I'm sitting in Gina's Pizza, the local hotspot for members of UC Irvine's Greeks. The chatter gets progressively louder through the two hours I'm with Epsilon Phi's in-coming and out-going presidents, Becca Wolfson and Melissa Scholten. The smell of greasy pizza and sub sandwiches hangs in the air. Fraternity brothers talk with food in their mouths. There is literally no room to walk. All the seats inside and on the patio are taken. Crowds of college kids stand to enjoy their slice.
What does it take for a group of Jewish girls to become part of this vertiginous secular sphere of social events?
A whole lot of chutzpah.
It's not because they're unwelcome -- they are very welcome, indeed -- it's because they're brand new.
The Greek system, to which the collective of fraternities and sororities at UCI are often referred, includes four main associations, under which about 30 fraternal organizations exist.
Sororities and fraternities provide for their members friendship, leadership, scholarship and service. Memberships in these associations are for a lifetime.
The young women of Epsilon Phi have been making themselves a presence on UCI's campus since Jan. 9, 2003. Beginning with seven sisters, they have grown into a 26-member sorority, which hopes to someday soon have ties to national sorority Alpha Epsilon Phi.
Melissa, one of seven founders and last year's chapter president, told me about forming the sorority: "I started asking people [at Hillel] why there wasn't a Jewish sorority," she said, between bites of her sub sandwich. "The answer was no one had ever started one."
Melissa did her research and found a few national Jewish sororities. She felt Alpha Epsilon Phi had the strongest remaining ties to Judaism.
"Initially, I didn't know which way to go -- from the bottom up or the top down," she said, describing the formation of the chapter. "I wanted to do something that worked for right now. So we, the founders, decided to start a local chapter that would affiliate nationally later."
So Melissa and her six sisters founded the local Epsilon Phi, which is affiliated only with UC Irvine's campus. They also joined the National Panhellenic Conference, a century-old, national collective of sororities, as an associate member.
Ashley Dye, Greek adviser at UCI, commends the women of Epsilon Phi on their decision to affiliate as an associate member.
"They've really connected with other sororities, learned a lot from them as well as met a lot of new people," Dye said. "Like every new group, they've had a lot of growing pains and challenges, but I think they've done a really good job."
As their chapter grows, the women of Epsilon Phi would like to merge with National Panhellenic sorority Alpha Epsilon Phi, which began in 1909 at Barnard College, at Columbia University in New York. There are more than 100 chapters of Alpha Epsilon Phi across the country, eight chapters in California at campuses including USC, UCLA and CSU Long Beach.
"Like all National Panhellenic Sororities, Alpha Epsilon Phi gives women the opportunity to develop skills, provides camaraderie and adds another dimension to their college experience that special interest clubs cannot provide," said Bonnie Wunsch, executive director of the national sorority.
In addition to swearing in a new president at their winter retreat, the sisters also made hamantaschen and held a havdallah service. Jewish traditions are integrated into the sorority, but it's identity is not tied to the faith.
"[Alpha Epsilon Phi] is not a religious organization as such, but we give respect to the heritage and history of the founders," Wunsch said.
Founder Helen Phillips was especially instrumental in organizing the sorority. She had no mother, sisters or brothers, and was the only one of the founders that lived in Barnard's dormitories. According to the sorority's Web site, www.aephi.org, "It was [Helen's] idea and her persistence more than anything else that brought Alpha Epsilon Phi into existence."
"The sorority accepts women of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, but it also is a place where Jewish women can come to feel at home," Wunsch said.
The young women of Epsilon Phi reached a major milestone during winter quarter at UCI. Their first elected chapter president, Becca, has taken leadership.
Becca was among the "Amazing Alpha" pledge class -- the first group of girls to be recruited by the founders. Before taking the office of president in her chapter, she served as social chair, the coordinator of activities between her chapter and other sororities and
"It's a huge transition, going from social chair and sunshine girl to president," she said. "But, as president, I know what the positions entail. It's nice to know and have that experience."
Becca planned a cocktail party hosted by Epsilon Phi. Her sisters are also looking forward to spring quarter intramural sports to be played with other sororities.
As for recruiting new members? Word of mouth seems to be the most effective way.
As Becca, Melissa and I squeeze our way through the exit at Gina's, they stop and say goodbye to a few fellow Greeks. In a crowd like this, word of mouth won't be hard to come by.
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