Alina Dain Sharon, JNS.org
Wild booze-filled nights, toga parties, and even hazing. Those are the popular culture images that come to mind when thinking of fraternities and sororities, especially for those who are not personally exposed to Greek life on American campuses.
But the Jewish college fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) wants to dispel those images about its organization. By joining the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations umbrella group in January, the fraternity is cementing its reputation as a major Jewish organization and Israel advocacy force on college campuses.
As a national organization with affiliates on campuses across the country, and with 10,000 members plus many alumni “who are very active,” AEPi “brings an important constituency into the Conference and emphasizes our desire to get more young Jews involved,” said Conference of Presidents Executive Vice President Malcolm Hoenlein.
According to AEPi’s international president, Elan Carr, AEPi has roots similar to those of other Jewish fraternities. It was founded in 1913 at New York University because, at the time, Jews were not accepted into other Greek organizations.
“Like many traditional American social constructs, [fraternities] were restricted to white Anglo-Saxon protestants. So Jews were not welcomed,” Carr told JNS.org.
In the 1920s, there were dozens of Jewish fraternities, but eventually the limitations on Jewish acceptance to other fraternities waned, forcing Jewish Greek organizations to re-evaluate themselves.
“The purpose of our founding was to be a refuge from the climate that didn’t accept Jews, but now that we’re accepted, why do we exist and what’s our purpose?” Carr said.
In the 1950s some major Jewish fraternities redefined themselves as non-Jewish. The social upheaval of the 1960s and the Vietnam War in the 1970s led to a major decline in the popularity of fraternities, which were seen as traditional institutions that were out of place in the new counterculture. At that time, the debate about the identity of Jewish fraternities became a debate about survival. Jewish fraternities needed to recruit non-Jews in order to get new members and maintain their revenue. Today most Jewish fraternities from that era are gone.
AEPI was “not immune from that very same debate,” Carr said. Some brothers argued that, just as in other Jewish fraternities, removing the “Jewish” label was needed for AEPI’s survival. But others wanted to maintain the fraternity’s Jewish identity, values, and pride. The latter faction won the debate.
“There was no single moment more essential to our future than that debate in the mid-60s,” said Carr, explaining that the winning argument was that “we built AEPi on a [Jewish] brand. If we give up that brand, we’re sure to die.”
Today, as a result of that debate, AEPi is “the only fraternity that defines itself as a Jewish organization, that fights assimilation, that produces the Jewish leaders of tomorrow, and that fights for Israel,” Carr added.
According to University of California, Berkeley junior Avi Levine, the Jewish Identity Chair and Alumni Relations Chair at the university’s AEPi chapter, joining the Conference of Presidents was a “fantastic and brilliant move.”
“AEPi truly has something to offer that no other Jewish organization does, and that’s the youth. We hear all this talk about the Pew study and that Jewish youth is losing its Jewish identity and affinity toward Israel, and the Conference of Presidents, by taking in this organization of Jewish youth and Jewish collegiate members, shows the complete opposite. This is an organization of thousands of active brothers, and way more alumni, that strongly support Israel,” he said.
Nowhere is AEPi’s growing role in Israel advocacy more clear than at UC Berkeley, a campus now widely known for larger-than-average Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement activism and anti-Israel protests.
“When [UC Berkeley student government’s] divestment [vote] happened last year, and in 2010, the AEPi brothers went out and gave speeches and played an integral role in helping the rest of the Jewish community, and AEPi served as a space in which people were able to organize and help other students write speeches they wanted to give during [the time for] public comment,” Levine said.
For two years in a row, Berkeley’s student senate included a senator from AEPi, and another brother is running for the senate this year. While last year’s divestment resolution passed in an 11-9 vote, Levine said that “in the aftermath of that resolution many people realized what this was really about, and then people were really turned off.”
“So I think we did win more public opinion this time than we did [for the divestment vote] in 2010. There’s still a lot of anti-Israeli sentiment, there’s still a lot of activity, but it’s much less in your face. We don’t really see students standing on Israeli flags and putting out cigarettes on them like we used to,” Levine said.
Levine is also the president of Tikvah: Students for Israel, which he said was founded about seven years ago in AEPi’s basement “by a bunch of AEPi guys who were sick and tired of the [anti-Israel] situation on campus.”
“We definitely have sessions with our new members to talk about Judaism and how that’s an essential part of our fraternity, and as such, so is Zionism and being pro-Israel,” Levine said.
But Levine is not optimistic that the downturn in anti-Israel activism on his campus will last very long.
“I think it will come back very soon, as soon as there is someone on the that side willing to take the leadership and make it happen,” he said.
Levine first encountered AEPi as a junior in high school at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, where he attended an AEPi reception with his older brother, who was a member of the fraternity at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“It was definitely very different from your stereotypical fraternity that you see in a movie like ‘Animal House.’ It wasn’t what I was expecting and I was surprised in a good way. I saw the magnitude of the organization on the international level, and how it does so much more than just provide a place for what you see in the movies,” Levine said.
Carr said AEPi has branched out into an international organization with 180 campuses in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel, in addition to the U.S.
“The genius of AEPi is that we’ve taken this traditional American concept… and we’ve redefined in a Jewish way, which is very typical of what Jews have done in the Diaspora for millennia,” Carr said.
“We’ve created a product with international appeal” and “we represent a central principle of what it means to be Jewish.” Carr explained that brotherhood “is a Jewish concept,” citing the verse, “Hine matov umanaim shevet achim (brothers) gam yahad.”
In Europe, Car said, Jewish college students describe how safe they feel at AEPi given the increasing anti-Semitic climate on that continent. But installing AEPi in Israel was a bigger challenge.
While fraternities offer “growth, maturity, identity,” Carr said, AEPi’s question in Israel was, “How can we compete with the IDF?… We’re going to teach responsibility to a kid who carried an M-16 in Lebanon?”
Surprisingly, however, “What we’re seeing is that Israelis who are post-army love this concept of brotherhood and unity,” because they experienced it in their army units and “they miss it,” Carr said.
Another AEPi stereotype that is no less false than the “Animal House” description is that “everything we do is Jewish-related,” said UC Berkeley chapter leader Levine.
“We’re also a social group of friends, we also have our parties, and everyone is welcome. We’re inclusive to everyone and you don’t have to be Jewish to come and have fun here,” he said.
In terms of social activism, UC Berkeley’s AEPi is currently raising $20,000 for Save a Child’s Heart, an Israeli charity providing heart surgery to children in need around the world.
“We’re out on campus raising money. We’re doing this every day right now, spreading the message of tikkun olam (repairing the world),” Levine said.
At the Brandeis University chapter, AEPi brothers are fundraising for Keshet, a charity working with children with disabilities. Previously, the chapter raised $4,000 for Sharsheret, a Jewish organization helping women with breast cancer. Brothers have also offered their services to local soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
Jordan Schwartz, a sophomore studying business and Spanish language, was one of the brothers who refounded the Brandeis chapter in 2012. He is now the fundraising and philanthropy chair of that chapter.
“We’re trying to become a player on campus in the pro-Israel sphere, and I think we definitely have a lot going for us,” Schwartz told JNS.org.
Next month the Brandeis AEPi chapter is sending two students—one from the Delta Phi Epsilon sorority and the AEPi pledge master—to Washington, DC, to learn about how to be pro-Israel activists together with AIPAC.
AEPi’s philosophy is that Judaism and Israel advocacy go hand in hand.
“We all recognize the importance of Israel,” Schwartz said. “We may differ in opinion on how to secure its future, but I don’t think any of us disagree on the importance of the Jewish state.”