AEPi, the 'Jewish Frat' With Close Ties to GOP Donors, Coming to an Israeli Campus Near You

AEPi, officially apolitical but a member of the Jewish Conference of Presidents organization that receives frequent donations from Sheldon Adelson, just opened a full-fledged chapter at Tel Aviv University

Members of the AEPi fraternity attending the chartering ceremony for the new Tel Aviv University chapter, November 2017.

Fraternities have never been a fixture of campus life in Israel – and for obvious reasons.

Israeli students typically begin their degree studies later than their American peers, having spent at least three years in the Israel Defense Forces and often another year traveling before stepping foot in a university classroom. By then, their main goal is to get out as soon as they can, with degree in hand, and begin real life.

Given this state of mind and the fact that living on their own away from home is no big deal by the time these students start university, the wild partying and goofing around often associated with fraternity life in America would seem to hold little, if any appeal, for them.

The course load at Israeli universities is also usually far more demanding (most bachelor's degree programs are consolidated into three years), and many students work while studying, leaving them little, if any time, for fun.

Indeed, campus life, as it exists in the United States, has virtually no parallel in Israel, where the majority of students – given the small size of the country – are never really that far from home. And even those who don’t commute, often opt to live off campus. For fraternities seeking to recruit members, that doesn’t leave a large pool of candidates to choose from.

Promoting male bonding – a key mission of the fraternity movement – would also seem to be almost superfluous in a country like Israel, where most young men experience an intense level of camaraderie during their military service and have pretty much established their social networks by the time they enter university.

The AEPi house at the University of Maryland, U.S.
Minimartin315 / Wikimedia Commons

Yet in recent years, these male-only clubs have been sprouting up on campuses across Israel. The newest addition to the list is a full-fledged chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi at Tel Aviv University, chartered just a few weeks ago. To be fair, AEPi – also known in America as “the Jewish fraternity” – is currently the only act in town. And considering the captive audience it enjoys in Israel as a Jewish fraternity, it seems unlikely that it will be facing competition from other Greek associations anytime in the near future.

(Other fraternities in the United States have Jewish roots, but AEPi likes to say it is the only one that puts its Jewish identity above all else.)

“I’ve had people telling me for years that we couldn’t make this happen in Israel,” Andrew Borans, the long-standing executive director of AEPi, told Haaretz at the recent chartering ceremony for the TAU chapter. “It turns out they were all 100 percent wrong. The kids starting university in Israel need to feel that they belong just as much as kids in the United States.”

Since 2013, the fraternity has been a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. In 2014, AEPi was instrumental in getting J Street – the pro-Israel, anti-occupation group – blocked from joining that huge umbrella organization. Its vote did not come as a surprise though: Although officially apolitical, AEPi is known to have close ties to Republican Party donors with right-leaning views on Israel. Casino magnate and mega-Republican donor Sheldon Adelson is an honorary member of AEPi and a major contributor to it.

Israel was the first country outside the United States to open a chapter of the fraternity, which currently operates 192 chapters in seven countries around the world, 155 of them in the United States; it has more than 90,000 living alumni. AEPi’s notable alumni include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, singer-composer team Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, architect Frank Gehry, CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer, Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus, New York Congressman Jerry Nadler, Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut.

The new branch in Tel Aviv is the third full-fledged chapter of AEPi in Israel. The first one opened in 2011 at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya – a natural choice considering that it was the first local institution of higher education to offer fully accredited degree programs in English and therefore boasts a large share of American students. Needless to say, many of them are familiar with the fraternity scene from back home.

Last year, a second chapter was opened at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In the past year, two new “colonies” – the predecessors of full-fledged chapters – were opened at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. (The transition from a colony to a full-fledged chapter, a process that Borans likens to a bar mitzvah, typically follows a two-year trial period).

Efforts are currently under way to set up another two chapters in Israel: one at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva and another at the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon Letzion. A total of 250 brothers, according to Borans, belong to the Israeli branches of the 104-year-old fraternity – some of them American students studying in Israel but the vast majority native-born Israelis.

