Parties, friends, ladies and chaos — these are all components of what appears to be the fraternity lifestyle, as portrayed by the film industry. With such shallow-seeming incentives, many bystanders cannot understand the reasons for joining such groups. However, the true elements of the initial fraternity movement are independence, prestige and a scholarly union. Desiring such amenities, yet excluded from them on ethnic grounds, American Jewish men began to form their own cultural fraternities in the United States, creating a strong brotherhood that exists on campuses across the country, including UCLA.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many fraternities emerged to create academic societies in which the prestige and patriotism would illustrate the new American independence from Britain. The early 1900s then saw mass immigration movements from Eastern European countries to the United States. Eastern European Jews sought American acculturation and began founding social and academic societies as early as 1895 at the University of Georgia. The majority of the newly formed fraternities were established in New York, especially between 1898 and 1913.
Many emmigrating Jews struggled to assimilate into American culture, as they were not completely accepted. Anti-Semitism increased as many Jewish men were refused initiation into Christian-based fraternities, and so they decided to organize their own. As Marianne R. Sanua expresses in her book, “Going Greek,” many Jewish Greeks struggled to represent the American Jew in the best light, which often meant significantly toning down their “Jewishness.” She continues on to explain that many leaders of these sprouting Jewish fraternities fought for acceptance and recognition to the point of hypocrisy. Fearing “conspicuous behavior,” many Jewish men were not accepted to the Jewish fraternities if they kept kosher, appeared “too” Jewish, or were not charming and attractive enough. She describes them as working under “bitter dignity and self-respect in striving for the highest standards.” The Jewish men of these fraternities had adopted the judgments of the contemporary culture to discriminate against one another in a desperate attempt to be accepted by the white-Anglo majority.
Still, many Jewish fraternities grew beyond the desire for white-Anglo approval. Richard J. H. Gottheil, a professor at Columbia University and strong Zionist, wanted to unite the Zionist movement under an organization at Columbia and founded Zeta Beta Tau as a youth Zionist movement. The ZBT men became very social among each other and decided to receive recognition as a Greek-letter fraternity with a prominent Jewish community. Zeta Beta Tau thus became the first national Jewish fraternity.
In 1913, another fraternity that today has strong Jewish representation on the UCLA campus was initiated. After a Jewish star basketball player was invited into a fraternity at NYU, he quickly became aware that ten of his Jewish comrades were not allowed to join. The 11 men instead created Alpha Epsilon Pi — a fraternity that would promote Jewish ideals. Within a year, they became an international organization.
Following the civil rights movements in the 1950s, many Greek fraternities decided to lift their restrictions on cultural and/or religious affiliations. As membership quickly opened, the Jewish pledge pool decreased for the Jewish-based fraternities. To this day, fraternities, especially AEPi, have maintained a majority-Jewish presence. While maintaining the Jewish culture, these men have illustrated the advancement of Jewish social recognition in the once Anglo-white dominated society.
UCLA AEPi member Elliot Cherkas explained, “This house was the first to reach out to me…they were my first friends at UCLA, so they mean a lot to me.”
The fact that the fraternity was completely Jewish was an important bonding factor for him: “The Jewish presence is a nice way to instantly connect with other guys in the house; at the very least, it is a similarity on a basic level.”
Another UCLA AEPi member, Yoni Scharf, said that the fraternity is 98% Jewish. “I joined because I really like the guys. There is no other frat that is all Jewish. I have a lot of cousins and family in AEPi.” This shared brotherhood with many family members is a big draw for many AEPi members.
A UCLA Zeta Beta Tau member, Sam Hirsch, noted that the UCLA chapter of ZBT is no longer majority-Jewish. Hirsch noted that his father once was an Alpha Rho ZBT (the UCLA chapter).
“I didn’t join the house [just] because he was in it, but it is certainly cool to share the brotherhood and memories with my father,” said Hirsch.
Hirsch also noted that ZBT is more secular at UCLA than at other schools, and that when his father was a member of the UCLA ZBT, there was a stronger Jewish presence.
Rabbi Jacob Rupp, rabbi at JAM UCLA, is a member of the UC San Diego chapter of AEPi. He was initially intrigued by the Jewish connection but also genuinely enjoyed meeting the members that the fraternity attracted.
Although the Jewish presence in Greek life continues to develop, he believes that there is a lot more growth necessary to strengthen the idea of a Jewish fraternity.
“There is always a tension between [a] fraternity and Judaism — how much Jewish culture are we going to incorporate, and how much fraternity culture are we going to incorporate?” said Rabbi Rupp.
The fraternity provided Rupp with friendships, but the experience itself was not necessarily Jewish. While AEPi was branded Jewish, there was not a meaningful Jewish identity behind the title. In order to enhance the Jewish-Greek system, Rabbi Rupp explained, “A major lacking in the Jewish fraternity organization is that it needs more emphasis on Judaism. Men join these fraternities for the Jewish experience — if it was a matter of secular experience, they could have chosen any other group. These groups are selling an exciting product that is Jewish brotherhood, but if there was more of a focus on Judaism, the brotherhood would be enhanced.”