Setting college students on the right path

Setting college students on the right path

A focus on fraternities: Good for young Jews?

No matter what your mother tells you, says Philip Waxberg of Teaneck, you’re not the center of the universe. That’s “perhaps the most important lesson” a college student can learn from being a member of a fraternity or sorority, says the new national president of America’s first Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau. And that’s one of many “life lessons that are not taught in classrooms and not given much attention by college administrators.”

A 63-year-old grandfather (of 9-month-old Abigail Broder), Waxberg has been in ZBT for more than 46 years, beginning with his matriculation, at 16, at New York’s City College. Retired in 2007 as chief financial officer for ZBT and its affiliates, Waxberg was elected national president at ZBT’s July convention in Teaneck and will officially assume office on Monday.

ZBT was founded in 1898 – and other Jewish fraternities a few years later – as Jews were entering college in force and not exactly welcomed by the existing Greek-letter groups that were an important part of college life. According to Marianne Sanua in “Here’s to Our Fraternity: One Hundred Years of Zeta Beta Tau, 1898-1998,” the fraternity’s founder, Dr. Richard Gottheil, witnessed “the covert and overt currents of anti-Jewish feeling that ran through Columbia University,” where he was a professor. He “saw weekly the grief experienced by Jewish men when they met with complete rejection in social and extracurricular spheres or even active hostility from other students who were their equals in every respect.”

“The situation was dangerous,” Sanua observes, “and the incentives for young men to opt out of Judaism and to reject the Jewish people altogether at the first possible opportunity were strong. Without doubt, Gottheil believed, the formation of their own separate and independent fraternity would afford his charges essential protection against both physical and spiritual harm and possibly serve as an antidote to campus anti-Semitism.” (It’s important to note that the early Jewish fraternities were often exclusionary as well, to Jews who their members felt were, in the modern phrase, “too Jewish.”)

Barrie Shwartz, right, a graduate of the Maimonides Leadership Fellowship program, studies Torah with learning partner Miriam Shiff during a Jewish Awareness America trip to Israel in May. Photo courtesy of JAAM

But the Jewish fraternities were not founded merely in reaction to barriers, according to Clyde Sanford Johnson in “Fraternities in Our Colleges.” Members “expressed a sincere desire to belong to groups in which Jews could feel at home and share the tradition they enjoyed and found precious.”

In fact, Waxberg points out, ZBT “was founded as a Zionist organization,” and Sanua notes that its initials originally stood for “Zion be-mishpat tipadeh” – “Zion shall be redeemed with justice.”

The Jewish fraternities’ sense of peoplehood was particularly strong during World War II. They – and others with Jewish members – supported rescue efforts for Jews in Nazi Germany. According to “Fraternities in Our Colleges,” Phi Sigma Delta, which merged with ZBT years later, “arranged refuge for more than 50 in its chapters; these continued after the defeat of Hitler on behalf of displaced persons….” Alpha Epsilon Pi provided “places for escapees from the persecution in Germany, [and] the later focus was on finding accommodations for Israeli students seeking to pursue graduate studies in this country.”

In the years following the war, most fraternities, whether Jewish or not, became less faith-centered and more integrated. They had to; colleges across the United States banned groups that restricted membership by race and religion. These days, according to Rabbi Ely Allen, director of Hillel & Teen Connections for UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, “the culture has changed. There is a different world on campus from 30 to 40 years ago. Now Jews are accepted in other fraternities.”

And, in fact, Allen added, “Now, at all our local schools there are no [specifically] Jewish fraternities – there are fraternities with national Jewish headquarters, but … most of those, at least on our [Bergen and Passaic county] campuses have a very small percentage of Jews in them.”

Similarly, Waxberg noted that ZBT “certainly does not discriminate against anybody who is not Jewish. We are Jewish because we are founded upon and our values reflect a strong Jewish heritage. Our ritual is based significantly upon Jewish texts – psalms, Micah, ‘Pirkei Avot,’ all of these sources appear in our ritual.”

Also, he said, “probably the majority of our members” – who number between 115,000 and 120,000, counting alumni and undergraduates – “are Jewish. Our national office is closed for the High Holidays and Pesach, while individual members make their own decisions as to what degree of observance they will have.”

Waxberg noted that Hillel, to which he belonged when he was in college, “is a much more religiously oriented experience,” and added, “we encourage our members not necessarily to join Hillel but certainly to support it and attend its functions and meetings and rallies.

“It depends on what the person is looking for,” he says.

Allen, who in 1989 was pledgemaster of Pi Lambda Phi, the first non-sectarian fraternity, at Fairleigh Dickinson, notes that Hillel and fraternities are not mutually exclusive. “Our Hillel students are [sometimes] active in Greek life,” he points out. “We’ve had a number of occasions when the president of a fraternity was also in Hillel…. Jewish students are active. If someone has leadership potential they like to spread that around.”

College students, he notes, “want to belong to something greater than just them. They want a social network, a place to hang out, a place to party. Hillel is not usually a place to party,” he says with a laugh. “We don’t have our own houses on each of [the local] campuses. My house in Bergenfield is like the unofficial Hillel House. That’s obviously not the same as a fraternity or sorority setting.”

“It’s nice to be able to go to any campus in the country that has your fraternity or sorority and have a place to crash,” he acknowledges. Also, “some [fraternities and sororities] do community service, but you can do community service and not be in one.”

Nevertheless, he says with another laugh, “As a rabbi I can’t encourage students to join a fraternity or sorority. As a former Pi Lambda Phi, I know what goes on. They’re all doing the same craziness. A fraternity is a fraternity.”

Waxberg begs to differ: In a fraternity or sorority, he says, “You learn what it takes to earn the respect and admiration of your peers; how to shoulder responsibility not only for yourself but for others; and what it means to know that people are relying on you to fulfill your role, whatever that might have been, and how important it is to keep your word, even to your own detriment. When you come right down to it, fraternity teaches you to be a mensch.”

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