Last week New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel hosted the 100th anniversary convention of Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity, which bills itself as “The Jewish Fraternity of North America.” Given the direction the Jewish fraternity movement has taken over the past 40 years that appellation is no small matter. Over 1,200 alumni and undergraduate members participated in the event.
Founded in November, 1913 at New York University’s Washington Square campus, AEPi was one of a number of Jewish fraternities and sororities which began because Jewish college men and women were generally not admitted to the Christian groups with names like Sigma Chi (i.e. Sons of Christ) and Kappa Kappa Gamma (i.e. Keys to the Kingdom of God). The fraternity/sorority system thrived through the ‘50s and ‘60s and on some campuses like the University of Illinois, there were over 100 Greek-letter societies in operation.
Personally, I was initiated into AEPi at NYU’s Heights Campus in the Bronx and credit the fraternity for much of my adult development, and where I also learned many important organizational leadership skills. The Greek system, during those years, provided a haven for young Jewish men and women to meet each other and build relationships that lasted well into their adult lives.
But the system was under attack from two distinctly different directions, one legal and the other social. In the late ‘50s the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B’nai B’rith decided that separate Jewish and Christian fraternities and sororities were not representative of the American democratic spirit. So they mounted a legal battle to make it against the law for these organizations to discriminate on the basis of race or religion. As was often the case, we Jews ended up in the forefront of a movement that was inimical to our long-term benefit.
In this case, the ADL won the battle while the Jews lost the war.
The result of this effort opened up membership in the Greek system to everyone, without restriction. Some of the best and the brightest Jewish men and women were now able to get into Sigma Chi and, of course, the Jewish fraternities then began taking in non-Jews as well.
While there was an initial attempt to retain the original Jewish flavor of the groups, the protest movements of the ‘60s, the Vietnam War and the diminution of religious identity in America posed a challenge that could not be stemmed.
For example, by that time I had become a national officer of AEPi and, as more or less the “religious” Jew on the board I was asked to conduct the annual memorial service at the national convention. It was my practice to recite Kaddish at the end of the proceedings. But at a convention in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in the early ‘70s, in a bow to the few non-Jews who had voluntarily chosen to affiliate with AEPi, a resolution was passed prohibiting any further use of Hebrew in the ritual of the fraternity. This was in a fraternity whose coat of arms contained both a Star of David and a Menorah.
Soon after I resigned my position on the board and decided to devote my volunteer time to other community organizations that seemed prouder of the fact that they were Jewish and understood what that meant to the future of our people.
Fast-forward 40 years to today, when AEPi is now the only one of the many formerly Jewish fraternities that is still identifiably Jewish. To my surprise, there is now a fraternity rabbi, the organization raises funds for Jewish projects both in Israel and North America, Talmud classes are held in many of the chapter houses, and there are even chapters now in Israel at the Hebrew University and IDC Herzlia.
This, of course, did not happen by itself. A classmate of mine on the board, Phil Cohen, now retired and living in Miami, stayed with the organization through the years and single-handedly made good on his commitment to me at the time I left that things would come back. But it was no easy task and the fact that on the group’s 100th anniversary the Jewishness of the organization has regained its primacy is something of which he and others can be proud.
In retrospect, I, too, am proud that there is, once again, a place on college campuses where young Jewish men can gather in brotherhood and friendship to create bonds that will last them a lifetime for the good and welfare of the Jewish community as well. May it continue.
The author is a 30-year resident of Jerusalem, president of Atid EDI Ltd., an economic development consulting group and a former national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel.