Leadership Lessons of AEPi International Fraternity

by David Bernstein and Phillip Brodsky

Embarking on its 100th year, AEPi fraternity has become a vital force in Jewish life. Indeed, while many segments of American Jewish life are in decline, AEPi is rapidly growing. Ranked number one amongst fraternities in academic achievement, the movement has in the past four years grown from 7,000 to 9,000 undergraduate members and an all-time high 166 chapters worldwide. The national office of AEPi, under the leadership of executive director Andy Borans and newly sworn in supreme master (international president) Elan Carr, has demonstrated remarkable vision and leadership, defining a clear course for the organization. Other Jewish organizations would do well to learn from its example. Here are several of its lessons:

Define what you are and what you’re not

While many historically Jewish fraternities and sororities wavered on their Jewishness, AEPi stood firm and even raised its Jewish temperature. Phil Cohen, a former supreme master of AEPi in the 1970s, relates how he and other AEPi leaders decided to double down on Jewish life at the very time when other Greek organizations were peeling off their Jewish labels in the name of inclusivity and building a broader base. The organization’s mission statement is replete with references to the centrality of Jewish life, stating loud and clear that “today Jewish students search out Alpha Epsilon Pi because it is a Jewish fraternity.” AEPi rightfully boasts about the numbers of its members going on to lay and professional leadership positions within the Jewish community.

Likewise, the fraternity is unabashedly pro-Israel. Our organization, The David Project, recently joined forces with AEPi to plan “Israel Amplified,” a pro-Israel training conference for Greek students. While students at Israel Amplified expressed diverse views on Israeli government policy, AEPi makes no bones about it membership in the pro-Israel consensus camp. Running simultaneous to Israel Amplified was AEPi’s Hineni, providing fraternity brothers the tools to develop their Jewish identities and that of their chapters. By being clear about what it is – a Jewish, pro-Israel fraternity – AEPi has attracted those students who are looking for precisely such a Jewish experience, driving its remarkable growth.  Being clear about what you are – and what you’re not – gives an organization a natural market and the prospect for energetic growth.

Know what you’re good at, and seek partners to fill in the gaps

In discussions with AEPi organizers leading up to Israel Amplified, fraternity leaders were refreshingly clear about what they do and don’t do well. They’re master recruiters, knowing exactly how to identify and motivate students to participate in fraternity activities. But they were also clear that they are not Israel advocacy experts and were more than willing to partner with The David Project and other organizations. The possibility of partnership emerges out of a realistic sense of self and a clear view of organizational strengths. Organizations that think they’re good at everything end up taking too much on, falling short in their core competencies, and going it alone in areas they could use the help. Organizations that focus on their strengths and partner on all the rest excel at their core competencies and find leverage in the broader network of complimentary Jewish organizations.

Create experiences that inspire loyalty

One of the most challenging endeavors for Jewish organizations is to inspire loyalty among stakeholders and potential stakeholders through creating meaningful experiences that connect them to the organization’s mission. Some organizations have an easier go at it than others. While AEPi may not be unique in this regard, it spends significant time and effort in initiating friends and partners into the fraternity (in full disclosure, David Bernstein was initiated in August 2012). Being sworn into the fraternity through a set of meaningful rituals inspires loyalty and connection to the fraternity’s mission. Every Jewish organization should ask itself how it can make its mission more accessible to stakeholders and find ways for stakeholders to connect to the mission at the deepest possible way.

Don’t give away your programs and services for free

Unlike many Jewish organizations operating in the youth and college space, AEPi doesn’t give away its services for free. As we’ve learned in the past few decades, free has a price. Over time it can cheapen programs and, paradoxically, make them less, not more desirable. By concentrating on a unique experience confined to a distinct segment of the population, AEPi proves that at least in some settings you can charge and thrive, a valuable lesson for Jewish organizations. The trick may be not charging for what you’ve given away for free in the past or what others are currently giving away for free, but to create unique programs for distinct segments of the Jewish market, the kind of programs people are willing to pay for.

AEPi offers an instructive example of how clearly stated values, specialization and a partnership-orientation can pay dividends for an organization, and provide great value for the larger Jewish enterprise.

David Bernstein is Executive Director of The David Project @DavidLBernstein.
Phillip Brodsky is Campus Team Manager of The David Project and former director of Jewish Programming at AEPi, @Phil_Brodsky.