Originally published in The Forward on September 1st, 2013.
Many kegs have been tapped since the night of November 7, 1913, when 11 Jewish students gathered at New York University to found the first official chapter of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. Over the next 100 years, the organization, most commonly known as AEPi, would grow — from a small sanctuary for ostracized Jews into an influential international fraternity encompassing 177 active chapters in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Israel.
“The story of AEPi is the story of extreme upward mobility,” said Marianne Sanua, an American Jewish historian at Florida Atlantic University and the author of “Going Greek: Jewish College Fraternities in the United States, 1895–1945.”
“AEPi is absolutely unique. They are the only historically Jewish fraternity to still hold on to their Jewish identity. They don’t hesitate to call themselves a Jewish fraternity, and they don’t hesitate to say they prefer most of their members to be Jewish.”
AEPi reaches more than 9,000 undergraduates worldwide, and boasts an alumni network of more than 80,000 men. Their challenges reflect many of the same struggles of the larger Jewish Diaspora: its relationship to Israel, the increasingly pluralistic society in which it exists and the extent to which young people outwardly identify with Jewish institutional culture.
In August, more than 1,400 students, alumni and Jewish institutional leaders gathered at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to commemorate AEPi’s centennial anniversary.
“The audience heard a very unequivocal message about what AEPi is and the values we uphold,” said Elan Carr, AEPi’s international president and supreme master. “And those values are Jewish continuity, tikkun olam, Jewish leadership and support for Israel.”
One attendee, Barry Magen, who owns a Jewish art company in Elkins Park, Pa., reflected: “The conference gave me hope. I really believe that their leadership development is unparalleled.”
AEPi’s rise to such prominence was always an unlikely story.
In the early 20th century, fraternities across the United States were powerful presences on college campuses — and they unabashedly shut their doors to Jewish students. This exclusion, according to Sanua, was accomplished through restrictive clauses in fraternity constitutions and gentlemen’s agreements. In response, Jews formed their own Greek organizations; by the 1920s, at least 17 national Jewish sororities and fraternities existed in the United States, including Alpha Epsilon Phi and Zeta Beta Tau.
“This was their peak,” Sanua said. “Many of them went out of business during the Depression, or merged with one another.”
Additional attrition ensued in the 1960s and ’70s. Prompted by new civil rights legislation, colleges cracked down on such discriminatory practices as restrictive clauses in the constitutions of both non-Jewish and Jewish fraternities. The Vietnam War also contributed to the shifting milieu; liberal college students rebelled against authority as a whole and the Greek system — which they perceived as a conservative, hidebound institution.
“In America there was a general mood that fraternities were undemocratic, socially exclusive and destructive,” Sanua said.
The 1980s, however, brought a return to tradition, as well as Greek life’s revival as a vaunted campus symbol. “AEPi reaffirmed their commitment to Jewish identity while other historically Jewish fraternities were heading in the opposite direction,” Sanua said. “They also recognized that they likely could not compete with historically gentile fraternities.”
“We’re very proud that we stood our ground [in the ’80s] as a Jewish fraternity,” Carr said. He believes that committing to AEPi’s core values and history was the right decision not only “with regards to assimilation and loss of connection to Israel,” but also because staying true to what he calls “their brand” helped to ensure long-term success.
Today, AEPi’s challenges look very different.
“While our students don’t have to deal with anti-Semitism in nearly the same way as our founders did, they do face threats in terms of delegitimization of Israel — a place that is very special to our organization,” said Adam Maslia, AEPi’s Howard M. Lorber Director of Jewish and Philanthropy Programming.
It was after the second intifada that AEPi really began to tackle Israel advocacy from an institutional level. “We knew then that if being the last remaining Jewish fraternity means anything at all, it must mean that we are going to stand and support the Jewish people, which is the Jewish state,” Carr said.
But while AEPi’s leaders frame Israel activism as a fraternal mission, the extent to which individual chapters see themselves as pro-Israel advocates varies considerably.
“AEPi at Berkeley is pretty much the hub of the mainstream pro-Israel community,” said recent college grad Isaiah Kirshner-Breen, who now lives in Washington. “They’ve been always very active at organizing people against [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], both in 2010 and this past spring.”
“Israel programming isn’t a huge thing for us, although every AEPi brother did show up for Israel Day,” said Jacob Plitman, an AEPi brother at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We’re rather culturally Jewish. We do a Seder, we all end up going to services. We’re Yom Kippur Jews.”
“Our school doesn’t really have an active Jewish community. We don’t do much with Israel,” said Michael Zysman, an AEPi brother at Bentley University, Mass. “We have a lot of non-Jews in our chapter.”
Certainly, non-Jews still pose a challenge for AEPi. While the group’s mission statement defines it as a nondiscriminatory fraternity, it also calls for efforts to “develop leadership for the North American Jewish community.”
Several students who asked for anonymity said that the recruitment goals of AEPi national versus those of local chapters are often divided.
“Nationals doesn’t really encourage you to recruit non-Jewish members, but we will actively recruit them if we think they will fit in with us,” said one student from a university on the East Coast.
Another college student in the Northeast admitted, “I think we tell Nationals we’re 75% to 80% Jewish but we’re probably more like 60%.”
Virgil Doyle, a non-Jewish student who served as president of Johns Hopkins’s AEPi chapter, embodies how much the fraternity has evolved over the years.
“I came to college with a pretty good idea I wanted to join a fraternity as a social thing, and AEPi just happened to be the group of guys I most identified with. There are enough people in the fraternity who are very involved in Jewish life around campus that me not being a part of that directly wasn’t something that I really worried about.”
The rise of AEPi has also begotten the rise of what is known as “APES,” an off-campus and unofficial AEPi spinoff. “When AEPi gets kicked off campus [for violating rules], they automatically [lose AEPi status] and have to become APES,” explained Ryan Erfer, an AEPi brother at Emory.
For some, the APES designation is seen as a punishment, since they are no longer recognized as an official chapter. Yet other chapters opt for APES status voluntarily. Two years ago, when the AEPi chapter at the University of Pennsylvania faced a two-year probation for violating pledging rules or disaffiliating altogether, they chose to “go APES.” Some argued it carried a “cooler” appeal, particularly since the Interfraternity Council is powerless to regulate them.
“APES tends to have a reputation for throwing parties that don’t adhere to the rules,” Erfer said, referring to the fraternity’s national reputation.
“‘Jewish bros’ is a real thing, those people exist,” Plitman said, referring to a contemporary pop-culture category of young men. “APES are the Jewish bros.”
Despite all this, AEPi continues to grow. Although it’s impossible to predict the future contours of the American Jewish community, the men of Alpha Epsilon Pi will quite likely play a role in shaping them. As Doyle sees it, “We probably have more discussions about the Middle East and Israel than the average Hopkins Greek male.”