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Unpublished Work By Steve Hofstetter

A Brief History of the Jew in the American College Fraternity
By Steve Hofstetter
Saturday, 12/1/01

Like every other exclusive American institution, the fraternity system did not always have a place for Jews, blacks, or other minorities. The majority of fraternities founded between the civil war and the start of the 20th century had rituals based on Christian services. But as more Jews and blacks began attending college, many of these private organizations began establishing membership restrictions based on race on religion officially and in practice. According to a University of Colorado report on persecution, “to combat their isolation and their exclusion from campus social life, both [blacks and Jews] began to found their own fraternities.” And as these organizations became even more popular, some were formed by Christians and Jews together to oppose religious discrimination of any kind, and more were formed as non-denominational by Jews who did not want to openly discriminate in the same way they were discriminated against. However, many of these non-denominational organizations were Jewish in practice, and in the early part of the 20th century, non-Jews began being rejected from these alleged non-discriminatory organizations.

In the 1920s and 1930s, fraternities became even more specialized. The country was flooded with hundreds of Greek letter organizations, so each of the new ones tried to find their niche by catering to specific vocations, regions, and religious sects. But as the civil rights movement gained steam in the 1950s, many of these restrictions, especially those that concerned religion, were removed. This new liberalism had two main effects on Jewish fraternities. First, Jews began joining the newly secular fraternities, limiting the membership pool of organizations that wanted to stay devoted to Jewish values. Second, non-Jews began joining previously Jewish fraternities, changing their overall missions. Over the next 15 years, Jewish fraternities began merging with each other to prevent their impending collapse, and others changed their mission statements. By the 1990s, only one American fraternity remained devoted to Jewish culture and values, and most national fraternities, regardless of what values they were founded on, admitted Jews, Christians, and members of any other group who sought membership.

Like it would be for the next 225 years, the fraternity system’s original growth was spurred on by outrage at exclusivity. In 1776, John Heath, a Greek scholar at William and Mary, was denied admittance into one of the school’s existing literary societies, which were formed to help enhance the lives of their members both socially and academically. Heath, along with four of his friends, formed Phi Beta Kappa, America’s first Greek letter organization. Over the next 85 years, dozens of fraternities and sororities were founded. To compete with a flooding market, many became specialized to meet the needs of prospective members. Chi Psi was founded in 1841 for Masons attending college. Delta Kappa Epsilon was founded at Yale in 1844, when 15 sophomores were upset that they could not join one of the junior class societies. And in 1856, Theta Chi was founded as an Episcopalian organization.

The political current of the country dictated the types of fraternities that were founded. When the first few were founded as mainly academic societies, it was a time that Americans were trying to prove their cultural independence from the British Empire. In the year following the Civil War, organizations like The Kappa Alpha Order were founded to promote southern values, and soldiers seeking to unite the country founded others like Alpha Tau Omega. By the turn of the century, immigration, specifically eastern European immigration, had taken a foothold in America, and many of these eastern European Jews sought a social outlet while they attended college. As early as 1895, local chapters like the University of Georgia’s E.D.S. Society sprung up around the country. But the brunt of the history of Jewish fraternities centered around three specific universities in New York City, and mainly during the 15 years between 1898 and 1913.

In 1898, Richard J. H. Gottheil, a professor of languages at Columbia University and leading Zionist, attempted to found a Zionist organization at Columbia. His efforts produced Z.B.T., a Zionist youth movement. Over the next five years, members of Z.B.T. were active with each other socially, and the bonds between them grew. In 1903, addressing the “continuing need for a Greek-letter fraternity open to Jewish students,” Z.B.T. changed it’s name to Zeta Beta Tau, and began expanding to other college campuses. By 1909, Zeta Beta Tau established 13 chapters throughout the northeast, and one at Tulane University in New Orleans. In 1913, Zeta Beta Tau became international, expanding to McGill University in Montreal. Zeta Beta Tau was the first national Jewish fraternity, and the first of the three that would most heavily influence Jewish fraternal life.

