Alpha Epsilon Pi: How Paying Fraternity Dues Makes Young Jews Contributing Community Members

by Adam Teitelbaum

As the Lorber Director of Jewish and Philanthropy Programming for the Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) Fraternity, I strive to provide my Brothers the most cutting edge, inspirational, and meaningful Jewish experiences I can. Sometimes I am able to imbue an undergraduate Brother with pride in his Jewish identity through a one-on-one conversation. Sometimes I am able to empower a chapter to host a Shabbat dinner through an AEPi Foundation micro-grant.

Sometimes I just get to play matchmaker and encourage a Brother to participate in another organization’s program. Whichever way I can, my ultimate goal is to motivate my Brothers to connect to their heritage – own it – and graduate and remain engaged Jewish community members and leaders.

Recently, I traveled with the directors of the Alpha Epsilon Pi Foundation on a Northern California trip to meet with AEPi alumni and a few Jewish non-profit organizations. During these conversations, I was introduced to an issue that has begun to concern the Jewish non-profit community.

Organizations are worried about sustainable young-adult participation in Jewish activities, especially where monetary contributions are required, after they return from free programs and trips. As a young Jewish man I wondered if money truly deters my peers from becoming involved in the Jewish community. As a Jewish non-profit professional I began to think about how this trend may affect future fundraising.

At the beginning of the 21st century, a phenomenon swept the Jewish and Israel communities when a group of incredibly generous philanthropists came up with a plan to invigorate Jewish communities. Taglit-Birthright began to provide thousands of young Jewish adults with a free, no strings attached, ten day trip to connect with Israel’s history, culture, citizens, as well as their own Judaism. Taglit offered an unprecedented opportunity to engage this target demographic at a critical time during their individual development: and they have. Since then, dozens of organizations were founded to try their hand at empowering Jewish university students and recent alumni to strengthen their commitment to the future of the Jewish people. The conversations I had in San Francisco, however, led me to question if the free-trip model has yielded the desired results.

The sheer number of these program alumni surely proves that we are deft at recognizing stellar opportunities. It has become so easy to visit Israel for free, however, that young Jews have begun to develop into a generation of “emotionally connected but uninvolved and entitled Jewish young adults.”(1) Local communities are having tremendous difficulty maintaining a participant’s excitement and involvement after Israel, especially where there is a cost of admission.

Conversely, I have witnessed for myself how much more committed participants can be when they must have buy-in from the beginning. When clients pay for admission, they strive to get their money’s worth and therefore maximize their investment. Initial commitment is not limited to money, either.

Applications are also a viable method to evoke a connection to the program or initiative.

I believe the Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity, and other membership-dues based organizations, are helping to instill high-level commitment because our Brothers must pay. As Andrew S. Borans, the Executive Director for the Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity says, “our Brothers pay to play, and that makes all the difference.” One reason our Brothers are not deterred by dues is because they realize they are joining a community larger than themselves. The value of participation is worth the cost. Furthermore, our membership dues collections are successful in large part as a result of a shared sense of communal obligation. AEPi teaches our Brothers the importance of balancing an organizational budget. The president and treasurer of each individual chapter oversee operating budgets ranging from $30,000 in small, unhoused chapters to upwards of $700,000 in our largest, housed groups. Our Brothers and chapter leaders get to experience and understand firsthand how finances dictate organizational capabilities, and how detrimental absentee members can be. We are instilling 18 to 22-year-olds with the qualifications to understand the importance to become participatory and paying members to the Jewish community upon graduation.

The majority of AEPi programming – which includes trips to Israel – is not free. Our regional conclaves, annual national conventions, and three-week Jerusalem Road Trip all cost money to individual Brothers.(2) It is during these events that Brothers are able to truly feel a sense of belonging to the global AEPi community. Although they are all heavily subsidized, Brothers invest in the program by paying a stipend to participate. Each year, the level of undergraduate attendance at each conclave and convention has grown as Brothers appreciate the opportunity to network with Brothers from all over the world.

Additionally, at a time when many discussions address how disenfranchised and distanced young Jews might feel from their Jewish identity, AEPi’s successful Hineni: Jewish Identity Conference, as well as our increased communal participation in holiday celebrations, such as Shabbat Across AEPi, offers compelling evidence that Jews on college campuses have not lost touch with their Jewish identities.(3 4)

In my role as the Lorber Director of Jewish and Philanthropy Programming for the Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity, I firmly believe that we are strengthening and preparing Jewish leaders and instilling in them a commitment to their communities. I am confident we are doing so in a way that is unique and significant because we value learning from experience; for example, the international headquarters allows for individual chapter leadership to exercise the autonomy necessary to take responsibility and create their own Brotherhood, while simultaneously maintaining a commitment to the ideals of the global fraternity.(5)

I fully agree with Will Schneider when he emphasizes the positive role empowerment can play. Young people are more likely to participate and become engaged in meaningful projects when they, and their closest friends, are responsible for any given project. Moreover, by localizing initiatives and encouraging grass-roots movements the costs incurred are reduced. I have witnessed this direct correlation myself. Schneider does, however, also warn that this positive out-come is not a panacea: social entrepreneurs and funders alike still have growing concerns for future contributions.(6)

A further concern about young Jews is that because they are becoming accustomed to the tendency that their Jewish community involvement comes at no cost to them it negatively impacts their future giving habits. I am apprehensive that as my generation becomes the business developers and leaders, we will fail to see the value of funding Jewish organizations because we assume someone else will contribute instead, or we are capable of finding a free version of any given program.

