Sororities appeal to cultural heritage

Rebecca Fabbro ’09 may have a Jewish first name and belong to a Jewish sorority, but she is not a Jew. Growing up in the large Jewish community of Scarsdale, N.Y., and having many friends who are Jewish, Fabbro said she always felt very at home with the Jewish culture, which is why she joined what will become Alpha Epsilon Phi when it is registered as an official chapter of the national sorority.

This fall, students are spearheading the creation of two culture-specific sororities — the Jewish AEPhi and the Asian-American STARS, a Sigma Psi Zeta interest group — both of which are non-exclusive and open to students of all backgrounds. Despite some students’ concerns that these culture-specific sororities may be segregationist, their leaders said that Yale women — both those who come from these minority backgrounds and others, like Fabbro, who grew up around them — have shown significant interest in joining groups that celebrate a common heritage. While historically there have been unsuccessful attempts to form an Asian sorority and a previous Yale chapter of AEPhi was chartered and then shut down, these new leaders said they are taking specific steps to ensure their future success.

The need

Whether it be the shared experience of having a stereotypically worried Jewish mother or fighting the silent Asian minority stereotype, the girls in these culture-specific sororities said there is a definite need for building social networks that allow students to relate to each other on the basis of their common backgrounds. Currently, there are three culture-specific sororities on campus: the African-American Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta and the Latina Sigma Lambda Upsilon.

AEPhi social chair Amanda Lewis ’08 said the founders of the sorority created it after feeling that there was a gap in the Jewish community between those who were very religious and attend events at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale weekly and those who were just culturally Jewish but did not attend services regularly.

“Cultural Jewish is ‘I love to eat matzah ball soup,’” Lewis said. “Religious Jewish is ‘I love to discuss the Talmud.’”

AEPhi co-founder Allison Poland ’07 said there was also a desire to create an organization free of the Christian undertones she sensed in other sororities on campus. Poland said having such a sorority creates a network of people who understand her culture and history and can provide company to those who come from out-of-state during the Jewish high holidays. On Sept. 21, nearly 150 people attended the AEPhi “How ’bout dem Apples and Honey’” party at La Piazza, which celebrated the traditional Rosh Hashanah foods that are supposed to bring “a sweet and round new year.”

“A lot of the other sororities on campus have biblical undertones in their rituals, such as swearing on the Bible,” Poland said. “Not that these are big things, but some of the girls in our sorority may not be comfortable with it.”

Officers from the three registered Pan-Hellenic sororities, Pi Beta Phi, Kappa Alpha Theta and Kappa Kappa Gamma, said they welcomed the creation of culture-specific sororities, which they said they believe will help Greek life grow at Yale.

“If someone doesn’t think she will fit in at one of the current sororities, but thinks that she will fit in at a cultural sorority, to each her own, because at the end of the day what matters most is that her sorority experience is a fulfilling one,” Pi Phi Vice President of Membership Development Christine Kim ’07 said. “I think, in return, that will enhance sentiments about Greek life in general on campus.”

STARS president Florence Kwo ’09 said she was inspired to found the sorority after witnessing the divided stance of the Yale Asian community on the controversy regarding articles in the Yale Rumpus and Herald that some in the community found offensive.

“The fact that the Asian community didn’t have one unifying statement said a lot to me about where we were in terms of an Asian community,” Kwo said.

Also frustrated by the stereotypes that characterize Asian-Americans as being too submissive to authority and not being able to speak up for themselves, Kwo said she hopes STARS will be an organization that fosters leadership and community service while addressing national issues important to Asian-Americans. Last week, STARS passed out flyers on campus and encouraged students to participate in the Asian American Students Alliance’s bone marrow drive.

Like the Asian-American sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Vice President Adjoa Boateng ’07 said her sorority was founded at Yale in 1984 with a community service focus. All of Alpha Kappa Alpha activities — nearly 80 percent of which are community-service based — fall under at least one of the group’s “five targets”: arts, education, economics, the black family and health.

“Within the black community there is a lot of need being ignored,” Boateng said. “If we waited on mainstream society to alleviate these needs we would probably be waiting forever. There are a plethora of tutoring programs at Yale, but I think it really makes a difference for a black woman to go into a middle school and mentor a young black girl. She will probably feel that she can approach us easier.”