In 1899, a group of friends who attended public school together in New York City sought to join a fraternity at the City College of New York. The group had both Christians and Jews among its ranks, and was therefore unable to join any of the existing organizations “during a time in which groups of mixed religions were not socially acceptable.” The group began their own fraternity, calling it Delta Sigma Phi, and sought rapid expansion to other city schools. In 1901, the organization expanded to Columbia University, and to New York University two years later. When Delta Sigma Phi incorporated in 1902, it’s purpose read “to fulfill the desire of serious young college men for a fellowship and brotherhood, as near a practical working ideal as possible not fettered with too many traditional prejudices and artificial standards of membership." But this was not the case for long. Most of the subsequent members were Christian, especially at Columbia, where Zeta Beta Tau already had a virtual monopoly on Jewish men seeking to join a fraternity. In 1909, eight Jewish men sought membership in the Columbia chapter of Delta Sigma Phi, and were denied it. These men then founded Phi Sigma Delta, which gained steam of its own, expanding to Cornell University in 1912. Delta Sigma Phi’s racial discrimination in its membership was soon changed from in practice to official, when they ammended their constitution in 1914 to admit only Christians.

By 1906, with Delta Sigma Phi non-denominational in name only, Jewish students at CCNY needed an alternative. Students founded Phi Epsilon Pi, which had no religious restrictions, but still boasted a membership limited mainly to Jews. In 1907, Alpha Omega was founded “to provide mutual support for Jewish students who were faced with discrimination in the academic community.” In 1910, Beta Sigma Rho was founded at Cornell under the name “Beta Samach,” which suggested “the application of the Greek society idea to the social and cultural life of the Jewish undergraduate.” And later that same year, a Jewish fraternity in the Columbia School of Pharmacy sprung up, calling itself Tau Epsilon Phi.

At CCNY in 1909, a leader of the sophomore class called a meeting to avenge themselves against a prank perpetuated by the freshmen. All eight men that showed up to the meeting were Jewish, and with one non-denominational fraternity at CCNY already, the eight later formed Sigma Alpha Mu, which would become the second of the big three. Two years later, Sigma Alpha Mu expanded to Cornell, a campus that had already proven interest in Greek life with the founding of Beta Sigma Rho. According to one version of the history of the Sigma Alpha Mu national organization, “they believed in Fraternalism among Jewish college men, convinced that without it, a large number of Jewish students would be deprived of the pleasant associations and companionships they now find in most colleges.”

The last of the big three, Alpha Epsilon Pi, was founded in 1913 at New York University, left without any options for prospective Jewish fraternity members after Delta Sigma Phi amended it’s policies on membership. All eleven founders were Jewish and attended night classes at the school of commerce, and were close friends. One of them, a star basketball player, had received an invitation to membership by one of the other fraternities. When he learned that his friends could not join with him, the eleven founded their own fraternity, based upon promoting Jewish ideals. One year later, the group followed the already paved and now common route of expansion to Cornell, and Alpha Epsilon Pi became a national fraternity.

With solid footholds in New York City, Zeta Beta Tau, Sigma Alpha Mu, and Alpha Epsilon Pi began expanding around the country. Other Jewish fraternal organizations sprung up with them, like Phi Alpha at George Washington University (1914), Lambda Eta Chi law fraternity at Western Reserve University (1919) and Phi Epsilon Rho law fraternity at Ohio State University (1920), and Phi Pi at UNC (1923). By 1925, there were almost one dozen national Jewish fraternities, and several dozen more local chapters. Many of these locals, like Aleph Zadik Aleph, began as a mix between a Jewish social organization and a fraternity. Aleph Zadik Aleph was founded in 1922 when 14 Jewish men were denied membership into one of their school’s fraternities, Alpha Zeta Alpha. Within three years, Aleph Zadik Aleph became the junior order of B’nai Brith.

