The death of a young man at Penn State’s chapter of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity last February sparked grief and outrage across the country as reports came in about the sequence of events that horrific night.
After 19-year-old Timothy Piazza had been coaxed to drink excessive amounts of alcohol at a party at the fraternity house, he fell down a flight of stairs, but no one called for help for at least 12 hours. Video recordings show that Piazza was given 18 drinks within 82 minutes, according to prosecutors. Twenty-six Beta Theta Pi brothers have been charged in relation to Piazza’s death.
Just last week, a grand jury investigating issues of hazing at Penn State issued a report averring that university leaders were aware of pervasive dangerous practices in the Greek system but ignored them.
Hazing deaths and hospitalizations tragically are nothing new in Greek life. The fraternity culture incites excessive alcohol use, and despite university and national fraternity policies intended to curb it, individual chapters too often go rogue.
Jewish fraternities are not immune to the call of the culture, although two of those fraternities, Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) and Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT), having been operating full force on a national level to emphasize values of leadership and loyalty.
“Our policies have always been pretty clear, and it appears to me, and pretty much anyone who has looked at it, the events that took place at that incidence at Penn State would not have been in accordance with our policies,” said Jonathan Pierce, AEPi’s media spokesperson.
Since Piazza’s death, AEPi has not altered any of its policies, Pierce said.
“Our policies were already pretty strict in terms of no underage drinking, no hazing certainly, no forced activities like that,” he said. “So, our policies haven’t changed, but what we have done is re-doubled our efforts to make sure our undergraduates are aware of what they can and should be doing, and we are working to make sure everybody is aware of our policies and is complying with them.”
Still, AEPi was one of five fraternities at Penn State last spring that had logged an alcohol violation, according to a university report; and in 2010, Penn State’s chapter of AEPi faced hazing and furnishing charges after members allegedly forced recruits to binge drink to the extent that two were sent to the hospital, according to a report in The Daily Collegian.
We want to make sure the Jewish community sees ZBT as a value-add, one that helps develop leaders for the Jewish community, and [we want to] make sure our undergraduate brothers know that, whether they are Jewish or not.
AEPi has a mandated “non-hazing” five-week pledge program, Pierce said, “to educate our incoming members about the fraternity and about the history of our values and the responsibilities of becoming a brother.”
Pierce admitted that sometimes chapters engage in hazing anyway, but when that happens, international AEPi steps in to intervene.
“When there have been issues and we are aware of them, we put an end to them right away,” Pierce said. Such intervention can include suspending the chapter, or suspending chapter leadership.
“College is a time of learning,” he said. “We believe our members can make good decisions, and we hope that they do, and when they don’t, we try to correct them.”
Pierce stressed that AEPi, which is on 190 campuses all over the world, emphasizes the merit of Jewish values among its undergraduates.
“We are not only the largest of the traditionally Jewish fraternities, but we are really the organization that has put its Jewish culture and its Jewish values out front,” Pierce said. “That’s our first and foremost goal. Our mission is to develop the future leaders of the Jewish community.
“One of the things we have been working on, is to try to go back to some of those shared Jewish values, things like making sure our undergraduates are thinking about things like being their brothers’ keepers, and we are getting good reception on that. We think that message is getting through. Our goal is to provide leadership within the campus on issues of tikkun olam, certainly on Israel advocacy, on educating the campus about anti-Semitism and about the need for tolerance.”
Leaders of ZBT “believe that pledging can create a two-tiered membership that can lead to hazing, and we believe the tragedy that we saw at Penn State and Louisiana State [death of a freshman pledge in Sept. 2017 at Phi Delta Theta], at Florida State [death of a pledge of Pi Kappa Phi in Nov. 2017] all appeared to have something to do with the pledge process,” Bolotin said.
“It’s my opinion that the pledge process is broken,” Bolotin said. “When ZBT removed pledging from our organization and replaced it with a four-year brotherly development program, we did that because we believe that earning your membership is something you should do every day you’re in the organization, even beyond your undergraduate years by doing good things to benefit yourself as well as the fraternity, by doing well academically, by giving back to the community. In our case, by giving back to the Jewish community. By building your brothers up instead of breaking them down.
“Alcohol should play no role in the pledging process,” he said. “As far as our chapters in Pittsburgh and at Penn State, they are both relatively newly re-chartered chapters and they are succeeding largely because they are recruiting men who aren’t interested in the pledge process, and they are looking for men who want to be treated as equals.”
Nonetheless, ZBT has had its share of alcohol-related issues, despite its national no-pledge policy.
Just last June, Florida State University’s ZBT chapter was suspended for six years following an investigation into hazing allegations. Emory’s ZBT chapter faced sanctions for violations of the school’s anti-hazing policy and its alcohol and drug abuse policy. ZBT is no longer recognized by Miami University because it violated the school’s conduct code for hazing and is suspended until next May.
When there have been issues and we are aware of them, we put an end to them right away…College is a time of learning. We believe our members can make good decisions, and we hope that they do, and when they don’t, we try to correct them.
“When we are made aware of chapters that are violating our policies, we immediately execute an interim suspension while we have an opportunity to investigate,” Bolotin said. “If we find that our chapters are violating our stance against hazing and pledging, they’re likely to be closed. There are cases where if we are able to rehabilitate the chapter, and the chapter brothers are willing to work with us, then we will work with them. We take a very strong stance on that.”
As a Jewish fraternity, “we want to make sure the Jewish community sees ZBT as a value-add, one that helps develop leaders for the Jewish community, and [we want to] make sure our undergraduate brothers know that, whether they are Jewish or not,” Bolotin said.
Just two months following the death of Piazza, the Penn State chapter of the third Jewish fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu, lost its recognition for two years for violating university rules related to alcohol use during Parents’ Weekend on April 1, 2017.
“Sigma Alpha Mu knowingly violated every rule that was imposed,” said Damon Sims, Penn State vice president for Student Affairs, according to a report in Penn State News. “This behavior is not consistent with our University values and is in direct opposition to the changes required if we are to have a healthy, successful and sustainable Greek-letter system at Penn State.”
While Sigma Alpha Mu’s communication director initially agreed to respond to emailed questions from the Chronicle, that fraternity failed to reply after the questions were forwarded. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at