Supply

While the focus on minority issues in culture-specific sororities may constrain the number of interested students, sisters from these sororities said that, given the general response they have received, they are confident they will be able to sustain their numbers.

STARS events coordinator Ruchita Poddar ’09 said she was not worried about recruitment because 15 students showed up to their informational meeting to fill the three remaining spots in the sorority. Poddar said that, considering that the publicity for the meeting was solely through word of mouth, the turnout shows STARS’ potential for growth.

But 2005 Chinese American Student Association President and Kappa member Angela Wu ’07 said Yale’s Asian population — 14 percent of the undergraduate student body — is still relatively small compared to those at other schools, such as Stanford’s 23 percent.

“Theoretically, I’m not opposed to the idea,” Wu said. “But I do not know how feasible it is because at Yale, we do not have that big of an Asian population.”

But Sigma Psi Zeta National President Alice Siu said that while Stanford may have a larger Asian population, their branch of Sigma Psi Zeta, which has 18 members, is not much larger than STARS, which has 16. Siu also said there are Sigma Psi Zeta chapters in colleges with Asian populations smaller than Yale’s.

Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow Megan Goldman, who works at Yale Hillel, said Yale is approximately 20-30 percent Jewish. AEPhi co-founder Sarah Barenbaum ’08 said approximately 60 people initially showed interest in the sorority at the beginning of the year. Currently, there are 28 members.

“We are kind of using [Jewish fraternity] AEPi as an example,” Barenbaum said. “AEPi has been growing and sustaining, and it is pretty big right now. I think their number has proven that there is an interest.”

The Pan-Hellenic sorority leaders said they are not generally worried about competition for rushes with the culture-specific sororities, since the girls who pledge one will not necessarily have an interest in pledging the other. Their only concern is that culture-specific sororities may take away some of the diversity from the Pan-Hellenic sororities.

“If it was to be disadvantageous to the Pan-Hellenic sororities at all, it would be that we may have less access to a diverse pledge class, which is something we actively seek, as opposed to us begrudging them for not being actively diverse themselves,” Kim said.

Segregation

Students from these culture-specific sororities said segregation is a non-issue because students from all backgrounds can join their organizations as long as they have an interest in their culture. Additionally, they said, there is diversity within both the Jewish and Asian cultures.

Fabbro said she has never felt uncomfortable going to Slifka on Fridays even though she is not Jewish.

“No one is like, ‘Oh, you are not Jewish, what are you doing here?’ People tend to be very embracing,” Fabbro said.

Nationally, one in 10 sisters of Sigma Psi Zeta is of a non-Asian background, Siu said. Poddar said that even though all the current sisters in STARS are of Asian descent, it is not easy to lump all the girls and their experiences under one umbrella since each of their families may have immigrated to America at different times and from different countries.

“We have people whose great-grandparents came 150 years ago and people who went to high school in China,” Poddar said. “So, yes, we have diversity amongst Asians.”

Poddar acknowledged that to some extent, a culture-specific sorority could be segregationist, but said the decision to segregate oneself is individual, not something an organization sets out to do.

“Sometimes they can be a little segregationist and you could get limited among those people, but that is a personal choice you make,” Poddar said. “You could also choose to branch out and meet people from other backgrounds.”

Boateng said that if her sorority needs to be segregationist in order to accomplish its goal of enhancing the welfare of the black community, then so be it.

“Even if it was segregationist, it sort of doesn’t matter because the work that we are doing is so good and positive that, if that is what we would have to do to make these differences in our community, it can be segregationist,” Boateng said.

But some students said they resent this segregationist tendency. One student who said she wishes to remain anonymous and who was part of a 2002 initiative to start an Asian-American sorority said she thinks there is no valid reason for organizing around race.

“That was a big problem for me at Yale that there were all these separations based on race,” she said. “If I had to redo it again, I wouldn’t have done it.”

But Kim said she understands that minorities have unique experiences and struggles which they may feel more comfortable sharing with people of the same background.

“I could see how people could frown upon having a sorority based on culture, but I think you have to have empathy for what it means to be an Asian-American or Latin-American immigrant or a descendent thereof and want to identify strongly in a way that other people don’t,” Kim said. “I think that common identity brings people together.”

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