Jewish sororities are just under 100 years old. The first Jewish sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi (AEPhi), was founded at Barnard College in 1909; the second, Sigma Delta Tau (SDT), made its debut at Cornell University eight years later.
Back then, Jewish women were denied membership in other sororities, so they started their own. Today, though most campus sororities welcome women regardless of their religious affiliation, there’s been a surprising resurgence of interest in Jewish sororities in the last five years, with new chapters forming and once-defunct chapters blossoming. Today, eighty-seven colleges have either an Alpha Epsilon Phi or Sigma Delta Tau presence, and twenty-five have both.
To find out why the revival is happening, we asked Jewish sorority members themselves.
Why did you choose a Jewish sorority?
Diana Levine Smith (Sigma Delta Tau, 2006 graduate, College of Charleston): “SDT was the one place on campus I truly felt at home. I’d been active in my B’nai B’rith Girls chapter in high school and I was looking for that instant connection you only feel from people who have grown up with you and understood what you’ve been through.”
Carly Dachis (senior, Alpha Epsilon Phi, Indiana University): “My decision was more about comfort than religion. I felt most comfortable with the Jewish women at AEPhi because they were like my friends from home.”
Naomi Wischnia (junior, Alpha Epsilon Phi, University of Pittsburgh): “Over winter break I visited Poland. When I think back to that moment of walking through Auschwitz, I find myself appreciating the freedom I have here to express my Jewish identity with my sisters.”
What surprised you about Jewish sorority life?
Carly Dachis: “For one thing, how much I now want to learn about my religion—not because I have to, but because I feel I should. When, as an AEPhi member, I served on the executive board of Indiana University’s Dance Marathon [a major fundraiser planned solely by sororities and fraternities], I was asked a lot of questions about my religion by the other students on the committee, like why do men wear kippot? That experience made me want to know more.”
How has being a sorority member influenced your relationship to Judaism?
Diana Levine Smith: “It helped me to see the importance of keeping my faith and passing it along to my children. Also, I now see how much we, as Jewish women, can do to support our world. As part of our philanthropic organization Jewish Women International (JWI), which works to address domestic abuse both within and outside the Jewish community, we at SDT raise funds to support their programs and promote their ‘Strong Girls, Healthy Relationships’ initiative to collegiate members. Knowing that our chapters around the country are assisting young mothers and children everywhere is an incredible feeling. I now feel real pride in being Jewish.”
Meredith Tiras (senior, Sigma Delta Tau, University of Southern California): “Having grown up in Incline Village, Nevada, home to only six Jewish residents, I explored Jewish cultural traditions for the very first time through SDT. I was also surprised by all the sisters’ dedication and hard work. From the outside, it looks like sorority life is all fun and games; and the media tends to report on the negative issues—Greek parties and alcohol problems. Actually it’s like running a family business—lots of dedicated community outreach work by everyone—finding venues for philanthropic programs, using vendors, doing public relations, having to stick to a budget. It’s exciting to see the rewards.”
Diana Levine Smith: “Being in a Jewish sorority not only allowed me to celebrate my religion with people who understood my Jewish commitment; those same people helped me plan my Jewish wedding. And my ‘little sister,’ with whom I’ve shared many Jewish holidays, was a witness at my ketubah signing.”
Why are new Jewish sorority chapters forming and defunct chapters gaining second life?
Rebecca Solomon (2006 graduate, founding sister, Alpha Epsilon Phi, University of Central Florida): “Jewish collegiate women are taking matters into their own hands, demanding that they have a sisterhood where they can feel completely comfortable.”
Julie Bunson (sophomore, founding member and president, Alpha Epsilon Phi, Virginia Commonwealth University): “There is a true need for a social outlet for Jewish women. It’s great to be in a Greek letter organization, but it becomes something special when you understand the underlying values and the ‘why are we here?’ question. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to go home at the end of the school year, or during break, and tell people about what I became a part of, and what became a part of me.”
—Connie Savitt Sandler, national president of Alpha Epsilon Phi from 2003 to 2007 and director of public relations and marketing for Sholom Community Alliance in Minneapolis