“At AEPi, we always say that we are going to live or die as a Jewish fraternity,” Robert Derdiger, CEO of Alpha Epsilon Pi, tells JNS.
In fact, according to lore, antisemitism inadvertently paved the way for the creation of the 110-year-old Jewish fraternity, which has 150 active chapters across 190 college campuses in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Israel.
AEPi’s 110,000 alumni include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg; the late businessman and Jewish philanthropist Sheldon Adelson; Bernard Marcus, founder of Home Depot; Jewish Federations of North America president and CEO Eric Fingerhut, also a former Ohio congressman and state senator; Mike Leven, founder of the Jewish Future Pledge; former and current Citigroup, ESPN and Walt Disney Studios heads; and those across entrepreneurial fields. Alumni ranks also include many in the arts and entertainment world, such as Jerry Lewis, Richard Lewis, Gene Wilder, James L. Brooks, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel; the architect Frank Gehry, in addition to legislators, authors, journalists, sports stars and coaches, and multiple Nobel Prize winners.
Here’s how Derdiger tells it.
Charles C. Moskowitz received a bid from a fraternity (the identity is unknown) but when he asked if his close Jewish friends and New York University classmates could join, the request was denied. So he and 10 other founders—later dubbed the “Immortal 11”—decided in November 1913 to make their own house happen.
The group, from middle-class homes and taking night courses at New York University, “banded together under New York City’s Washington Square Arch,” according to Derdiger, who speculates that antisemitism was behind the rejection of Moskowitz’s request. (He also noted that the 11 were part of the school’s basketball team.)
“The story of AEPi is one of survival and thriving,” he told JNS. “It began with these Jewish men, who were friends, venturing off on their own with the intention of creating the world’s Jewish fraternity.”
‘The need for strong leadership’
Many surveys suggest that antisemitism is rife on college campuses. Recent data from Ipsos, which surveyed nearly 3,050 students—1,022 of them Jewish—found that 57% of the Jewish students witnessed or experienced an antisemitic incident.
This emphasizes “the need for strong Jewish leadership,” Derdiger told JNS. “Jewish leadership both on campus and in the professional world is our mission.”
Martin Volinsky, 33, AEPi’s Florida regional director, is a Buenos Aires native who moved to the United States when he was 10. He learned about the fraternity at a Shabbat dinner that AEPi hosted with Hillel at Florida Atlantic University, his alma mater.
Volinsky, who graduated in 2012, told JNS that students face Jew-hatred “from different angles” in Florida, including from a campaign associated with Ye (aka Kanye West), which held events at Florida Atlantic, Florida State University, the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida.
“We at AEPi are on the frontlines when it comes to antisemitism,” he said.
He acknowledged certain incidents, including one that happened at the University of Florida in Gainesville, when an antisemitic message referencing Kanye West (“Ye”) was displayed outside the Florida v. Georgia football game in Jacksonville on Oct. 29, 2022.
“Within 24 hours, our student leaders put out a statement on social media to condemn it, got involved in the discussion with university administrators, and the biggest part was a community-wide Shabbat dinner to bring the community together,” he said.
Volinsky also listed an incident at the University of South Florida where a new member from another fraternity had a swastika drawn on his head. AEPi got in touch with the campus Hillel and Chabad House to support an in-person discussion with a Holocaust survivor that drew hundreds of students.
The fraternity announced a partnership in August with the Anti-Defamation League.
‘A common link’
Robby Lefkowitz, a junior double majoring in government and Jewish studies at the University of Virginia, lives with a dozen other brothers in the AEPi house on campus. He also serves as the fraternity’s Jewish identity co-chair.
“This is the place for me; I love the vibe,” he told JNS. “A common link binds us together. We come from similar backgrounds and having a group of people around me who are Jewish represents a comfort level. We look out for each other.”
The 20-year-old wanted the sense of community in college that he had at the K-12 Jewish day school he attended in Rockville, Md. He has many of the same concerns as other students—grades, social life, mental health—but as a Jewish leader takes time to focus on Israel and religion.
Lefkowitz attends Friday-night services and meals at both Hillel and Chabad. And this past winter, he went on a Birthright Israel trip.
During his first year, Jewish and pro-Israel students successfully countered a student union push to adopt an anti-Israel policy resolution, but Lefkowitz told JNS that there’s more work to be done. Professors often work with students on changing assignments and exam dates when it comes to Jewish holidays, but the school has no official policy on the matter for faith groups, he said. That is something for the administration to be aware of and change, he pointed out.
Lefkowitz sees anti-Israel activities as “very fashionable” at the moment on certain campuses, but he thinks the sentiments come from a “loud but small minority.” He doesn’t recall any specific antisemitism on campus at his school—a campus that has been made more aware of such issues following the “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017, years before he came to Charlottesville to study.
AEPi is open to diversity and has non-Jewish members, too, he added.
‘A Jewish home away from home’
Bari Klarberg, 20, was born in Tel Aviv and moved as a child to Charlotte, N.C. There wasn’t much Jewish life at the schools he attended, so he expected to find a similar situation in Columbia, S.C., where he is now a junior double majoring in finance and real estate at the University of South Carolina.
He was surprised to see more Jewish life than he anticipated. “Being Jewish is an important part of my life,” said Klarberg, who identifies strongly as Israeli. “At university, I felt that I needed to stay connected with my Judaism.”
As president of the school’s AEPi chapter, he presides over 150 members, recruits new members, and organizes Shabbat dinners and the fraternity’s annual Holocaust remembrance event titled “We Walk to Remember.”
He told JNS that he came to college intent on joining a fraternity, hoping to make lifelong friends. He has found AEPi to be a “second Jewish home away from home.”
“I felt joining a Jewish social fraternity as opposed to a Jewish organization on campus would allow me to always be surrounded by my Jewish brothers, as opposed to going to events once every week or two,” he told JNS.
The junior, who hopes to work in commercial real estate, credits his leadership role at AEPi with helping prepare him for the future.
“I learned the art of sales by running this chapter as a business and developing the necessary people skills by selling myself to others,” he said.
‘Places that are often unfriendly’
Cornell University’s Phi Tau fraternity became AEPi’s second chapter in 1917. The chapter had 52 initiates, but the fraternity faced a series of challenges during World War I when nearly all eligible members—and much of the rest of the men in the country—were called up to serve in the military.
After being inactive during the war and dormant during World War II, AEPi and other college fraternities saw steady growth until the Vietnam War, when “an anti-establishment atmosphere spilled over to negatively impact fraternity life,” Derdiger told JNS.
After the war ended in 1975, other fraternities began to welcome Jewish students into their ranks. But many saw themselves as a “historically Jewish fraternity” or a “Jewish heritage fraternity,” while AEPi is unapologetically Jewish, according to Derdiger.
On its website, AEPi describes itself as “a brotherhood of individuals united by Jewish values and a commitment to the Jewish people.”
AEPi holds great promise for expansion, according to its CEO, who assumed his role last year. It plans to reopen chapters and to reach 175 campuses in the next 10 years—a more than 16.5% expansion, he said.
The fraternity is opening chapters at the University of Southern California and University of Massachusetts, and even at Yeshiva University, despite the undergraduate student population at Yeshiva being almost entirely Jewish.
Derdiger told JNS that a group of Yeshiva students approached AEPi and expressed interest in its leadership training.
“We believe that this group of students will benefit our fraternity and add to our members’ experience as they can add to the diversity of experiences, thoughts and perspectives in AEPi,” he said.