Wednesday, November 27, 2013 | return to: cover story


Alpha males, Sigma females: Jewish Greek life growing on Bay Area campuses

by dan pine, j. staff

Follow j. on   and 

COVERNov29It was a stunt worthy of Animal House.

The frat boys lined up in a San Jose State University plaza last month, inviting people to smash them in the face with a cream pie. Many students said hell yes.

This was no campus prank. It was a fundraiser for Save a Child’s Heart — an act of tzedakah engineered by the SJSU chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish fraternity that people refer to as “AEPi” for short.

The “AEPi to the Face” event raised about $200 for the U.S. arm of the Israeli-based charity. “We know how to have a good time,” said Adi Hod, the chapter president, “and how to make the world a better place.”

For Hod, membership in the fraternity has given him deep friendships, leadership training and a stronger connection to his Jewish identity.

Though all fraternities today generally welcome Jewish members, that wasn’t the case in the early 1900s, when anti-Semitism and quotas impeded Jewish academic success. That’s when houses such as AEPi, Sigma Alpha Mu and Zeta Beta Tau were founded as specifically Jewish organizations.

Today, those historically Jewish fraternities dot the Greek register at local universities. And there are a few local chapters of historically Jewish sororities, as well, namely Alpha Epsilon Phi and Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi.

Non-Jews are welcome to join, and some even rise to leadership positions. But for the most part, a majority of local members are Jews who see participation as key to a successful college experience.

“AEPi to the Face” at San Jose State
“AEPi to the Face” at San Jose State
Greek life provides social outlets and networking advantages, with the bonus of Jewish fellowship. Members often stay in touch for years after graduation, attending each other’s weddings, pulling strings for each other’s career moves and getting together at reunions, sporting events and conventions.

“With a fraternity it’s all about brotherhood,” said Hod, a 23-year-old senior majoring in kinesiology.

For a time, in the ’70s, fraternity and sorority membership declined. Some chapters folded for lack of interest, including the AEPi chapter at Cal. As interest renewed, that Cal chapter was revived, with current members saying the chapter is stronger than ever.

Hod joined AEPi as a freshman. The SJSU chapter is small — there are only 12 members this year — but they do have one advantage over some other fraternities: They have a house.

Fraternity brothers “know they always have a bed and a pillow at the house,” Hod said. “We host fraternity business meetings, and we hope to have the first AEPi-Hillel Shabbat joint dinner there. We’re definitely making waves.”

That welcoming attitude typifies other chapters. Up on Berkeley’s Piedmont Avenue, AEPi occupies a two-story house in the heart of Cal’s Greek Row.

It could use a woman’s touch.

The foyer and living room look as if a tornado blew through, but bedrooms on the second story accommodate 27 of the chapter’s 60 current members.

Chapter president Cliff Zimmerman, 22, presides over an executive board, with members serving in roles such as treasurer, house manager, social chair, rush chair and philanthropy chair.

Freshmen are not permitted to live in the house. That privilege must be earned, with a point system tallying member participation and leadership.

“We want to recruit people who will be good for others in this house,” Zimmerman said. “Our top priority is the brotherhood. It makes it easier for me as president to oversee a house when the brotherhood is united.”

In addition to rent, members pay dues, both to the chapter and to the fraternity’s national organization. At several hundred dollars per quarter or semester it’s not cheap, but members say it’s money well spent.

Avi Levine, 20, grew up in San Diego in a close-knit community of Mexican Jewish immigrants, attending a Sephardic synagogue populated largely with Latino Jews. After seeing his older brother join AEPi at U.C. Santa Barbara, Levine said falling in with a Jewish fraternity felt natural once he got to Cal.

“This is probably the most diverse house on campus,” he said. “Most fraternities are strictly for a certain social niche. For us, all we’re looking for are Jews, and under that umbrella, there is an incredible diversity of culture and ideas. [AEPi] empowers them to take to heart their Jewish identity, and gives them the freedom to explore that.”

“Dumps for Dollars” at U.C. Davis
“Dumps for Dollars” at U.C. Davis
For Levine, that has meant leadership roles within the fraternity and beyond. He is president of Tikvah, U.C. Berkeley’s pro-Israel advocacy group. That organization plays an assertive role pushing back against anti-Israel actions on campus, such as Israel Apartheid Week and boycott-divestment-sanctions bills in student government.

Levine said Tikvah, with the support of AEPi members, lobbied to water down the language in the BDS bill that ultimately passed in the student senate last year.

“We did a phenomenal job,” Levine said. “We got the wording changed. The bill itself has no teeth. The effect is still there because BDS passed, but we have a lot to be proud of.”

