American-style Jewish fraternities cross Atlantic to Britain

The founding fathers of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity chapter in Birmingham, England, which is also home to a chapter of Zeta Beta Tau. ( Steven Senft)

The founding fathers of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity chapter in Birmingham, England, which is also home to a chapter of Zeta Beta Tau. ( Steven Senft)

LONDON (JTA) — Historically Jewish fraternities are leading the introduction of American Greek culture to the United Kingdom, but not everyone is throwing a toga party for England’s latest import.

Over the past year, Zeta Beta Tau and Alpha Epsilon Pi — Jewish fraternities whose membership is open to all — have established the first fraternity chapters in the United Kingdom. ZBT established its chapter in May in Nottingham, followed by a second in Birmingham. AEPi has opened chapters in Birmingham, Leeds and at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Except for St. Andrews, the other chapters are city based and open to members from all nearby universities.

The fraternities aim to appeal to Jewish students differently from the country’s existing network of Jewish societies, which operate similarly to Hillel chapters in the United States and are organized under the umbrella of the Union of Jewish Students. JSocs, as they are known, focus broadly on serving Jewish students and defending their interests, while the fraternity representatives say their focus will be on social events, volunteering and professional networking.

“It’s an unexplored territory for the U.K., so when [British Jewish students] see that and understand they can actually do that through their own means, they become really enthusiastic,” said Steven Senft, AEPi’s director of international expansion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Union of Jewish Students, which also promotes Jewish social life on campus, isn’t sold on the new kid on the block. UJS President Dan Grabiner called American fraternities “alien” to Jewish life at Britain’s universities and cited concerns about their single-sex nature and connection with binge drinking — a problem that has dogged Britain for years.

“From reports of fraternity life in the U.S., it appears that even if it is not their initial intention, they still encourage binge drinking and an elitist culture which is divisive to university life,” Grabiner said. “This, to UJS, does not add to Jewish life on campus.”

Laurence Bolotin, the Indiana-based executive director of ZBT, said that Jewish fraternities, whether in England or the United States, are “as relevant today as ever.”

"They provide college men with an opportunity to bond together, provide service to their campus and to their Jewish communities," Bolotin said. "Our groups at Nottingham and Birmingham have already become active and engaged in their local Jewish communities and plan on growing that involvement."

Though the fraternities are still small in England — the ZBT chapter at Birmingham has just 11 members and the AEPi St. Andrews branch has nine — they are growing, with expansion efforts planned by both groups to target universities in Manchester and London.

Ryan Lipman, 19, a first-year business administration student at Birmingham City University, is the president of the Birmingham ZBT chapter. Lipman, who decided to attend university in large part for its social aspects, said the stereotypes of fraternity and sorority life are not what ZBT is about.

“To be honest, all I know about fraternities was literally what I’ve seen in the movies — drinking, the hazing — things that have nothing to do with it at all,” Lipman said. “It’s kind of making friends for life. That’s the main reason I went to university, and I thought this couldn’t hurt it.”

Lipman said the organization also has helped him meet fellow Jews, which can be hard on campuses with small Jewish populations.

“There’s 400 people living on my campus and, of that, I know about four Jews and only two of them are guys,” he said of Birmingham, where the ZBT chapter spans several area universities. "You have to make it a kind of citywide one to get the reaction to a Jewish fraternity that we’re aiming to get."

For a variety of reasons, British fraternity life is unlikely to mirror its American counterpart. The chapters are smaller, there are no fraternity houses (yet), and universities offer little support. Public relations representatives from Nottingham and Leeds said they had no knowledge of the new chapters.

But frat culture is getting a boost in Britain through a more familiar medium: reality television. “Sorority Girls,” a new British reality show, follows five American sorority women trying to create a new chapter in Leeds. According to the show’s website, the women "must endure weeks of full-on challenges while remaining beautiful and perfectly turned out every single day."

The AEPi chapter in Leeds has reached out to the "Sorority Girls" producers in the hopes of being featured on the show. But despite the boost that such exposure could bring, fraternity leaders say they must be careful to find a balance between playing on fraternity stereotypes and dispelling them. And ZBT’s Bolotin says it’s important to create chapters smartly and sustainably, not just rush into the new frontier of British universities."

“We want to be very intentional about the way that we’re growing there,” he said. “We want to make sure that it’s going to be students that are going to add to our name.”

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