The 1920s saw expansion and growth for many existing fraternities. Thus, new fraternities became increasingly specialized. Three former Mormon missionaries, to keep former missionaries in touch with each other founded, Delta Phi Kappa in 1920. Alpha Delta Gamma was founded in 1924 as a Catholic fraternity, while the following year, Beta Sigma Psi was founded to cater specifically to Lutheran college students. Ethnicities and specific trades began founding organizations as well, as the 1920s and early 1930s saw the first fraternity solely at teacher’s colleges (Sigma Tau Gamma, 1920), the first agricultural fraternity (Alpha Gamma Sigma, 1922), and the first fraternity founded for Latino men (Phi Iota Alpha, 1931). By 1950, almost every niche in the fraternity world was already filled.

As the century moved forward, Jews kept gaining prominence in America. Though many Jews already made their names in the business and entertainment field, many more were gaining prominence in another, more telling field - politics. When a minority becomes an elected official, it indicates much more about the voting public’s willingness to accept that minority as part of their culture. In the example of the University of North Carolina, Jewish fraternities had a direct effect on the politics of the time. After Phi Pi’s 1923 success, Pi Lambda Phi expanded to campus in 1926, and Zeta Beta Tau followed suit in 1942. Their were now three predominantly Jewish fraternities at the university, and many of their members went on to become prominent members of the North Carolina community. In 1951, a Phi Pi alumni, E.J. Evans, was elected the mayor of Durham, the first ever Jewish mayor in North Carolina. Five years later, another chapter alum, Leon Schneider, was elected as the mayor of Gastonia, North Carolina. And in 1958, the first Jewish undergraduate student body president at the University of North Carolina was elected when E.J. Evans’ son Eli was awarded the position.

Slowly, America was becoming integrated, and the civil rights movement began making discrimination taboo in certain circles. When Sigma Beta Kappa was founded in 1943 by a Benedictine priest, it only expanded to Catholic campuses. But the organization, despite its purpose, did not openly discriminate on the basis of religion. If there were non-Catholic students at any of these campuses, which there occasionally were, they were eligible for membership. Fraternities followed the American trend, or in some cases set the example, by removing many of their membership restrictions.

In 1953, Sigma Alpha Mu removed their religious restrictions to allow non-Jews into membership, “making eligible for membership any male student of good moral character who respects the ideals and traditions of the Fraternity.”. Zeta Beta Tau did the same in 1954, and Alpha Epsilon Pi never specifically said that all members had to be Jews, it just became common practice. By the mid 1950s, all of the national Jewish fraternities admitted non-Jews into membership, and began recruiting from the same pool as the non-Jewish fraternities. To make up for the loss of numbers, and in accordance with the civil rights movement, many traditionally Christian fraternities began amending their guidelines to admit Jews, led by Sigma Phi Epsilon, who in 1959, became the first of the national powerhouses to remove racial and religious membership restrictions from the books.

The result of the removal of these restrictions was extremely positive and encouraging for the country as a whole, in that America’s youngest voting members supported civil rights. However, it was disastrous for the Jewish American college fraternity. Now that the biggest fraternities in the country admitted Jews, the recruitment pool for Jewish fraternities dwindled rapidly. Non-denominational fraternities no longer had a niche at all, since all fraternities were becoming non-denominational. And historically Jewish fraternities found it much harder to expand to campuses that no longer had a need for more Jewish fraternities, and difficult to recruit at those campuses in which they already had a foothold. These fraternities, once very powerful and influential, began hurriedly merging with each other to try to stay afloat.

Though national organizations swallowing up locals was already commonplace, nationals swallowing up other nationals was a fairly new thing. Alpha Epsilon Pi had merged with Cornell’s Phi Tau for its first expansion in 1915, and in that same year, the E.D.S. Society, the first Jewish local, became a chapter of Phi Epsilon Pi. But the in the years from 1959-1970, four national Jewish fraternities were swallowed up by other larger ones, and eventually by Zeta Beta Tau. In 1959, Phi Alpha merged into Phi Sigma Delta, which then became part of Zeta Beta Tau ten years later. In 1961, Kappa Nu merged into Phi Epsilon Pi, which also became a part of Zeta Beta Tau in 1970. Historical elements like the Vietnam War and the wholesale campus activism of the 1960s was very difficult for the American college fraternity, with students rejecting authority, which fraternities were seen to represent. But added to already difficult conditions for Jewish fraternities, the Jewish fraternity began crumbling in what was becoming an increasingly secular world. Perhaps the greatest evidence of this demise was not the folding of so many once strong national fraternities, but the changing of values of two of the three national Jewish fraternities that remained after the Vietnam War.

