Three Small Letters Make a Big Difference in the Jewish World
Although I never thought I would greet the Sabbath Bride on an aircraft carrier, on a muggy August evening in 2013, there I stood on a raised platform in front of some 1000 people on the Intrepid. (Thankfully, she was anchored sturdily in New York Harbor.) To my left were historic jet planes; to my right, the City’s familiar skyline. My 1960s-era chaplain’s kit was positioned on a card table as the Aron HaKodesh (Holy Ark).
As a past international president of Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), the Jewish fraternity, an ordained alumnus of the Reform Movement’s seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), and a former Army chaplain, it made sense for me to be standing there. What I did not expect, however, were the powerful emotions that swept over me at that moment.
Most of the congregation comprised Jewish undergraduates from the United States, England, Scotland, Canada and Israel who had gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of AEPi, which today embraces some 10,000 members, 190 chapters in eight countries, and more than 100,000 alumni.
One hundred years earlier, a group of Jewish men, students at New York University, had decided to form a Jewish brotherhood because at the time they were not acceptable to any of the university’s existing fraternities. Proud of their Jewish identities and heritage, the students placed a menorah and the Lion of Judah on their banner and devoted themselves to creating a fraternal society to train future Jewish leaders, perform acts of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (acts of community service), and provide members with opportunities to socialize and achieve academic excellence.
Over the decades, other Jewish fraternities and several Jewish sororities were founded. In the 1960s and 1970s, during the era of strong anti-war and anti-establishment feelings, the entire Greek system was severely challenged by young people who had other goals and purposes in mind. And yet, by the 1990s, when I became international president, AEPi had 120 chapters in North America and was the last of the Jewish fraternities to embrace a specifically Jewish mission.
How did that happen?
Standing on the deck, I recalled the vitriolic arguments among alumni and undergraduates about whether AEPi should diminish its uniquely Jewish mission as its peers – believing the Jewish market was too small and being Jewish was too parochial – were doing. During what became a painfully prolonged debate, some longstanding relationships were permanently damaged, but at the end of the day, the absolute need for AEPi to remain a Jewish fraternity in mission and in deeds, won the day. The menorah and the lion remained on the banner and the fraternity expanded rapidly.
With time, the Jewish world recognized AEPi – and its impressive contributions to Jewish life – as a powerful communal institution:
- In 1992, AEPi formed what remains a mutually beneficial partnership with Hillel, offering Jewish undergrads, especially those not attracted to ritual practice, a campus community to call home.
- In 2000, the fraternity became an original Birthright Israel partner; today it is among the largest providers of Birthright participants.
- AEPi undergraduates raised and donated funds that helped establish the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum m in Washington, D.C.
- AEPi has established important ties with other Jewish communal organizations, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Shusterman Foundation (for pro-Israel advocacy training), the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), the Union for Reform Judaism, HUC-JIR, Aish HaTorah and Chabad.
In Hebrew, the word achava (brotherhood) occurs only once in the Bible – in the Book of Zechariah, where it describes the bonds between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Indeed, it was pride and gratitude in the AEPi brotherhood that washed over me on the Intrepid that evening.
Personally grateful, I learned through AEPi what leadership means and how I could make a difference in our world. Not only has AEPi given me lifelong friendships and an extremely impressive alumni network, but also enhanced my son’s undergraduate career.
On a communal level, I am proud that its charities support a rich diversity of causes, its undergraduates are campus and academic leaders, many alumni go on to careers as Jewish professionals, including as Reform rabbis and, reflecting current concerns, that AEPi leads the way in sexual harassment education.
Most of all I value AEPi’s longstanding and ongoing commitment to mutual respect, brotherly love, civility, pride in our Jewish heritage, training leaders for the future, and outspoken advocacy on behalf of the State of Israel.
I appreciate the experiences and memories AEPi has afforded me, including celebrating Shabbat on an aircraft carrier, and I am hopeful that my grandsons will follow in our family’s footsteps as AEPi brothers, and that my granddaughters will find equally rewarding ways to enrich their lives.