Jewish fraternity making its voice heard on national level

Wild booze-filled nights and toga parties. Those are the popular images that come to mind when people think of college fraternities and sororities.

But the Jewish 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.

AEPi fraternity brothers gather outside the U.C. Berkeley house at a recent initiation. photo/courtesy aepi

As a national organization with 10,000 members plus many alumni, 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.

AEPi has 180 chapters on campuses in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Israel.

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 at a time when Jews were not accepted into other Greek organizations.

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 ’70s led to a major decline in the popularity of fraternities. Today most Jewish fraternities from that era are gone.

Some AEPi brothers argued that 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.”

According to U.C. Berkeley junior Avi Levine of the school’s AEPi chapter, joining the Conference of Presidents was a “fantastic and brilliant move.”

“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,” he said. “This is an organization of thousands of active brothers, and way more alumni, that strongly support Israel.”

Nowhere is AEPi’s growing role in Israel advocacy more clear than at U.C. Berkeley, home of a strong boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Fraternity brothers were active during the student government’s divestment vote last year, Levine said, as well as in 2010 when, he said, “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.”

While last year’s divestment resolution passed on 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,” Levine said.

Levine is also the president of Tikvah: Students for Israel, a pro-Israel campus organization. “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.

“The genius of AEPi is that we’ve taken this traditional American concept … and we’ve redefined in a Jewish way,” said Carr, “which is very typical of what Jews have done in the diaspora for millennia.”