Though it was not intended to be a Jewish fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu quickly became involved in promoting Jewish culture. According to a version of the organization’s history, “the eight Founders of Sigma Alpha Mu were all of Jewish faith, and it naturally followed that they attracted to their brotherhood men of similar background.” In 1927, Sigma Alpha Mu sent one of its officers to investigate conditions of Jewish persecution in Romania. In 1929, Sigma Alpha Mu became the first the fraternity to award a scholarship to Hebrew University in then-Palestine. And in 1935, Sigma Alpha Mu began a program that brought European refugees to America, and helped them continue their education at American universities. But as political climates in America changed, so did the mission of its fraternities. With World War II long over, in the 1960s, Sigma Alpha Mu established “Bounce for Beats,” an ambitious project to raise money for The Heart Fund. No longer establishing scholarships or helping European refuges, Sigma Alpha Mu made The Heart Fund its predominant national philanthropy, until the national organization recently added efforts to help the Pediatric Aids foundation.

A similar transition occurred with Zeta Beta Tau. Founded as Zionist youth organization Z.B.T., Zeta Beta Tau stayed alive by swallowing up so many other Jewish fraternities in the 1960s. Some of those Jewish fraternities made their missions clear through their philanthropies, much like Sigma Alpha Mu. In 1934, Phi Sigma Delta established the German Student Refugee Program, utilizing the Jewish Students Scholarship Fund. According to Phi Sigma Delta’s Pennsylvania State University history, “this Fund helped bring young men from under the Nazi heel to this country: chapters housed and fed these boys, and they were able to continue their education.” But even during the merger period, many of Zeta Beta Tau’s individual chapters were changing course. According to the history Phi Pi at the University of North Carolina, “ZBT, the other previous competitor, seemed to concentrate on attracting non-Jewish men, leaving the largest share of the Jewish rushing pool.” A review of Marianne Sanua’s centennial history of Zeta Beta Tau, refers to the organization’s “contemporary non-secterianism.” And most telling, the chapter at Columbia University, where Z.B.T. was founded in 1898, is barely Jewish at all today. Their membership role has just two Jews, and, according to Jeff Huizinga, one of their current members, the common thread for the Columbia chapter of the organization has become baseball. “Our goal right now in our recruiting process is not exclusively baseball, but it is a large part of it,” Huizinga said. All six of their new members this past semester were baseball players, none of them Jewish.

But despite the growing non-sectarianism of the fraternity world, a handful of organizations stayed true to their Christian founding. In 1988, an interest group to become a chapter of Sigma Chi was founded at Glassboro State College (now Rowan University). The interest group called itself Pi Sigma Chi, and had its 21 members petition the national organization of Sigma Chi to adopt them as a Sigma Chi chapter. The national organization rejected the petition, and according to the chapter’s history, it was because a few Jews were amongst the 21. Sigma Chi remains a predominantly Christian fraternity today, with its symbol still the cross, and its motto “In Hoc Signo Vinces,” which is Latin for “In this sign, you will conquer.” That phrase is what Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, credited for his conversion. Pi Sigma Chi at Glassboro became a chapter of Kappa Sigma instead.

By the 1990s, most major ethnicities and religions in America had fraternities of their own. And though dozens of culture-specific fraternities existed, all of them had an official policy of non-discrimination on the books. Some of them even had the culture that they were founded to explore in their names, but still prided themselves on diversity. In 1979, Lambda Sigma Upsilon Latino Fraternity, Incorporated, was founded at the Livingston campus of Rutgers University. One of their websites explains why: “These men felt the need for Latino representation on a campus which was surrounded with a great deal of political controversy.” But soon after that, the organization expanded beyond its original Latino purposes, and admitted Italian, Chinese, Egyptian, Arabian, Indian, Russian, Polish, Portuguese, Jewish, African American, and Palestinian members. According to their website, “the diversity of our brotherhood has enabled us to embrace the Latino culture as well as the other cultures that make up our brotherhood.”

