By Gabi Weisel, Mitzpeh staff writer
When Jason Botvinick first arrived at the University of Maryland campus in fall 2007, he was unsure if he wanted to be a part of Greek life.
After going to the Chabad House and seeing pictures of the Jewish fraternities and sororities, he decided to give it a shot.
In order to explore his options, he decided to attend several rush events, often packed with hundreds of people, and ultimately made the decision to be a part of Alpha Epsilon Pi.
After receiving a bid to join the fraternity, he joined twelve other students as one of the largest fall AEPi pledge classes in recent history.
Botvinick’s story is increasingly becoming the norm for Jewish students at the university. While Jewish students have always maintained relatively high numbers in Greek life, the percentage of Jewish students joining fraternities and sororities has skyrocketed in the past few years.
Jewish students make up almost 50 percent of the total Greek life population, a jump from approximately 33 percent four years ago, according to Jon Wood, an engagement associate at Maryland Hillel who works directly with Hewish fraternities, sororities and Jewish students in Greek life. This number is almost double the percentage of Jewish students on campus, which is currently slightly greater than 25 percent.
“Greek life has a quality that Jews can relate to, the brotherhood and sisterhood aspects of coming together to form meaningful bonds between students really resonates with Jewish culture,” Wood said.
The increase in out-of-state Jewish students, who now make up 70 percent of all out of state students, is also a major factor in the increase, Wood said.
“Many Jewish students are curious about getting involved, being a part of different organizations and seeing what’s out there for them,” he said. “The out-of-state students are more likely to fit this mold because they are not commuters, don’t know as many people and usually live on campus.”
Due to the rise in interest from Jewish students, many fraternities not historically known for having many Jewish members have recently become largely Jewish.
Zeta Psi, a fraternity that hasn’t always had many Jews, according to Alex Tuvin, a junior accounting and international business major, is now over 40 percent Jewish. Tuvin pledged in spring 2007 in a class of twelve of which seven were Jewish.
Chi Phi, another fraternity that traditionally had few Jewish members, is now over 20 percent Jewish, according to Kehat Falik, a sophomore civil engineering major, who joined the fraternity during spring 2007.
Many sororities have also seen more Jewish students rush, according to Ariel Bigio, a member of Sigma Kappa.
“When I rushed two years ago, most of my Jewish friends rushed Jewish sororities, especially the ones from Jewish backgrounds,” she said. “This year I feel like every girl who rushed our sorority has been a Jew. I just think it’s become really normal for Jews to rush non-Jewish sororities.”
Tuvin said many students who attended Jewish high schools view Greek life as a chance to expand their social networks outside Jewish social circles.
“I decided not to join a Jewish fraternity because the majority of my friends in high school and in my first year at Maryland were Jewish and I wanted to broaden my horizons and make some new friends,” he said.
Wood said the increased interest in non-Jewish fraternities may be attributed to the increase in the number of Jewish students from the northeast, many of whom attended Jewish day schools or summer camps.
“Many Jewish students who are rushing non-Jewish fraternities are trying to break out of the mold from high school where all their friends were Jewish,” Wood said. “They are trying to diversify their social life, meet as many people in as many spheres as possible.”
While interest has grown in joining non-Jewish fraternities, it has grown even more for the Jewish fraternities, with record numbers of students going to their rush events this spring.
AEPi regularly drew over 200 students to their spring rush events, compared with an average of about 50 three years ago.
With the popularity of Taglit-Birthright Israel, March of the Living, and various Israel programs, more Jewish students are looking to maintain a connection to Judaism.
“Since Birthright is so meaningful and a lot of students talk about their experience and word spreads, it has stemmed a revitalized effort to be a part of Jewish life on campus,” Wood said.
Gabi Band, a junior biology major and member of AEPi since spring 2006 also feels students today are more concerned with participating in Jewish events and clubs.
“A lot of Jewish kids are looking for a fraternity experience but also want to have connection to Judaism,” Band said. “The main draw is the fraternity experience, but at the same time receiving a cultural connection to Judaism, which AEPi and the other Jewish fraternities offer.”
Botvinick said the Jewish activities such as sukkah building, shabbatons and holiday celebrations helped attract him to the fraternity.
“I had a lot of fun hanging out with the guys and attending the Jewish events,” he said. “It helped that we had a mutual connection and feeling through because we were Jewish.”
Gabrielle Lincoff, a member of the Jewish sorority Sigma Delta Tau, also said she enjoyed participating in cultural Jewish events in the sorority.
“It’s nice to have the majority of the house doing Jewish things, like standing around lighting Hanukkah candles or having a Purim party, it makes it easy to get comfortable,” she said.
Band said the Jewish fraternities offer students who are not religiously observant the opportunity to stay connected to their Jewish culture and background.
“The Jewish fraternities give kids a more cultural identification than religious one,” he said. “A lot of kids don’t connect with the Orthodox services at Hillel, but still want to be part of a tight-knit Jewish community.”