From tzitzis to swag: The convergence of Jewish Orthodoxy and Greek life

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By Yakira Cohen
Features editor
@CohenYakira

When Andrew Schwartz opens his drawers each morning, stacks of Alpha Epsilon Pi sweatshirts and rows of kippas make him hesitate. The sophomore management major has a choice: to broadcast his fraternity, to label himself a religious Jew or to try to straddle both.

Of the roughly 30,000 undergraduate students on this campus, about 20% are Jewish, over 500 are Orthodox and 17% are involved in Greek life, according to Hillel International and the UMD Department of Fraternity and Sorority Life. Although the respective groups have often catered to different demographics, recent overlap of Orthodox students involved in Greek life has merged the two identities.

Because Jewish and Greek communities both offer social networks, speakers and events, many Orthodox students have not always been compelled to try out Greek life.

“I already have my own community,” said junior family science major Mayan Beroukhim, who previously served as the collaboration chair for Kedma, the Orthodox group at Hillel.

But some students are seeking more from their college experiences.

“I feel like growing up, I was only with people raised exactly like me,” said sophomore Emily Waldman, who is a marketing and operations management business analytics major, an Orthodox Jew and member of Kappa Delta. “I wanted to branch out more.”

Specifically, Orthodox Jews have worried that observing Shabbat might be difficult because many chapters’ social events occur on Saturdays.

“Religiously, it [Greek life] is not for me,” said Beroukhim.

But some Shabbat-observers have found ways to make the holiday work in Greek life environments. Sara Edelman, a sophomore Letters and Sciences student in Alpha Epsilon Phi, said her chapter allows her to miss certain sorority events and has been overall “accommodating” to her strict Shabbat observance.

“They all know ‘Sara won’t get in a car [on Shabbat], so you have to walk with her,’” she said.

Although Orthodox life may be feasible for Greek life members, the traditional mentality of separation among Hillel members causes problems for some.

“I’m constantly trying to balance making everyone happy because I care about both communities a lot,” said Edelman. “I think they should be more intertwined.”

Others have noticed a change of heart in the community.

“It’s becoming less and less of a stigma of being a Greek life member and also a Hillel member. … If you came on the campus four years ago, it would have been very different,” said Schwartz. “[Greek life] is not this ‘evil thing’ that a lot of people make it out to be.”

Andrew Schwartz, who maintains his strict kosher diet over a year since joining AEPi, enjoys kosher ice cream at The Dairy. Yakira Cohen/Mitzpeh.

Beyond feeling welcomed, some non-religious Jewish Greek life members have become more involved in Judaism through their chapters, bringing the two groups closer together.

Edelman, who attended a Yeshiva day school and spent a gap year studying Judaism in Israel, often hosts her sorority sisters for Friday night dinners and finds herself teaching about her Orthodox practices.

“They really look up to me as a religious figure,” she said. “They ask me a lot of questions, and they’re genuinely interested.”

Sara Edelman, in the center bottom row, poses with her sorority sisters at a rush event as vice president of recruitment for AEPhi. Photo courtesy of Sara Edelman.

Out of the 56 recognized chapters at this university, six are considered “Jewish” but not Orthodox. AEPi, Zeta Beta Tau, Tau Epsilon Phi, AEPhi, Sigma Delta Tau and Phi Sigma Sigma were founded by Jews, and have many Jewish members. Both Edelman and Schwartz said they found strong “Jewish values” within their chapters.

“Their Jewish identity is still extremely strong and the values are still evident. I tend to think that observance and religiosity are two very separate things,” said Schwartz.

“Greek life is so Jewish,” echoed Edelman.

Efforts from Hillel have also helped unaffiliated members become more involved.

The Hirschhorns, one of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus couples, have provided programs like Challah and Chassidut, dinner with discussions and one-on-one learning opportunities with Greek life students who are seeking to bolster their Jewish identities.

“Before we came, there was definitely a notion that if you’re choosing Greek life, you’re choosing to opt out of the Orthodox community,” said Rabbi Yonatan Hirschhorn. “We definitely worked very hard to change that.”

Hillel Springboard Innovation Fellow Maya Guthman runs the Hillel Greek Life Fellowship, a program where 15 students from 11 chapters plan large-scale Jewish programs like Shabbat dinners to foster greater involvement.

“I believe that the relationship between Hillel and Greek life is very strong,” said Guthman.

Although Schwartz has yet to mix and match his kippa and AEPi sweatshirt together, there may be a day he proudly wears both around campus.

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