Grant Fineman, a 19-year-old Cal sophomore and AEPi member, further helped the anti-BDS cause by winning a seat in the student senate. Though he couldn’t prevent the bill from passing, he is proud of his fraternity’s presence during the debate.

Fineman credits his election last spring in large part to support from AEPi. Many members canvassed for votes. “It shows that when brothers need each other, we rally,” he said. “Our entire house came together. I wouldn’t be here without their help.”

Campus politics aside, AEPi is still a fraternity. While the toga party may be a relic of the past, boys still like to have fun.

When the Golden Bears play home football games, AEPi throws deck parties — which are enjoyed by alumni and undergrads alike. The chapter also hosts Shabbat dinners at the Berkeley Hillel and recently staged a “Family Feud” event with neighboring sororities (sample question: What’s the best place to get food on Telegraph Avenue?).

The latter event, like “AEPi to the Face,” was a fundraiser. Combining college antics with tzedakah is typical of Jewish fraternities, no matter which campus.

The U.C. Davis chapter of AEPi recently staged “Dumps for Dollars.” It involved petting-zoo animals and a chalk-lined grid on the lawn. Students purchased a square on the grid, then waited for an alpaca to do his business. If you bet on the right square, you won. And so did a local charity.

Senior Brent Ghan, 21, was one of the organizers. He also serves as the Davis AEPi president, overseeing a chapter of 56 members. The San Jose native grew up active in the Jewish community, attending Camp Newman for eight years. He knew before arriving at college he would pledge with the fraternity.

“It was a no-brainer,” Ghan said. “Starting out in AEPi my first quarter exposed me to a greater group of Jewish men I bonded with instantly.”

Their  house on Russell Street is one of the biggest on Davis’ Greek Row. It’s down the street from Hillel, with whom the chapter often collaborates on Shabbat dinners and other celebrations.

Dumps for Dollars, silly as it was, exemplifies the fraternity’s emphasis on tzedakah, according to Ghan.

“The one thing we excel at is philanthropy,” he said. “We’re the only chapter that has raised $10,000 for each of the past three years. We have a philanthropic event every quarter. Every brother is responsible for raising a certain amount of money.”

AEPi at U.C. Berkeley
AEPi at U.C. Berkeley
It’s not just a guy thing. The Jewish sorority Sigma AEPi has local chapters at U.C. Davis and U.C. Santa Cruz. They are as charity-minded as their male counterparts.

The sorority’s Davis chapter recently staged a fundraiser called “Fond of You,” an all-you-can-eat chocolate and cheese fondue event, which raised money for American Jewish World Service. Last spring all 40 members participated in a walk to fund cystic fibrosis research.

Senior Haley Pleasant, 21, joined “Sigma” (as they call it) in her freshman year. She said she made her “best friends in college” there. It helped that the Davis chapter is the only one in the country with its own house.

“There is always someone on campus to have lunch with or study with,” she said. “Having the house is really great. People can study there, take a nap between classes. There are always people in the house.”

It’s more than that. Sigma sisters gather there for Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations and parties, some of them done in tandem with AEPi. And of course, some live in the house.

The women of Sigma also enjoy the fun side of campus life — from karaoke nights to tug-of-war contests on the quad. But they also observe the official rules of Greek life, which include community service, philanthropy and maintaining a high grade point average. Pleasant said Sigma had the highest GPA of any Davis sorority last year.

For Pleasant, Sigma membership sustains the Jewish continuity she has known since her Hebrew school and United Synagogue Youth days growing up in Santa Rosa.

“Having that Jewish community is really great,” she noted. “Everybody is so friendly. You play Jewish geography and find out you know 10 people from summer camp.”

For U.C. Santa Cruz sophomore Leeza Arbiv, friendships with fellow Sigma sisters have helped to define her college experience.

Take a recent Friday night. Arbiv and her Sigma sisters gathered at the off-campus Santa Cruz home of Chabad Rabbi Shlomie Chein and his wife, Devorah Leah.

Everyone ran about the kitchen, making salad or prepping chicken rice pilaf. Suddenly, someone broke out in a Britney Spears tune, then an NSync song. Shabbat had turned into one big kitchen sing-along.

“One main thing we get from [membership] is that bond,” Arbiv said. “We’re not the biggest sorority [at UCSC],  but you do get to know everyone and have a bond with every sister.”

Not far away is the AEPi house. It’s not on frat row. There is no frat row in Santa Cruz, as decreed by city ordinance. But the rented five-bedroom, three-bathroom home on Penguin Court does the trick.

Senior Aaron Arkin, a 21-year-old film major, joined AEPi as a freshman, citing “Jewish brotherhood” as the hook. He lives in the house with five others.

