Togas and tallits for Jewish Greeks

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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 historically 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.”

While ZBT and Sigma Alpha Mu are emblazoned in popular memory as “Jewish fraternities” (especially among baby boomer college grads), that hasn’t technically been the case since the Eisenhower administration. Those frats altered their bylaws to “eliminate sectarianism as a qualification for membership” in 1954 and ’53, respectively, and now describe themselves as “founded by Jews” or “historically Jewish fraternities.”

Yet after decades of fervent nonsectarianism, some of the nation’s historically Jewish fraternities and sororities are re-emphasizing their Jewish roots.

While remaining open to non-Jewish members, those 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. It’s growing fast as a result.

Alpha Epsilon Phi’s confusingly similar namesake, fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, never altered its traditionally Jewish character. Founded in 1913, AEPi (though it does admit non-Jews, of course), raises money for Israeli and Jewish causes and boasts 132 houses in the United States and Canada including branches at U.C. Berkeley, Stanford, U.C Davis and U.C. Santa Cruz.

At Berkeley, various AEPi fraternity brothers said their house has been about 90 percent Jewish through the years (this year, some 43 of the 45 brothers are Jews).

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.

While Jews today do not face the kind of on-campus discrimination that inspired the founding of Jewish fraternities in the early 20th century, some believe Jewish Greek organizations are still vital.

At Oklahoma State, it’s not as if the two ZBT brothers will be issued yarmulkes anytime soon, but the fraternity’s national chapter affairs director, Laurence Bolotin, affirms, “We are trying to ‘re-Jew-venate.'”

Five years ago ZBT set up a national heritage committee to strengthen relations with other Jewish campus organizations. It will not, however, alter its charter, to once again become a “Jewish fraternity.”

But on campus today, 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.

That’s not to say they’re always religious. “For some, Hillel isn’t the answer and Chabad isn’t the answer. Jewish Greek life is,” Tarley says.

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

In 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.” Seven members of the eight-person pledge class opted to split.

Junior Elizabeth Katcoff, chapter vice president of recruitment, says these young women did not realize they were joining a Jewish sorority, since they were not told about AEPhi’s historic Jewish roots during recruitment.

By May, the chapter had five new pledges, of whom four are Jewish.

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 fundraising events and bringing in speakers to promote Birthright Israel trips. Within two years, the chapter had a Jewish majority. While Tarley admited that some were “uncomfortable” with the changes, she thinks “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 says. “We allow young women to be Jewish in a non-threatening manner.”

Above all, Greek life is social. Most join these organizations because they like the people in their chapter.

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 last year.

Suzanne Solomon and the 21 other young women who hoped to become AEPhi fought and won their case in the university’s Panhellenic system, after initially being told they couldn’t come on campus.

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

Sue Fishkoff writes for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency; Joe Eskenazi is a j. staff writer.