference in 2014, using a Yiddish, slightly pejorative word for “non-Jewish.” “And that’s because our kids want to associate. They want to be part of a group that they like and feel comfortable with.”

But this past January, when Owens published an article in Brown’s campus newspaper publicly disclosing his chapter’s decision to disaffiliate, he received floods of emails from fellow brothers at other campuses sharing their same concerns about the national office, he said. Some praised his courage and voiced regret that they didn’t do the same. For most chapters, disaffiliation means the likely loss of the very fraternity house in which they live, not to mention the national network of brothers and alumni that comes with affiliation. But at Brown, the chapter is housed in an on-campus dorm.

“I can definitely tell you firsthand that [in] my fraternity — and that speaks for 220 brothers — the vast majority is very forward thinking,” said Eric Moshell, a 2016 graduate of the Indiana University chapter. “It’s not like the nationals’ [way of] thinking. They didn’t want non-Jews in the fraternity.” The IU brothers, Moshell said, “wanted to include anyone of any race, religion, anyone in the fraternity. As long as you fit and you were a good individual.”

The debate about exclusivity surrounding Jewish Greek houses isn’t new. In the 1950s, college deans, along with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, actually denounced Jewish fraternities for excluding non-Jews.

“Different individuals and organizations felt differently about to what extent Jewish groups, including fraternities and sororities, should remain exclusively Jewish or whether Jews should be on the front line of truly and wholly integrating American society,” said Shira Kohn, a visiting research fellow in Judaic studies at Brooklyn College who wrote her dissertation on Jewish sororities. “I would suggest that some of these same questions and concerns are very relevant to today’s conversation,” Kohn said.

Fraternities have always been an inherent part of American life, and a source of conflict for Jews.

Five students from the College of William & Mary created the first fraternity in 1776, mere months afterthe Declaration of Independence was signed. In the years following, fraternities emerged as strictly Christian brotherhoods, incorporating crosses on their emblems. Men typically said grace before meals and attended church, according to Miriam Sanua Dalin, who wrote “Going Greek: Jewish College Fraternities 1894–1945.”

These societies soon gained a reputation as highbrow clubs. Membership often gave brothers opportunities to network, garner wealth and secure prestigious jobs upon graduation. They forbade minorities from joining by including restrictive clauses in their bylaws.

But Jews still yearned to belong. The creation of Jewish fraternities was, ironically, both a response to anti-Semitism and a way to emulate an anti-Semitic society.

“It never occurred to most fraternities that Jews, or for that matter Catholics, African Americans, wanted to seek entry to their groups,” Kohn said.

Free At Last? Members of Tufts University’s AEPi chapter gather in front of their house for a photo after deciding to disaffiliate from the national fraternity due to differences over admitting non-Jews. Image by Courtesy of the brothers of Pi Delta

The first Jewish fraternity to be established in America was Zeta Beta Tau, or ZBT, founded in 1898. Others soon followed. Jewish men who formed fraternities often came from poor immigrant Orthodox families, including those who formed AEPi. They enrolled in night classes as a supplement to their blue-collar jobs, which the Greek system’s elite looked down on.

As the story goes, a New York University star basketball player and his Jewish friends founded AEPi under the arch at Washington Square Park in 1913. At the time, about 17 Jewish fraternities existed, and outsiders ranked AEPi last in terms of reputation. But as the number of Jewish students on campus grew after World War II, AEPi did, too, thanks in particular to its ban on physical hazing, which attracted veterans returning from combat. Today AEPi, ZBT and Sigma Alpha Mu are the only Jewish fraternities still standing.

“They were very, very ambitious from the beginning,” Dalin said. “AEPi wanted to train men as Jewish leaders for the Jewish community.”

The very Jewishness that molded these fraternities later proved controversial. In 1953, the State University of New York — among other college authorities around the country — called on Greek houses, both Jewish and Christian, to disaffiliate from their respective national offices in order to pledge minorities, including blacks.

“You had a rebellion on behalf of the local fraternities because they very often wanted to pledge [other students],” Dalin said. “So college authorities were saying, ‘Break with your national and then you are no longer bound by the rules.’”

AJC, ADL and the National Committee on Fraternities in Education backed SUNY with data and reports.

According to Kohn and Dalin, representatives of AJC and ADL met with the fraternities’ national organization heads to urge them to drop their restrictive clauses. ZBT, which had such a clause, engaged in a grueling three-hour debate about whether to open up membership.

“So there was this intra-Jewish debate: To what extent can and should a group be exclusively Jewish?” Kohn said. “That’s really the battle playing out in the 1950s.”

Rabbi Arthur Waskow was president of AEPi at Johns Hopkins University before graduating in 1954. He remembered butting heads with the fraternity’s national office over this issue, essentially taking the side of ADL and AJC on behalf of an inclusive policy. Much to the fury of AEPi’s national office, Waskow recalled, he also roomed with Polish and Italian non-Jewish men in his house.

“The national was outraged that we were doing that,” he said, though AEPi at the time did not have language in its constitution forbidding Christians and blacks.

One of those non-Jewish members, Frank Cegelski, succeeded Waskow as president, Waskow recounted. Yet when George Toll, AEPi’s national executive director, wanted to communicate with the chapter, he still addressed his letters to Waskow, bypassing his Polish American successor.

“It was clear they pretended like he didn’t exist,” said Waskow, who is today an elder statesman of the Jewish activist left.

According to Kohn, it was as a result of the pressure from college deans and Jewish groups that Jewish fraternities ensured their constitutions were nonsectarian in nature, though some still included nods to their group’s Jewish past—like the dual language that remains in AEPi’s mission statement today.

“The phrasing that they use is really interesting, because it is almost talking both ways,” Kohn said.

That’s not the way Pierce sees it. In his email to the Forward, he denied the existence of any such tensions.

“Any non-Jewish man who wants to be in a Jewish fraternity and will help us fulfill our mission to develop leadership for the Jewish community is welcome to join (assuming they also agree to comply with all of rules and the rules of their University and other civic entities),” he wrote.

The question of whether discrimination in the admission of non-Jews, if it is taking place, would even be legal is an entirely separate issue­—and, according to legal experts, among the murkiest under federal civil rights law. Case law, wrote Margaret Koppen of the University of Arizona College of Law in a review of the issue, has produced “amazingly erratic results.”

By the time 1984 rolled around, the turmoil of the civil rights era and the youth rebellion of the 1960s and ’70s had taken their toll on Jewish fraternities. To many young Jewish men, they appeared parochial. That year, Toll, who served as AEPi’s national executive director for 31 years, published an article defending purely Jewish fraternities against critics who predicted their demise. “In Defense of Jewish Fraternities” begins by lamenting that once upon a time, Jewish men dated Jewish women, “Then along came the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee,” which saw fraternities as “evil,” he wrote, in Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas.

But today, AJC praises Jewish houses.

“The Jewish fraternity is a very positive institution on campus that allows Jews to hang out with one another,” said Steven Bayme, director of Contemporary Jewish Life at AJC. At the same time, he said, “I fully have no problem with the idea of non-Jews inside Jewish fraternities. I think it’s a statement of our maturity in America that [Jews are] so well integrated into American societies.”

Bayme did have one reservation: “If a Jewish fraternity no longer has a majority of Jews in it, then you have an issue.”

American Jewish Historical Society
Longstanding Pride: AEPi representatives gather at Camp High Point, N.Y. in 1950 for a meeting at the National Hillel Institute.
Image by American Jewish Historical Society

In 1990, this is just what happened at AEPi’s chapter at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Only six of the house’s 55 members were Jewish. Officials from the national organization, citing violations of the house’s insurance policy, came and interviewed each member, one on one, in a thoroughgoing membership review.

According to AEPi member Andrew Rogove of MIT, Andy Borans, the national executive director, bluntly asked him during his interview, “What’s a nice boy like you doing in a fraternity like this?” causing Rogove to stand up and walk out of the room.

Asked about this exchange, Pierce, the national office spokesman, said in an email, “Andy has no recollection of saying that during a meeting at MIT 16 years ago, but that does not mean he is either confirming or denying it.”

Ultimately, citing the insurance violations, the national organization revoked AEPi membership for all but six of the MIT brothers; four of the house’s six Jews were among those exempt.

M. Travis Stier, the MIT chapter president at the time, called the insurance policy violations a pretext. “[W]e think that Alpha Epsilon Pi is an organization that is de facto discriminatory, but does not believe it is,” he told The New York Times.

Throughout all this, Jewish fraternities have historically wondered: If African-American, pan-Asian and Latin houses recruit within their ethnic backgrounds, why can’t we?