“I’ve been very involved in leadership,” he said, “and that has been amazing. There are so many people [in AEPi] with so many backgrounds, and you feel connected to them all as friends.”

At Stanford University, senior Jordan Segall, 22, feels the same way about his 35-member chapter, which he serves as president. He, too, joined the fraternity as a freshman after a few frustrating months in a dorm.

“I didn’t find the community I hoped I would find,” he said of dorm life. “Once I was in AEPi, it was what I look for in a friend. Yes, you have fun together and do cool things, but more so it’s about someone who is there for you when things go bad. It sounds corny but that’s how it is.”

Sigma AEPi at U.C. Santa Cruz
Sigma AEPi at U.C. Santa Cruz
And though they throw at least one organized party every quarter, Segall said partying takes a backseat to what he calls “brothers bonding.” That more subdued emphasis means a lot of intellectual conversation. “We strike a balance,” he said. “We’re all very diligent, hardworking students.”

AEPi, which celebrated its centennial this year, is still growing. The fraternity now has 50 chapters across North America and in Britain, France and Israel.

And a new one recently opened at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. Though there is no official frat house for the chapter’s 30 members, they see each other often for meetings or planning events, such as Shabbat dinners (held weekly at Hillel of Sonoma County).

Senior Steven Martinez was not raised Jewish, though he does have Jewish ancestors. He was drawn to the fraternity as a freshman and has especially enjoyed working on tzedakah projects.

Charity events staged recently by the chapter include AEPuppies, which the frat co-sponsored with the Humane Society to bring a basketful of rambunctious puppies on campus. Passersby paid $3 to play with the pups, with proceeds going to Jude’s Hospital. The event raised $1,000.

“There’s a certain bond that forms being around these people for 10 hours a week, planning philanthropic events,” Martinez said. “A fraternity is a business among friends. We figure out what we can do to improve campus life, and we’re getting a reputation on campus as gentlemen.”

One selling point for the fraternity is the campus’ rural location, far from the bright lights of the big city.

“We say [to prospective members] that you probably realize there is nothing to do here,” Martinez said. “We have very strong Greek life because there isn’t much to do. You get all the benefits, but you also get all the struggles of how to entertain yourself.”

Aside from their party reputations, fraternities must combat perceptions that some still practice hazing, those often humiliating, sometimes dangerous, forms of initiation.

Last year, police raided the basement of Boston University’s AEPi house, finding five students bound, shivering and nearly naked in the basement. They were covered in flour, honey and hot sauce, and had welts on their bodies.

The fraternity’s national office acted quickly, shutting down the chapter and re-emphasizing its strict no-hazing policy.

Bay Area members fervently back that up.

“We don’t haze,” said Zimmerman, the AEPi chapter president in Berkeley. “It is illegal and useless. At our national convention and regional convention, our executive board leaders have to attend educational seminars on the horrors of hazing. We pass that message along to the rest of our fraternity members.”

The idea of hazing not only seems wrong to Zimmerman, it’s unthinkable, he said. Fraternity membership has meant only closeness, kindness and loyalty.

He learned that lesson most dramatically two years ago, when he got the news that his grandfather, to whom he was very close, had died.

It was a Friday. The fraternity had planned a mixer for that evening, but just as it was to begin, a stunned Zimmerman made arrangements to fly home to Los Angeles the next morning.

“We had 60 people in the room,” he recalled. “Everyone stopped what they were doing and said Kaddish for my grandfather. I just broke down. Everyone was there when I needed it. That’s a true testament to who we are as an organization. That’s why it feels like a family.”


Bay Area’s Jewish Greek row


Alpha Epsilon Pi: U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis, Stanford, U.C. Santa Cruz, San Jose State, San Francisco State, Sonoma State

Sigma Alpha Mu: U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis

Zeta Beta Tau: U.C. Berkeley


Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi: U.C. Davis, U.C. Santa Cruz

Alpha Epsilon Phi: Stanford



on the cover

illustration/cathleen maclearie

Clockwise from top: AEPi members at San Jose State (Tanya Mutz), U.C. Berkeley (Facebook), Sonoma State, U.C. Santa Cruz (Dan Pine) and Stanford; U.C. Davis Sigma AEPi sorority members (Facebook)


Posted by alyciawitzling
12/02/2013  at  05:49 PM
Small Important Info Missing in the Article

While it’s awesome to see Sigma mentioned as a historically Jewish sorority, it’s important to mention that it was first established at UC Davis, making it distinctively a product of our fine universities in northern California.

Login to reply to this comment or post your own

Leave a Comment

In order to post a comment, you must first log in.
Are you looking for user registration? Or have you forgotten your password?

Auto-login on future visits