The Contradictory History of Jewish Greek Life

Amid renewed calls to abolish fraternities and sororities, how did the Greek system become a haven for Jewish life?
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From Washington University in St. Louis to The University of Georgia, the Instagram accounts started appearing in late June. Juxtaposed with minimalist backgrounds and artful typography, they detail horrifying stories and experiences of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and sexual assault, all occurring in fraternities and sororities. It’s part of re-emerging and growing movements across many college campuses to abolish Greek life.

Many students involved in these calls point to Greek life as rooted in oppressive systems, with exclusion embedded in their founding. But for Jewish students, the “abolish Greek life” movements complicate a century-long history of identity-based social life.

As the Greek system gained traction at the turn of the 20th century, Jewish students remained a minority on college campuses, according to Marianne (Miriam) Sanua Dalin, a professor of Jewish and American history at Florida Atlantic University. Dalin’s research describes overt exclusion clauses in these organizations’ constitutions: “There was nothing to prevent fraternities from specifying that prospective members had to be “”Caucasian,’ ‘white Christian,’ ‘a child of two Christian parents’ or ‘of full Aryan blood.’”

Even organizations that didn’t explicitly include this language were unwelcoming to Jews in practice, Dalin says. So, Jewish students instead decided to form their own organizations. The first Jewish fraternity, Phi Epsilon Pi, was founded in 1895, and dozens followed soon after.

A widely shared Instagram post in July points out that Jews weren’t alone in this pattern. Historically Black fraternities and sororities also arose out of majority-white Greek life’s exclusive practices, according to Gregory Parks, a professor of law at Wake Forest University who studies historically Black Greek organizations. But despite these mutual roots, historically Jewish and Black fraternities and sororities have followed two different trajectories.

 

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Much of that difference lies in each organization’s respective governing bodies. Jewish fraternities and sororities’ relationship with mainstream Greek life fluctuated during the mid-1900s. In some cases, like at the University of Pennsylvania, students maintained two separate interfraternity councils: “A” for the non-Jewish chapters, and “B” for the Jewish ones. The councils even recruited new members at different times in the fall to account for the High Holy Days. 

At the same time, Jewish chapters didn’t always value separation from the mainstream, explains Shira Kohn, a historian of Jewish sororities and a history teacher at The Dalton School in New York City. Especially in the 1930s and 1940s, Jewish chapters were “so nervous or anxious about their own status within the Greek world—and whether or not they were seen as equals to the non-Jewish sorority women—that they always had an eye on what the non-Jewish sororities were doing, and whether or not they were in step with them,” says Kohn. Rather than form their own governing bodies, Jewish chapters, both Kohn and Dalin found, sought to become part of the larger organizations that originally excluded them.

To Dalin, that desire characterized much of Jewish life during the 1940s. “They [took] it as a personal triumph—as ge’ulah, the redemption—if they were able to be accepted, and able to go and live in universities or neighborhoods in institutions that they were very strictly excluded from in previous ages,” says Dalin.

Meanwhile, when Black students founded historically Black Greek chapters, they also created an umbrella organization for those in the Black Greek system: the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), also known as The Divine Nine. Parks says creating the NPHC allowed for complete independence from the mainstream Greek organizations that turned away Black students.

As the 20th century progressed, Jewish Greeks grappled with balancing their cultural independence with a desire to assimilate.“On a national level, their job was, as they see it, to demonstrate Jewish compatibility with American, middle-class, white standards of behavior. They were showing that Jewish women absolutely could do all the things that Christian girls could do,” Kohn says. “But they didn’t want to fully conform. They didn’t want to lose their Jewish identity in the process, which is why they are still very much in these Jewish subcultures on campuses.”

This balancing act between identity and conformity came to a peak in the 1950s and 1960s, as Jewish fraternities and sororities debated removing the “Jewish-only” clauses in their constitutions. In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling barred Greek chapters (along with all other public institutions) from discriminating on the basis of race or religion. This created a new form of tension—a tension between local chapters and national Greek organizations. Because college students tended to be more liberal than members of their national organizations, their push for integration was often met with resistance from national organizations hoping to maintain their Jewishness.

Encouraged by a rising counterculture movement in the 1960s, many frustrated Jewish Greeks decided to leave their chapters. For Jewish organizations—many smaller in both number and endowment than non-Jewish chapters—it was a crushing blow, says Dalin. Even after a rebound in Greek involvement during the 1970s and 1980s, only nine of the 22 Jewish chapters nationwide survived, according to Dalin’s research.

Even as exclusively Jewish chapters dissolved, Jewish students continued to lean on their chapters. While organizations such as the Zeta Beta Tau and Sigma Alpha Mu fraternities removed sectarian clauses from their constitutions, Dalin wrote that in practice, they remained a major Jewish space on campuses: “That they continued to be identified as Jewish fraternities and to some extent still are in the present, is evidence that one cannot so easily change social characteristics just by removing a clause from a charter.”

Today, as Greek life faces another reckoning, Jewish fraternities and sororities are again grappling with their existence. After all, many “Abolish Greek Life” accounts explicitly target the Interfraternity Council (IFC) and Panhellenic Association (PHA) governing bodies, which now include Jewish chapters.

Dalin sees the current movement as limited to a handful of isolated campuses, and points to the first “mass walkouts” during the 1950s and 1960s as a testament to Jewish chapters’ nature of survival.“I think maybe hundreds of people are going to leave their fraternities. But there’ll be plenty of people left who still want to belong,” says Dalin. “And the fraternities have survived efforts to have them kicked off campus for so long. They’ll probably survive efforts a little longer, and I expect most of them will stay.”

To Kohn, the answer isn’t as clear. While chapters may remain on campus, she believes this movement will force a reconsideration of Jewish Greek life’s niche within the broader sphere of Jewish life.“Now, you have Hillel; you have Chabad; you have Jewish activist groups; you have Jewish political groups; you have everything in between,” she says. “So I think it’s certainly a moment for the Jewish Greek system to continue thinking about what it has to offer and how unique they may be in the marketplace of campus life.”

Top photo: Courtesy of York College of PA

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