The traditional approach to Jewish outreach — especially on college campuses — is to make it as easy as possible for Jews to get involved: free classes, free admission, no obligations, no memberships.
This makes sense for a young generation that cherishes its independence and wants to engage with the world as it pleases. Many young people today, when they think of membership, see themselves as already belonging to two primary groups: a group of One (thyself) and a group of 7 billion (humanity).
Similarly, for many young Jews today, this notion of “belonging to the Jewish people” doesn’t resonate. If one of your primary values is inclusiveness, then the natural choice is to belong to the all-inclusive human race.
That’s where college fraternities and sororities come in.
These groups encourage bonding and loyalty to a group. Today, by far the largest and most important Jewish fraternity is the 100-year-old Alpha Epsilon Pi, which has 9,000 members on college campuses in five countries.
I know very little about the fraternity world. They didn’t have a Jewish fraternity where I went to college (McGill University in Montreal), and all the college outreach efforts that I’ve been involved with — such as Hillel and Chabad — have been “nonmembership.”
So, when I was chosen recently to be honored as a “brother” at a major AEPi conclave in Las Vegas for my work with the Jewish community, my first thought was: Wow, what’s a brother?
My second thought was: This might make a cool column.
But here’s the wrinkle — yes, it was an incredible experience, but because the ceremony at which I was initiated is secret, I can’t tell you too much about it. I can tell you that I now have a secret handshake, a secret password, a secret knock and a lifetime bond with any of the thousands of other AEPi “brothers” around the world.
Why do I find that prospect so satisfying?
Well, I guess on one level it was the company I was honored with. I was initiated next to some prominent Jewish men, among them the majordomo philanthropist Sheldon Adelson, whom I stood next to during most of the ceremony. Trust me, there are worse things in life than becoming “brothers” with one of the Jewish world’s largest donors.
But there was something else that moved me deeply — it was the very idea of belonging to a group.
There are myriad ways of connecting to Judaism, but in all my years of raising my children in the Jewish tradition, the most powerful connection I have found is the sense of belonging to a people.
Being Jewish is not just what you believe and what you do, I tell them, it’s also who you are and whom you are with.
None of us can be with everyone at once — that’s the fallacy of universalism. Although we indeed can be “citizens of the world,” we have to select our primary circle, the one that defines our core identity. For Jews concerned with continuity, that primary circle is the Jewish one.
The fashionable term today to describe this sense of Jewish belonging is “peoplehood.” It’s the latest worry point of the Jewish community: We’re losing a new generation of Jews because they don’t have a sense of peoplehood, a sense of belonging to their people.
But what if this new generation got a taste of this “belonging” while still in college?
If you ask Elan Carr, AEPi’s international president, who presided over the initiation ceremony in Las Vegas, this is precisely what the fraternity tries to instill.
“We want the brothers to connect to their Jewish values and to one another,” Carr told me. “We want them to see that you can fully engage with the world without denying your membership to the Jewish people. It’s not either/or.”
There were more than 700 AEPi brothers at the conclave I attended, which took place on the campus of the University of Las Vegas. All those brothers had to apply to get in. It’s not automatic. There are dues, responsibilities and obligations.
There are also practical benefits. For one, you get to build a lifetime of contacts and a valuable social network. It’s like an alumni network, only here the alumni also go back 4,000 years. Where you come from, the brothers are told, is as important as where you’re going.
In everything it does, from Shabbatons to career counseling, the fraternity tries to mirror Jewish ethics and values, including, of course, support for Israel. In essence, it wants to make loyalty to AEPi synonymous with loyalty to one’s Jewish identity.
You might call it “Jewish peoplehood on campus.”
I call it a sense of eternal belonging. Yes, you can belong to your country, your college, your synagogue, your community and your family, but let’s face it, there’s something a little special about belonging to a 4,000-year-old people.
AEPi promotes Jewish continuity by promoting the identity of belonging.
I belong, therefore I am.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.