Fraternities offer a new way of getting involved

By Marcus Dysch, December 13, 2012
Marc Cowan, Ben Weinberg, winner Ariel Cohen and Joey Barnett at the Leeds AEPi poker night

Marc Cowan, Ben Weinberg, winner Ariel Cohen and Joey Barnett at the Leeds AEPi poker night

It is nearly 100 years old, is run from global headquarters in Indianapolis, and counts Mark Zuckerberg and Adam Richman among its alumni.

But the Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) fraternity has swapped California and New York for Yorkshire and the Midlands as it successfully develops chapters for Jewish students on British campuses.

While the thought of frat packs full of bawdy male students on drunken rampages may conjure up images of Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn films, the reality in Britain is quite different.

Charity nights, volunteering work and Torah study classes have been at the forefront of AEPi’s work on campuses in five UK cities in the past year.

Under chairman Ben Weinberg, the Leeds branch aims to raise £5,000 for charitable causes during this academic year, while in Nottingham AEPi held a party last weekend to mark Chanucah and the group’s launch in the city.

The networker: Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: AP)

The networker: Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: AP)

Mr Weinberg said he wanted students to have “an alternative approach to their heritage” and a desire to “form a community where every Jewish student feels welcome, where they can voice their views and where life-long friends can be made”.

Manchester-born Marc Cowan was the first to recognise the potential for bringing frat packs to British Jews.

“I was studying in San Diego and heard about AEPi from friends before I went,” he said. “I saw a lot of frats in California and I liked what it was all about.

“In England, I had friends who were not involved in Jewish activities at university. They felt some events were not appropriate for them. So I thought fraternities were a great way to get people involved in Jewish life on campus.”

After returning to Leeds last year Mr Cowan contacted AEPi and pitched his plan to develop fraternities in this country. The organisation was so impressed with the idea that executive director Andy Borans crossed the Atlantic to meet the British students.

Many participants credit AEPi with enticing Jewish students who felt unwelcome, or uncomfortable, at traditional JSoc events.

But that move brought tension with JSocs and the Union of Jewish Students, with last year’s UJS conference voting to condemn fraternities, accusing them of being “exclusive” and “sexist”.

Partly in an effort to ease those concerns, AEPi has set up a sorority for female students in Nottingham and Birmingham. Events have already taken place in both cities, under the name Alpha Epsilon Chi.

For Joey Barnett, current head of philanthropy at Leeds’ AEPi, the frat has been a lifeline.

“I grew up in Blackpool and went to a Catholic boarding school. I did not have many Jewish friends, so when I went to university I knew I wanted to be involved with the Jewish community,” he said. “I met Marc and he told me about his idea for bringing AEPi to Britain. Three years ago I had no Jewish friends. Now I’m heavily involved in the community.”

The future of AEPi’s UK fraternities and sororities is assured, says Marc Cowan.

“Most AEPi people are JSoc members. We are not in competition. We are bringing people together for a better life. The perception from the outside is that it’s like something out of the movies — partying and drinking all the time. But it’s not. We sit and discuss what charities we will raise money for and what events we will hold to do it.”

Last updated: 12:19pm, December 13 2012