Hazing is out

Rather paradoxically, as Greek life in the United States has come under growing scrutiny, with allegations recently piling up about sexual misconduct, hazing and drug use (the University of Michigan, Texas State, Florida State and Ohio State all suspended their fraternity activities in recent weeks over related violations) – in Israel, the movement is enjoying a heyday of sorts.

As members of the AEPi organization, all the Israel branches engage in the classic fraternity activities: rush, pledging and initiation. But hazing – the humiliating and often dangerous rituals, such as excessive drinking, imposed on students seeking membership – is absolutely banned in Israel, according to representatives of the local chapters.

“Officially, it’s banned at our U.S. chapters as well,” as one brother, attending the chartering ceremony at TAU, relayed with a wink, “but we all know what goes on there. That’s the reason many brothers actually prefer going through initiation while they’re here in Israel on study-abroad programs so that they can avoid the hazing rituals.”

Itzhak Aman, director of AEPi activities in Israel, notes that all the local fraternity branches are prohibited from selling alcohol at events, though participants are allowed to bring their own drinks. (Considering that the drinking in age is Israel is 18, rather than 21, as it is in America, illegal underage drinking is virtually a non-issue at local AEPi parties).

The newly established chapters and colonies, he notes, add their own local twists to fraternity life. “At Bar-Ilan, the brothers try to have Shabbat dinner together as often as they can, and every year, we hold a joint Purim party as well as a joint Lag b’Omer bonfire for all the brothers in Israel,” he notes.

That said, the Israeli satellites are not passing up easily on some of the better-known features of fraternity life in America. The TAU branch of AEPi, for example, held its first Halloween masquerade party this year (Halloween is not a holiday widely observed in Israel).

And at Hebrew University, Animal House-inspired toga parties have become de riguer. “It’s already become of an end-of-the-year tradition there,” says Aman.

But the parties, Aman maintains, are far from the main draw for Israeli students. “As far as most of them are concerned, this is an opportunity to engage in community service and develop leadership skills,” says Aman. “A big part of the focus here is on fundraising for charity causes, which is still a relatively new field in Israel.”

Alon Vita, a third-year psychology and computer science student, serves as head of the AEPi branch at Bar-Ilan, which he helped set up last year. His official title is “colony master.”

He acknowledges that most young men in Israel experience their fair share of male bonding in the army, but says that for many of them, that isn’t enough, especially when they arrive at university, often without any of their friends. “One of our new recruits recently told me,” he relays, “that the reason he decided to join was that he was missing what he had in the army – the male companionship.”

Ties and jackets

Just before the chartering ceremony opens, several dozen brothers, representing various campuses around the country, are gathered at a posh restaurant on the Tel Aviv beach for dinner and drinks. Decked out in jackets, ties and proper shoes, they hardly resemble typical 20-something-year-old Israeli students.

“Being a member of AEPi has been a life-changing experience for me,” says Asaf Bisker, the 22-year-old president of the about-to-be inducted Tel Aviv chapter. “I can now say that I have a network of friends around the world.”

Like Bisker, who is a third-year law student, a disproportionately large share of the brothers gathered here are atudaim – students who begin university straight out of high school and defer their army service until after they graduate. These draft deferrers comprise a fairly small portion of the total student body on Israeli campuses but, by definition, tend to be closer in age to their American fraternity brothers than to their Israeli classmates. Atudaim also tend to live on campus, which could explain the special appeal of Greek life for them.

Ben Shopen, a 26-year-old studying computer science and economics, relates that as soon as he heard a fraternity was being set up on campus, he knew he wanted to join. “I had no social life at that point, and for me this has been a lifesaver,” he says.

Israel may now have fraternities, but it doesn’t yet have frat houses. A first-of-its-kind, though, is scheduled to open later this year at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Another sign that Greek life is taking off in Israel is Aman’s recent appointment. Officially, his position is educational leadership consultant in Israel, and he is the first local hire in the country. That position didn’t exist until this summer.

But even for the top AEPi guy in the country, some things about fraternity life still take getting used to. “Until I attended my first fraternity event here,” admits Aman, “I had no idea how to put on a tie.”