U.C. Davis sorority tries to set record straight after MTV show

When members of the Jewish sorority Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi recently appeared at UCLA Hillel, they hoped to set the record straight.

The four U.C. Davis students were on campus to discuss the ups and downs of becoming instant celebrities after MTV profiled their house on the hit reality-based series, "Sorority Life," often unfairly, they said.

The show at times depicted members as bickering, catty, religiously exclusive party girls, prompting a backlash in the Greek and Jewish press after the series aired last summer. But it neglected the sisters themselves, their devotion to charity work, studying and Jewish life, Sigma leaders said.

"When the cameras are rolling 24 hours a day, seven days a week and less than 1 percent is aired, it's not all 'real,'" Pauli Horowitz, 20, told about 150 UCLA participants.

With the help of the MorningStar Commission, which promotes positive and diverse images of Jewish women in the media, the sisters have been working to combat the negative publicity. At UCLA, they described donating $10,000 of their MTV proceeds to Hillel and inspiring up to 14 new Sigma chapters as a result of the show.

While some of the UCLA participants — many of them sorority members — lauded Sigma, others asked pointed questions. The president of one house inquired whether the women "feel responsible to go in and reverse the negative stereotype that's resulted" from the series.

Lauren Severs of Alpha Delta Pi alleged that "our numbers are down because MTV does portray you guys and the Greek system negatively."

Jenna Howard, a Jewish member of a non-Jewish sorority, privately said she was "disheartened" to see Sigma members initially consider excluding non-Jewish pledges.

"That upset me because in the past, Jews were excluded from houses," she said.

Members of the MorningStar Commission, which co-sponsored the event, had a different perspective. "By daring to live their lives on camera, these women showed non-Jewish viewers they're not so different from anyone else," said Olivia Cohen-Cutler, an ABC executive. "They demystified the idea that Jewish women are all princesses or looking for rich husbands."

Sigma's journey began in October 2001, when a production company approached the approximately 45 members about appearing on the first season of "Sorority Life."

According to Becca Ballon, 22, the outgoing president, the sorority appealed to producers because it's a fledgling, independent house capable of making its own decisions.

After thoroughly researching the pros and cons, the sisters agreed to let five camera crews follow them around for three months in spring 2002. They did so because they hoped the show would help eradicate clichés about Jews and sororities, among other reasons.

It was only after the sisters had signed MTV waivers that producers announced they were lodging six pledges in a rental house, "a complete MTV creation," according to Ballon. It turned out the pledges were disproportionately non-Jewish "because some women simply wanted to be on TV," Ballon said. That prompted a heated, in-house debate about the Jewish question, although all who showed interest during rush week were eventually invited to pledge. Nevertheless, angry e-mails flooded Internet message boards.

"Reading some of the comments really got to me," said Horowitz, who was singled out for her strong point of view.

As the series continued to air last summer, Sigma received an anti-Semitic e-mail, and members were castigated in the Greek and Jewish press. In an article published in The Forward and The L.A. Jewish Journal, an official worried the series would cause "a backlash against the Jewish religion and the Jews."

In response, Michele Schwartz, program director of Hillel at Davis and Sacramento, called the Anti-Defamation League and then the Los Angeles-based MorningStar Commission. "I wanted something done publicly to show Jewish support for the sisters," Schwartz said in a telephone interview. "I was also concerned that when school started, there would be a lot of fallout, because I don't think they were necessarily portrayed as the intelligent, enthusiastic Jewish women they really are."

MorningStar board members Cohen-Cutler and Linda Shayne, a writer-director, promptly flew to Davis to conduct a Jewish community meeting and media training sessions for the students, who were being inundated with interview requests.

"It was a trying time but they really empowered us," Ballon said.

MorningStar subsequently invited Ballon, Horowitz and newly installed officers Stacey Saber and Jessica Sion to speak April 27 at UCLA, where they signed the T-shirts Sigma is selling to benefit Hadassah. (The slogan reads "From the Bible to MTV, Jewish women still strong.")

When the questions got tough, Shayne tried to put it all in perspective. "A lot of you are talking about the negatives because you're protective of your sorority and your Jewish community," she told the participants. "But there was a bravery in these women revealing themselves with all their ups and downs. It's a great thing they did in that there were dozens of Jewish women on TV last year. And [normally] you couldn't pay a network to put Jewish women on TV and show the range of positives and negatives and everything in between."

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal