Alpha Epsilon Pi chapter members with the fraternity’s “sweetheart,” Rachel Meadow. A “sweetheart” is elected every year at the chapter’s formal. (photo from AEPi)
The Vancouver chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the traditionally Jewish fraternity, is 20 years old this year. So is Benny Stanislawski, the chapter’s president, who will help oversee the anniversary celebrations next month.
AEPi, as it is commonly known, was not the first Jewish fraternity at the University of British Columbia. Another frat operated on campus in years past but eventually disbanded. In the summer of 1999, the former longtime international executive director of the fraternity contacted Jeff Waldman, a student at UBC, suggesting he consider founding a chapter. A group of eight “founding fathers” came together and Adam Propp, a high school friend of Waldman, also a UBC student, was chosen as the first president, or “brother master,” as the role is called internally.
Hillel has been on the UBC campus since 1947 and provided an avenue for Jewish fellowship and involvement for many students. But the founders of the fraternity saw advantages in creating the male-only society.
“I think all of us had different reasons,” Propp recalled. “For me, to be able to have an impact on the university experience for young Jewish men like myself was important. When I look back at it, Hillel appealed to many, but not all. [The fraternity] just appealed to a different set of people who might not have been attracted to Hillel right away. It was a way to get more people more active and involved in a Jewish experience on campus, especially since UBC is such a commuter school.”
Propp became philosophical reflecting on the chapter’s founding two decades ago, noting that, in the next few years, some sons of the original brothers will likely be pledging to the fraternity. In recent days, Propp has been reconnecting with many of the original brothers, as they plan to gather for the 20th-anniversary celebration with a series of events over the weekend of April 5-7.
The relationship between AEPi and Hillel differs from campus to campus and, at UBC, it has generally been extremely strong, sometimes highly symbiotic.
Gabe Meranda, who was executive director of the Vancouver Hillel Foundation at the time the chapter formed, admits he had some trepidation about a Jewish fraternity, not having had any experience with what is called “the Greek system.”
“I was skeptical at first, since I was cautious about fraternities. But these first few guys were so excited about launching the chapter in B.C. that I decided I must get behind it,” Meranda recalled. “I remember the night of their first party at Hillel. I didn’t know what to expect, but all seems to have gone well and it’s taken off from there.”
The chapter made Meranda an honorary brother and he still proudly has the pin, he said.
While fraternities have a reputation for certain excesses, Canadian campuses tend to be a little more low-key, in part because the lower drinking age in Canada means access to booze is not a motivator to joining a frat. What is less obvious to the general public are programs of leadership development, philanthropic ventures and, in the case of AEPi, Jewish cultural activities and, to varying extents, Israel programming or education.
Stanislawski stressed that AEPi has no political or religious orientation. Jewish young men, as well as non-Jewish ones who want to pledge – of which there are usually a few each year – are welcome without concern for their religious affiliation (or lack of affiliation) or their approach to Zionism.
The chapter’s main annual philanthropic event is Hoops 4 Health, an all-day, three-on-three basketball tournament that takes place this year on March 31 at War Memorial Gym. The chapter’s charity beneficiary used to be different health causes, but the Heart and Stroke Foundation has a special meaning to the brothers. A couple of years ago, an AEPi member, Nitai Weinberg, suffered a stroke at the age of 18. Now fully recovered, he and his brothers raised $8,000 for the cause last year, and this year have significantly upped their goal to $25,000.
As an example of the range of programs, the chapter recently hosted a presentation on sexual assault awareness, led by the UBC Mental Health Network. They also host “Greek Shabbats” at Hillel House, where members of all the university’s fraternities are invited.
“The Greek community is fairly large and it’s also influential,” said Lenny Tabakman, who was master brother last year and is chairing the organizing committee for the anniversary celebration. “A lot of people that join fraternities and sororities are leaders in their own community. The fact that they mingle with us and we get to meet the leaders of other communities, I feel like it’s beneficial for the Jewish community at large because we’re basically creating allies of the community by bringing them in. They probably would never even enter Hillel and, every week, we have people who are not Jewish come into Hillel and hang out with AEPi.”
These connections are helpful, Tabakman said, when issues like anti-Israel incitement happens on campus and allies are needed to counter them.
Tabakman sees fraternities in general as a place to nurture leadership.
“A fraternity is kind of like a learning laboratory where you get to practise your leadership skills and your teamwork skills,” he said. “It’s kind of a safe place to fail. It prepares you for the business world.”
AEPi has an added mission, agreed Tabakman and Stanislawski: “Developing leaders for the Jewish community.”
Founded in 1913, the fraternity now serves 190 campuses in seven countries; it claims 90,000 living alumni. The UBC branch, officially called the Beta Chi chapter, welcomes students from Langara, Simon Fraser, Emily Carr, Capilano and all post-secondary institutions in the region. The chapter usually has 40-plus brothers in any given year, peaking last year at 49.
“I’d love to see the organization get into the 70s,” said Stanislawski. But, given the limited number of Jewish students on campus, slow, steady growth is the realistic goal.
Samuel Heller, the current executive director of Hillel at UBC, congratulated the fraternity and thanked them for their contributions.
“Both the Hillel community and wider campus community are enriched by this brotherhood of young men who exemplify leadership and champion Jewish values,” said Heller. “Brothers of AEPi are a positive force on campus … by creating a group of young leaders who are changing the face of UBC and who, in turn, will change the world.”
Pat Johnson is an honorary brother of Alpha Epsilon Pi Beta Chi chapter.