CMU’s Jewish sisterhood, Pitt’s Hillel big/little program help students connect
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CollegeBoth are Greek-like but separate from Greek life

CMU’s Jewish sisterhood, Pitt’s Hillel big/little program help students connect

Before Achayot Shel Carnegie Mellon was founded, CMU had historically Jewish fraternity AEPi without a counterpart on campus for women.

Big Eva Shterengarts meets with freshmen littles Lacey Gelfand and Ilona Margolin. Photo from Ryan Covitt.
Big Eva Shterengarts meets with freshmen littles Lacey Gelfand and Ilona Margolin. Photo from Ryan Covitt.

When Tahlia Altgold came to Carnegie Mellon University, she discovered that a sizeable chunk of its already small Jewish community was built to exclude her. The historically Jewish fraternity AEPi, big at CMU, had no counterpart on campus for women.

It wasn’t always that way. Jewish sorority AEPhi was the first national sorority to answer CMU’s call for Greek life on campus in the 1940s, explained Alex Zissman, Jack G. Buncher Director of Jewish Student Life at Carnegie Mellon University. But it disappeared decades later and hasn’t returned.

Zissman and students had looked into bringing AEPhi back to CMU or starting a chapter of SAEPi, a national, independent Jewish sorority. But the downsides of Greek life — like dues and membership quotas — left Altgold and other Jewish women on campus wanting something Greek-like instead of Greek life itself.

They started to form a tight-knit community and put on events sponsored by Hillel JUC. Eventually, they made it official, and Achayot Shel Carnegie Mellon (Sisters of Carnegie Mellon) was born.

For Valentine’s Day this year, Achayot did a Galentine’s brunch. Photo courtesy of Tahlia Altgold.

CMU’s Jewish sisterhood offers a built-in structure for connection that Altgold hopes will serve future students well.

“It’s somewhat of a human want to create something that will be bigger than yourself and that will outlive you,” said the CMU junior. “After I leave, I want Jewish women freshmen to just come and already have that support network and that infrastructure and that robust option for Jewish life.”

Altgold and the group’s 12 other founders are creating that infrastructure. They drafted a constitution last semester and are working to gain university recognition — a process delayed due to COVID-19 and a student government transition.

And they’re creating rituals, like lighting candles to welcome new members, that will bake Jewish traditions into the group’s DNA.

“We really want the blood and the core of this group to be Judaism,” said Altgold. “We are creating something unique that has never existed before, and I think there’s a lot of beauty and power in that.”

They’re also naming the executive board positions for notable Jewish women. Instead of “president,” the group’s leader will be titled “The Ruth” in honor of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Achayot’s Mulaney Fest 2020. Photo courtesy of Tahlia Altgold.

Renting out an auditorium, watching a John Mulaney stand-up special and eating cereal in what the group dubbed “Mulaney Fest 2020” isn’t easily replicable during the pandemic. But they’ve created new programs like “craft and kvetch” over Zoom and are still able to recruit new members.

“It’s so exciting that it’s an opportunity for these women to have a program like this,” said Zissman. “I know that there is a lot of amazing impact on the Carnegie Mellon Jewish life that this program can have.”

Meanwhile, at the University of Pittsburgh, Hillel is reprising its big/little program, pairing older students with younger ones as they enter college with new barriers to connection.

Eva Shterengarts remembers how hard it was to find her place as a freshman — and she didn’t have the challenges of doing it with social distancing or on Zoom.

The Pitt junior, who will be a “big” this year, is eager to support new students during a tough transition. “This program will give a lot of students the opportunity to have another friendly face around campus and have someone that they can turn to and ask questions without having any sort of obligations,” she said.

More than 60 students signed up for the program, and Shterengarts, who is the communities lead for the Hillel Student Board, worked with Kari Semel, Janet L. Swanson Director of Jewish Student Life at the University of Pittsburgh, and social media intern Ryan Covitt to pair the students based on their answers to open-ended questions about their interests, religious observance and more.

Big Daniel Hochman meets with little Stephanie Frankel. Photo from Ryan Covitt.

Last weekend featured a big reveal: Bigs and littles met each other at coffee shops around Oakland. The pairs and families — like Shterengarts and her two littles — will be able to opt into events like mask tie-dyeing during the school year.

Semel hopes the program will offer new students much needed human connection. “We need to just start at base level,” she said, “And make sure they feel welcome and comfortable at Pitt.” PJC

Kayla Steinberg can be reached at ksteinberg@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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