Bennett Schiff had no intention of joining a historically Jewish fraternity when he came to Drexel University in 2013. Flash-forward four years later, and he is now starting his fall quarter as president of the Delta Rho chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi — more commonly known by the abbreviation, AEPi.
Schiff’s turnaround begs the question: What is it about AEPi that seems to cause such a profound shift in its brothers toward following a Jewish life?
That is the same question posed by a group of researchers on behalf of AEPi. The fraternity’s alumni were the subjects of a yet-to-be-released study conducted in 2014 by Groeneman Research & Consulting in Bethesda, Md. The 50-page study asked 1,137 AEPi alumni who graduated college between 1995 and 2010, to go into details about their Jewish values, family aspects among other topics.
Among the key findings, it found that 80 percent of married alumni had married within the Jewish faith, and that 90 percent are raising their children Jewish.
“The results of this study confirm what we’ve known for years: AEPi attracts young Jewish leaders on college campuses, and the AEPi experience helps ensure they continue to play an active role in the Jewish community long after they graduate,” said Andy Borans, executive director of AEPi.
“Our alumni credit AEPi with supporting their Jewish identity through their formative years in college, and with helping instill in them the values that lead to lifelong engagement with Jewish organizations and causes.”
This focus on Jewish values and providing a stronger Jewish connection is part of what attracted Schiff to the fraternity.
When he first moved into his Philadelphia digs from his Cranston, R.I., home, Schiff noticed the Jewish Life Carnival happening right outside of his dorm. There were tables set up highlighting all the organizations and groups to get involved with Judaism on campus, including Dragons for Israel, among the more expected Hillel and Chabad, as well as AEPi.
“Talking to the guys piqued my interest,” he said of meeting a few of the brothers at the table. “It felt like the place I wanted to be.”
Similarly, when Gregg Roman started at American University, he had no intent on rushing a fraternity. The Yardley native was on the wrestling team, which was his brotherhood, he said.
After a knee injury brought down his wrestling career, Roman, executive director of the Middle East Forum, found a new brotherhood: AEPi.
The brothers sought him out as they “heard there’s this big six-foot-four Jewish guy on the wrestling team not wrestling anymore,” he recalled with a laugh.
Throughout his time with the fraternity, which he joined as a student in 2004, Roman served in leadership roles such as the Israel Advocacy Chair — another example of how the fraternity supports and values Israel as shown in the study. It reported that 59 percent of alumni said that the AEPi experience increased their pride in and support for Israel.
Being in AEPi shaped his life, he said. He moved to Israel, where he lived for seven years, served in the army and even met his wife.
“If it wasn’t for AEPi, I wouldn’t have the life I have now,” he said.
After spending some time on the other side of Pennsylvania, where he worked for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and its Community Relations Council, Roman returned home to the Philadelphia area just a few months ago and said he’s looking forward to getting involved with the Philadelphia AEPi alumni chapter, as he did in Pittsburgh and even in Israel.
While he was somewhat involved with Jewish life before college through youth groups and being a brother of Sigma Alpha Rho in high school, he said there was no “structure” to his Jewish identity before AEPi.
“It was never formalized — it was always random and sporadic,” he said. “AEPi gave me a secular venue to express my desire to be part of Jewish peoplehood — not even secular — it’s like the hybrid model between [modern] and age-old Jewish tradition.”
Like Roman, Schiff said he went to Hebrew school and Sunday school through high school, but it was more for the social aspect than learning.
After AEPi came along, Schiff said, he become much more interested in learning about his culture and religion and even taking Hebrew.
The religious background is one that makes AEPi stand out, he added.
“It’s unique to AEPi because most fraternities or organizations on any campus — they only have the one common goal of ‘Maybe we all like sports, so we’re on the club soccer team’ or whatever it may be, but for us, it’s the true grasp that we have a religion behind us but it moves us forward still,” he said, sharing that they do Shabbat dinners with sororities as an example. “No other organization on campus can say they do that.”
He never expected to do Shabbat dinner every Friday night before AEPi, he said. According to the study, nearly two-thirds — 61 percent — of alumni reported that AEPi helped them get involved in other Jewish and pro-Israel activities while in college.
“When I came into college, I was like, ‘maybe I’ll have time for Shabbat every now and then or maybe I’ll go for one seder, but not both nights,’ ” he said. “I wasn’t going to put my Jewish identity as something I’m going to build up in my college years. AEPi completely changed that.”
Neither Schiff nor Roman was surprised by the study’s results.
Support for Israel — Schiff went on Birthright with Drexel Hillel in December and Roman lived there for quite some time — and raising a Jewish family were both big priorities.
The reason for that was the values AEPi instills, Schiff said.
“The values it provides, the opportunities it’s provided — it’s unmatchable,” he said. “And to have it all tie into something I might not have had a strong base on — it’s really changed my outlook on a lot of things I didn’t expect to have changed by a group of 75 guys.”
Philanthropy is one value AEPi strongly pushes the brothers to pursue, and is one Schiff said he never did much before joining the fraternity.
Now, he has done multiple fundraisers for Gift of Life with his brothers and his way of thinking became, “what’s a better way to raise more money to get towards our goals?”
AEPi has made his college experience something he hadn’t expected, he said, adding he never thought he would be such good friends with the presidents of Hillel or Chabad or that he would nurture the relationships that he has developed as a result of his involvement.
Growing close with their fraternity brothers was a common theme for both Schiff and Roman, whose best friends in college were both brothers and one of whom is now his son’s godfather.
“It’s just so different,” Schiff said. “You’re not going to find another organization, fraternity, sorority, club, group anywhere — you’re not going to find anything like AEPi.”
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