Gregory Parks, an associate professor at Wake Forest University School of Law who has written extensively about African-American Greek life, said that some white members do join black fraternities. He confessed a sense of leeriness that these members might later take leadership positions in a predominantly and historically black house.

“I do know of instances where very powerful members of these organizations inside and outside have commented on white members and their access to power and influence in these organizations,” he said.

Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, a historically black school, and the author of “Black Greek 101,” said that African-American fraternities typically look at whether potential members will be committed to concerns affecting the black community, such as social and racial justice, regardless of race.

“The litmus test is… are you really interested in these issues,” he said regarding would-be members who are not African American. “None of the African-American houses have ever had rules in the books that say you can’t join.”

Kimbrough also raised a question: Who does AEPi consider Jewish?

“That is the question for AEPi today,” he said. “Is it a historically Jewish group or is it a group of practicing Jews?”

Borans, AEPi’s leader, came to his post fresh out of Florida State University in 1980. He is 58 today, but retains a commanding if somewhat portly presence. With a smooth, impressively tanned complexion, jet-black hair that’s begun to recede, and square, evenly spaced teeth, he projects an aura of youthful vigor.

Borans declined a request for an interview with the Forward, but when he speaks on video presentations, his persuasive oratory makes you want to be a part of AEPi, or at least date someone in AEPi. He paints a picture of a world filled with stand-up men, like future doctors and lawyers who are proud of their Jewishness and who want to become model citizens — while having fun along the way, of course. He gloats like a proud papa bear.

“It’s a labor of love to deal with college students,” he said at a B’nai B’rith conference in 2012. He wore a fat gold pinky ring that day, which glinted as he gripped the podium.

“We’re a different organization than you see on ‘Animal House’ and television and all that,” he continued. Then he paused and smiled. “Ninety-eight percent,” he conceded, and the crowd laughed along with him.

“They’re embracing this very visible Jewishness,” Kohn said. “They’re really claiming the mantle of being ‘the Jewish fraternity.’ Through partnership with AIPAC, they’re basically saying to perspective members that ‘this is part of our identity that we’re embracing this Jewish agenda.’”

Some undergrads might not have the same Jewish agenda, though. And despite the national officer’s message, they may be joining for other reasons. A number of the brothers or alumni interviewed — both Jewish and not — said they joined AEPi because they bonded with the brothers in the house and liked the values to which those brothers adhered. No one mentioned wishing to become more involved in Jewish life, though they acknowledged that residing with like-minded people was a draw.

“I think it has to do with their Jewish background, but it’s more about the people they have become rather than the religion they practice,” said Spencer Correnti, a 2016 graduate of the University of Florida.

At Ohio State this was the kind of social bonding that moved Bae and the brothers at AEPi to believe they were made for each other.

“There was no one moment that drew me to them, but a collection of good times and memories,” Bae mused. “I believe the exec board at the time, they were not ready to make that move. I felt a little sad about it at first. The kids that are on campus are not a huge representation of the nationals.”

In fact, AEPi national officials sought to punish the Ohio State brothers even after the house complied with their demands to reject Bae. At a convention some months after the episode, national officials gave the chapter a low evaluation for its “congruence with values” —meaning how well the house reflected the national organization’s beliefs — specifically for wanting to bid Bae.

Asked about this, Pierce declined to comment. But he appeared to confirm the sanction, noting that AEPi evaluations “are private documents… and should not be shared with others. Obviously, someone at Ohio State did so without our consent.”

He added: “Any organization has a right to expect its members and member chapters to be congruent with its values. Would the Young Democrats of America want its chapter at… Columbia to endorse Donald Trump? Do you think that chapter might get a negative evaluation from the national organization? Of course they would.”

The next year, AEPi’s Ohio State chapter, now under different leadership, again extended a bid to Bae — with the condition that he incorporate himself into Jewish life on campus, like attending Hillel events or Sabbath dinners. Though Bae appreciated the effort, it made him uncomfortable to assume this role.

“If I were to join I didn’t want that feeling on my shoulder, ‘Oh I better do this, I better do this,’ just to make nationals happy,” he said.

Instead, Bae joined Tau Kappa Epsilon, which he described as a “diverse” house.

Meanwhile, the Ohio State AEPi chapter has continued to push the national office to extend offers to other non-Jewish men following the Bae episode, and succeeded, according to a couple of sources.

“I don’t know if it’s true,” said Bae, “but their whole push for the non-Jewish bid for rushes, they said it started with me.”

Contact Britta Lokting at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter,@brittalokting


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