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Mud-wrestling with Your Own: Jewish Greeks Return to Roots

August 24, 2006
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Two years ago, Rabbi Mark Bloom of Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham gave a talk on Jewish ethics at a national convention of Zeta Beta Tau. Founded in 1902, ZBT is the nation’s oldest Jewish fraternity. After the speech, two members from Oklahoma State University asked whether he’d pose for a picture.

“I said, ‘Sure, but what’s the big deal?’ ” recalls Bloom, who recently had come on board as the fraternity’s first chaplain. Admitting that there were no Jews in their chapter, the two young men told Bloom, “We’ve never met a real rabbi.”

These students may have known next to nothing about the Judaism that allegedly informs their fraternity, but that’s about to change.

After decades of fervent non-sectarianism, the nation’s five Jewish fraternities and sororities are re-emphasizing their Jewish roots.

While remaining open to non-Jewish members, these organizations are actively recruiting Jewish students, reintroducing rituals such as Shabbat meals and promoting Israel’s cause on campus with a vigor not seen in years.

“We’re a Jewish sorority, and staying true to who we are keeps us strong,” says Bonnie Wunsch, executive director of Alpha Epsilon Phi, founded in 1909 as the nation’s first Jewish sorority.

After years of “Jewish was in, Jewish was out,” AEPhi has been focusing strongly on its Jewish identity for about a decade, Wunsch says. And it’s growing fast as a result — three new chapters and two colonies, the precursor to a chapter, since April.

“No doubt, hands down our biggest strength is our Jewish identity,” Wunsch says. “It’s clear that we need to be even prouder, more out there with it.”

Things were very different 20 years ago when Bloom was a ZBT brother at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. His chapter was, he says, “80 percent Jewish,” but the brothers shied away from promoting their affiliation.

“You would often hear things in hash sessions like ‘he’s too Jewish, and we’re trying to get away from that,’ or ‘he’s only rushing ZBT because he thinks it’s a Jewish house,’ ” Bloom recalls.

In the 1960s and 1970s, every Jewish Greek organization, struggling for membership, opened its doors to non-Jews and began de-emphasizing its ethnic affiliation.

In the past few years, a new generation of “millenials” has hit the college campus. Ethnic identity is in, religious exploration is hip and fraternities are once again popular.

“For Jewish college students, the need to identify is stronger than ever,” says Dana Tarley, 20, an AEPhi sister at American University in Washington.

But not all of them identify religiously, or even politically.

“For some, Hillel isn’t the answer and Chabad isn’t the answer. Jewish Greek life is,” she says.

There’s also a marketing aspect, says Marianne Sanua, associate professor of history and Jewish studies at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

“If you say, ‘we’re just a fraternity like any other,’ who would join when there are others that are more prestigious? If you say, ‘we’re a Jewish sorority,’ you have your pick of the Jewish students.”

While many members and the national leadership hail the move as long overdue, others feel left out and confused.

Some are voting with their feet. This past February, a dozen AEPhi sisters at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, quit after chapter officials announced the group’s “return to its national identity.” The bolters included seven of the eight-member pledge class.

According to junior Elizabeth Katcoff, chapter vice president of recruitment, these young women did not realize they were joining a Jewish sorority. They were not told about AEPhi’s historic Jewish roots during recruitment, which Katcoff acknowledges was a mistake.

By May, the MIT chapter had five new pledges, of whom four are Jewish. But bad feelings persist, AEPhi officials admit.

“This is fairly typical of what the historically Jewish fraternities and sororities are going through,” says Sanua, author of “Going Greek: Jewish College Fraternities in the United States, 1895-1945.” “Returning to their Jewish roots is a highly delicate process and can be very controversial.”

Tarley says AEPhi “wasn’t presenting itself as Jewish” when she joined two years ago. She spearheaded her chapter’s return to its roots, organizing Jewish holiday meals, making sure sisters showed up for pro-Israel fund-raising events and bringing in speakers to promote birthright israel trips. Within two years, the chapter had a Jewish majority.

Some of the sisters were “uncomfortable” with the changes, she admits, but adds, “dissension is healthy.”

Wunsch points out that AEPhi and the other historically Jewish Greek houses “are culturally Jewish, not religious,” even when they put up mezuzahs or say Jewish blessings before Shabbat dinners.

“That’s all we do that’s religious,” Wunsch maintains. “We allow young women to be Jewish in a non-threatening manner.”

The Jewish Greek organizations all raise money for Jewish and non-Jewish charities, including Israeli charities such as hospitals and Magen David Adom, the country’s emergency medical service. That’s a big part of what Greek life is about, members say, and the non-Jews in the chapters aren’t put off by it.

But above all, Greek life is social. Most students join these fraternal organizations because they like the people in their chapter; only later do they find they may also like what it represents.

Sometimes fledgling chapters run into opposition from Jewish members of non-Jewish fraternities and sororities, who fear that a new Jewish Greek house will recruit desirable Jewish students.

That happened at the University of Arizona this past year, when AEPhi formed its newest colony.

“We had a problem with the Jewish girls in Delta Gamma,” says Suzanne Solomon, 20. “They said, ‘you can’t come on campus.’ “

Solomon and the 21 other young women who hoped to become AEPhi fought and won the case in the university’s Panhellenic, which controls campus sorority life.

“We’re 100 percent Jewish,” Solomon enthuses, adding that she expects a big social payoff: “When Jewish girls come, Jewish boys follow.”

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