The last remaining niche to be explored was that of the fraternity founded specifically to be multi-cultural. In 1990, that barrier was broken when Psi Sigma Phi was founded jointly at New Jersey’s Montclair State University and Jersey City State College. Officially titled “Psi Sigma Phi Multicultural Fraternity Incorporated,” Psi Sigma Phi’s mission statement is to “establish a unique bond among men of different cultures. The anatomy of this bond is hard work, sacrifice and courage from all of its members. Members who together strive to break social fears and ignorance.” The idea of multi-culturalism had truly taken hold in America, especially in colleges, and fraternal organizations at those colleges. And as the centennial anniversary of the Jew in the American college fraternity approached, only one national undergraduate fraternal organization, Alpha Epsilon Pi, still had Judaism in its mission statement. The remaining decade before this paper was written would determine if secularism would take even more of a hold than it already had, or if there would be a return, however slight, to the values on which these organizations were originally founded one hundred years prior.

A disciplinary case in 1990 made that a landmark year for Alpha Epsilon Pi. The only remaining Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi had recently opened its first official headquarters, and probably because of its veritable monopoly on college men looking to join a solely Jewish fraternity, had been expanding much more rapidly than it had earlier in the century. By the start of World War II, Alpha Epsilon Pi only had 28 chapters, an average of two new chapters every three years. By 1999, the organization had 106 chapters, which was well more than one per year. However, in 1990, the organization almost closed its doors at MIT. The chapter violated the Fraternity Insurance Purchasing Group risk management policy three times, including having a keg at a party, holding a non-guest list party, and the theft of a road sign by a few pledges during a road trip. The Fraternity Insurance Purchasing Group policies are dictated by the national organization, and representatives from Alpha Epsilon Pi headquarters came to interview members and subsequently reorganized the chapter. Only ten of the fifty-five brothers were allowed to stay on, after what some of the members allege was a discriminatory process. “Many members felt that the violations were simply a mechanism for the national organization to act on other concerns, specifically concerns that the chapter had lost its Jewish identity,” wrote MIT newspaper staff-member Linda D’Angelo about the incident. According to chapter members, they were not interviewed about Fraternity Insurance Purchasing Group policies, rather the interviews concentrated on their commitment to Jewish ideals. And though the chapter only had six Jewish members out of 55 men prior to the third incident, four of the ten that were allowed to stay as members were Jewish.

Alpha Epsilon Pi, in an effort to both keep their now stronghold on a niche of being a Jewish fraternity in a secular system as well as return to its core values, did admittedly emphasize the importance of Jewish values in their remaining MIT members. But they were not alone in a return to Jewish values. Though no other national fraternal organizations emphasized Judaism as part of their curriculum, and few individual chapters outside of Alpha Epsilon Pi did either, many individual members began seeing the benefits of merging religion into their affiliations with Greek life. Many students, such as the members of the University of Maryland’s Greek Jewish Council formed governing bodies or affiliations with other Jews, regardless of the fraternities of which these Jews were members. At the University of Southern California, the newly formed Jewish Greek Council applied for official recognition in 2000. The council, according to its official documents, seeks to combat "the history of anti-Semitism on campus and exclusion of Jewish Greeks from activities that occur on or during Jewish holy days." Organizations like these reflect the American Jew’s modern culture - to become involved with American secular organizations, from the P.T.A. to Little League to the plumber’s union, all while still staying involved in exploring their own Jewish culture. Thousands of Jews are involved in youth groups centered around their synagogue or community center, and have organizations like Hilell once they attend college. Thus, the need for the American Jewish fraternity has dwindled, replaced by the community organization, perhaps evidenced best by the evolution of Aleph Zadik Aleph. Though originally a college organization, the junior order of B’nai Brith, now more commonly known as BBYO (B’nai Brith Youth Organization) than AZA, is based now in synagogues and geared towards high school students. Fraternities became based on a similar social and academic atmosphere as the one on which they were originally founded in 1776 and, like in many other parts of American culture, expressing religion was left up to each individual.


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