Are Jewish Sororities an Untapped Opportunity?

by Susan Weidman Schneider

I’ve been revisiting a 1997 article in Lilith entitled “Jewish Latency,” featured on the cover as “The Jews We Lose.” It’s all about a project Lilith created with the help of a grant from New York UJA-Federation to engage New York Jews in their 20s, just out of college, who found no niche in the Jewish world after having felt very empowered in their campus years.

David Cygielman, CEO of Moishe House, writing in eJP earlier this month declared that the Jewish community too often thinks of people this age as tools for solving “problems” in Jewish life; he noted that this approach “places young adults as unknowing subjects in an experiment they never signed up for.”

But ownership is the key to engaging this cohort, concluded that Lilith article.

The project the “Jewish Latency” article described started out as an idea germinated by Lilith interns, who’d been rebuffed when they approached several Manhattan synagogues wanting seats for the High Holy Days. (This was in an era predating the wonderful services offered by Rabbi Judith Hauptman and others expressly for Jews in their 20s and 30s.) Under Lilith’s mentoring, our interns and their friends decided to create their own Jewish experiences.

Themsleves just out of college, this cohort realized that in addition to finding again the kinds of Jewish leadership opportunities they’d had on campus, they wanted autonomy and agency. They wanted to own what they were willing to invest themselves in creating. The Lilith staff suggested catered Shabbat dinners. Unh unh. Instead, they did DIY potluck vegetarian. We suggested Passover programming. Instead, they hosted a baked-potato third-night seder, announcing that baked potatoes met everyone’s standards of observance. We suggested that the project be called VOICES, an acronym for I-can’t-even-remember-what. The participants renamed themselves “A Tribe Called Jews.” You get the idea.

A Tribe Called Jews came to my mind again this month as I was editing an article on Jewish sororities for Lilith’s fall issue. Lilith is now marking its 35th anniversary, and despite the huge range of subjects the magazine has covered, we’ve never before reported on Jewish women in the Greek system. It turns out that like those Jewish activists – male and female – who germinated A Tribe Called Jews, many young Jewish women in sororities feel empowered in their campus roles, then feel they’ve fallen off the Jewish map after they graduate.

The author of the forthcoming article, Shira Kohn of the Jewish Theological Seminary, spent a decade and a Ph.D. dissertation exploring what goes on in Jewish sororities. She suggests that the organized Jewish community is missing an opportunity to keep these women connected once their college years are behind them. (Here’s an advance look at the article)

Some of Kohn’s insights took me by surprise. Much of what I perceive about sororities is derived from their less-than-flattering images in popular culture. In some circles, every Jewish sorority woman falls under the shadow of the dreadful, evergreen JAP stereotype, as we discovered when Lilith ran a brief report on a newer iteration of this slur – the phenomenon of “Coasties.”

In reality, many sorority members carry out a range of Jewish social-service projects which Kohn’s duly notes. Their campus experiences – for some, a crash course in competency and community leadership – prepare them to assume roles in the wider Jewish world once they’re living out in that universe. But is anyone recruiting these young educated women? Are Jewish women’s organizations and Jewish social justice organizations flooding campuses with suggestions as to how they can stay connected and engaged after graduation? Hardly at all.

Susan Weidman Schneider is Editor in Chief of Lilith Media.