David Cygielman, CEO and Founder of Moishe House, also struggles with this group-think conundrum. Cygielman argues that the current conversation among philanthropists must change: philanthropists cannot simply base a non-profit’s success on its ability to become either fiscally self-sustaining or to find alternative funders. The metric for sustainability should be whether the organization’s output is influential and meaningful, rather than prove it is able to always find new donors.(7)

Developing contributors is another way AEPi is helping impact Jewish young adults. Alpha Epsilon Pi is a membership-dues-based organization. Our Brothers must pay to play. One might think that a combination of the recent economic downturn and the apparent free-rider-problem would have devastated our membership numbers. Instead, we have only continued to grow. Last year we initiated over 2,500 new Brothers; currently, we are on track to surpass last year.

Abigail Pickus then raises a poignant question: “It’s all well and good to hear how the organizational world is working overtime to try to make young Jews feel at home, but beyond ‘raising leaders’ and ‘empowering the next generation,’ are NextGens actually putting anything back in the pot?”(8) AEPi is helping solve this dilemma because we emphasize undergraduate giving to our Foundation. The creation of the 1913 Society, a program specially targeted at under- graduate giving, instills Brothers with ownership and direct involvement in our Foundation and its success.(9) Since the introduction of this society last August, over 500 undergraduate Brothers have given at least $19.13 to the AEPi Foundation’s general fund.

Each donation to the Foundation, as well as payment of membership dues, demonstrates to our Brothers that their money is directly tied to AEPi’s future. Every Brother has benefited from our Foundation-based micro-grants and they know that when they contribute. Whether it was in the form of a chapter Shabbat dinner or a co-hosted Jewish event on campus, every Brother has been the recipient of Foundation dollars. The Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity has given over $770,000 in grants and scholarships in the last three years. The members of the 1913 Society now have a sense of pride and ownership because they have made it possible for a fellow and future Brothers to enjoy the same benefits.

Alpha Epsilon Pi is a unique organization. While we offer the social, leadership, and networking benefits of a Fraternity, we are also a non-traditional entry into the Jewish community and are therefore in a prime position to provide Jewish males (and their social circles) valuable and lasting Jewish experiences. AEPi’s Jewish programming is the strongest it has been since the creation of my position a decade ago. As Supreme Master Sam Blustein always says, “it’s a great time to be in AEPi!”(10)

The Torah Portion, Teruma, opens with a fascinating passuk: G-d tells Moshe, “Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart in- spires him to generosity, you shall take My offering.”(11) Just as God gave the Israelite nation its freedom from Egypt so too have our parents and grandparents given us a remarkable fiscal foundation upon which to base our Jewish involvement. Now we are being asked to return the favor. But it is not a mandatory contribution; rather, we must come to understand our role ourselves. Our generation, the Birthright Generation, will soon inherit the responsibility to improve upon previous generosity and support the Jewish community. I believe AEPi is helping inspire our Brothers to establish that commitment for themselves, and for the Jewish community at large.

Adam Teitelbaum is the Lorber Director of Jewish and Philanthropy Programming for the Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity. Adam is also a member of the ROI Community.

1 Frankel, Joel. January 30, 2012. “Can Birthright Israel Alone Reverse Young Adults’ Declining Support of Local Jewish Communities?
2 The AEPi Jerusalem Road Trip is organized through Aish HaTorah. It is a three-week trip where Brothers live in the Old City of Jerusalem, have thought-provoking classes, and travel throughout the country on day trips including hiking, go-kart racing, paint-balling, camping, rappelling, and much more.
3 Hineni
4 aepi.org/?page=ShabbatAEPi, aepi.org/news/77405/
5 An Alpha Epsilon Pi Chapter is an individually chartered group on a given college campus. We currently have 165 Chapters across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Israel. For a chapter roll call, please visit aepi.org/?page=ChapterRoll
6 Schneider, Will. Slingshot ’11-’12.
7 Cygielman, David. January 31, 2012. “From Innovation to Sustainability: A New Conversation.”
8 Pickus, Abigail. February 16, 2012. “The Next Generation: What Jewish Organizations are Doing to Cultivate 20-and-30-Somethings.”
9 aepi.site-ym.com/?1913society
10 Supreme Master is the President of the AEPi Board of Directors. It is a volunteer position and usu- ally lasts two, one-year terms.
11 Exodus 25:2