U.S.-style Jewish fraternities cross over Atlantic to UK

Zeta Beta Tau and Alpha Epsilon Pi — Jewish fraternities whose membership is open to all — have established the first fraternity chapters in the United Kingdom over the past year.

But not everyone is throwing a toga party to celebrate.

ZBT established a chapter in May in Nottingham, followed by a second in Birmingham. AEPi has opened chapters in Birmingham, Leeds and at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

All but St. Andrews’ are city-based chapters and open to members from nearby universities.

Founders of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity chapter in Birmingham, England photo/jta/steven senft

The fraternities aim to offer something new to Jewish students, who until now have been served by a network of Jewish societies that operate similarly to Hillel in the United States.

JSocs, as they are known, are organized under the umbrella of the Union of Jewish Students and focus broadly on serving students’ needs. Fraternity representatives say their focus will be on social events, volunteering and professional networking.

“It’s an unexplored territory for the U.K., so when [British Jewish students] see that and understand they can actually do that through their own means, they become really enthusiastic,” said Steven Senft of AEPi, which has Bay Area chapters at U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis, U.C. Santa Cruz, S.F. State and San Jose State.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Union of Jewish Students, which also promotes Jewish social life on campus, isn’t sold on the new kid on the block.

UJS President Dan Grabiner called U.S. fraternities “alien” to Jewish life at Britain’s universities and cited concerns about their single-sex nature and connection with binge drinking — a problem that has dogged Britain for years.

“From reports of fraternity life in the U.S., it appears that even if it is not their initial intention, they still encourage binge drinking and an elitist culture, which is divisive to university life,” Grabiner said. “This, to UJS, does not add to Jewish life on campus.”

Laurence Bolotin, the Indiana-based executive director of ZBT, said Jewish fraternities, whether in England or the United States, are “as relevant today as ever.”

“They provide college men with an opportunity to bond together, provide service to their campus and to their Jewish communities,” Bolotin said. “Our groups at Nottingham and Birm-ingham have already become active and engaged in their local Jewish communities and plan on growing that involvement.”

Though the fraternities are still small in England — the ZBT chapter in Birmingham has just 11 members and the AEPi St. Andrews branch has nine — both groups hope to expand to universities in Manchester and London.

Ryan Lipman, 19, a first-year business administration student at Birmingham City University, is president of the local ZBT chapter. Lipman, who decided to go to college in large part for its social aspects, said the stereotypes of fraternity and sorority life are not what ZBT is about.

“To be honest, all I know about fraternities was literally what I’ve seen in the movies — drinking, the hazing — things that have nothing to do with it at all,” Lipman said. “It’s kind of making friends for life. That’s the main reason I went to university, and I thought this couldn’t hurt it.”

Lipman said the organization has helped him meet other Jews, which can be hard on campuses with small Jewish populations. “There’s 400 people living on my campus and, of that, I know about four Jews, and only two of them are guys,” he said.

For a variety of reasons, British fraternity life is unlikely to mirror its American counterpart. The chapters are smaller, there are no fraternity houses (yet), and universities offer little support.

ZBT’s Bolotin says it’s important to create chapters smartly and sustainably, and not just rush ahead heedlessly. “We want to be very intentional about the way that we’re growing there,” he said.