What AEPi taught me about Israel, the Conference of Presidents, and Brotherhood
This is a guest post by “Jacob Wake Up!”. Based in Boston, Jake works in higher ed marketing, plays music, and is planning his wedding. He has previously held positions in Jewish nonprofit and the music industry. He also blogs at jacobwakeup.com and bostonska.net.
I am proud to say that I am an alumnus of AEPi. Just as my brothers let me know when I was screwing up, I’d like to let AEPi, the national organization, that they screwed up. I’ll start with a story:
I’ll never forget one evening in my senior year at UConn when I was relaxing in my fraternity house room and a handful of my brothers walked in together. They had serious looks on their faces; concerned but not quite angry. They told me they wanted to talk. It became very clear that this was an intervention of sorts. The worst crossed my mind: Did I have too much to drink at the last party? Did I say things I shouldn’t have to a young woman? Did I behave in a way that was unbecoming of a brother of my fraternity? Thankfully, it wasn’t so bad. I had decided somewhere along the way that it would be a good idea to grow out a goatee–the kind without a mustache, because I can’t grow one. I’m of a light complexion with dirty blonde hair, so it made me look how you might say “trashy.” While I hadn’t quite figured out my “style” (punk rock? student in sweats? ramah shacharit in pajamas?), it was conclusive that the goatee was not part of it. I was aiming for cool and I missed by lightyears. They were the ones to tell me, not any of my other friends. Brothers look out for you, tell you things you might not want to hear, and let you know when you’re screwing up. And I was grateful to be called out.
Last week, I was very upset to learn, that in a recent vote on whether or not to include JStreet in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Presidents, AEPi voted not to include Jstreet, according to a report in the Forward. This was wrong, small-minded, poor public relations practice, and above all, it was unbrotherly.
I’m grateful for my undergraduate AEPi experience. I found more male Jewish friends than I’d found at synagogue, Camp Ramah, and USY combined. This meant a lot to me. I learned lots of life lessons: how to speak up, how to assert yourself, how to look out for one another, and even how to work with people with whom you don’t see eye to eye. That last one was the kicker. Without AEPi, I’m not so sure I would have gained (at least not as early in life) the ability to do business with people with whom I disagreed, with people I called brother. This was a fundamental part of my AEPi experience. I would not have finished pledging had I thought my opinion, be it the opposite of a pledge brother, was not valued. This was also reflected in chapter meetings and business. Everyone had a chance to share their opinion or advice on a situation or chapter decision. Everyone had a voice. Sometimes we even ended our weekly meetings with time for anyone to say anything they pleased. We were all better for it.
In a seemingly careless move, AEPi decided someone doesn’t get a voice at the table. You’ve publicly said that this organization, even though it may not share our perspective on a particular issue, doesn’t get a voice. You’ve sided with the fraternity value of exclusion, not the Jewish value of debate, and not the familial value of inclusion. Does this Conference mean anything to folks outside of the Jewish community? It might not, but it is symbolic, and I know that the value of symbolism is not lost on an AEPi brother, Jewish or not. No one even asked you to change your stance on the
Middle East crisis occupation. JStreet just asked for the opportunity to share their perspective. It’s worth noting that the word “Israel” doesn’t even appear in AEPi’s mission statement. [Editor’s Note: A formatting error left out the strikethrough in this paragraph. It is intended by the author.]
What’s even odder is that we’ve aligned yourself with a handful of Orthodox organizations with very conservative values. We’ve to date created a fairly “open tent” by not questioning someone’s Jewish roots, something not shared by many other groups. By including those who are not Jewish, we recognize one of the reasons the fraternity exists is that at one time Jewish men could not be included in American fraternal organizations.
Let’s be clear: this is a shonde, a shame. I know that it pales in comparison to issues of hazing and sexual assault. Those need to be addressed and we should be vocal about it. But I couldn’t let this one squeak by. I paid my dues, literally and figuratively. I conservatively estimate (because this predates Mint.com) spending $2,300 over four years, and I know that we were a relatively inexpensive chapter. I also conservatively estimate $1,550, about 67%, of that cash going to the national organization, an entity I didn’t always understand and was often ambivalent towards. I did, however, understand it to be an integral part of the infrastructure. I saw it as an investment at the time, but I’m feeling pretty damn burnt right now.
Just as the guys I call “brother” took the time to let me know when I was screwing up, I wanted to take this opportunity to let you know, this is not cool. We’re better than this. You gave me a chance, didn’t you?
Lastly, this just can’t be a good reflection of the organization in the long run. We know that young Jews increasingly favor open conversations around Israel. We know that 17-19 year old Jewish men are the primary demographic and we know that AEPi needs to stay relevant to them in order to exist. It seems like the best bet for long-term growth would be to encourage a wide range of opinions around this topic, letting a variety of young Jewish men know that they can find a home in AEPi. I know AEPi isn’t for everyone, but if we’re to continue to have an impact, we want to create a space that speaks to a pool that includes future leaders.
How about we — yes, we — start with an apology, and recognize that this was exclusionary and small-minded. Transparency and authenticity are the prevailing values among youth, even if not with Greek Life. Then maybe we can talk about how AEPi is going to take a proactive role in being part of what we all know to be a difficult conversation, just as it’s taken such a proactive role in building young male Jewish leaders.