Conversation with…Bonnie Wunsch
Jewish sorority on the rise in CT and elsewhere
By Judie Jacobson
If only Bonnie Wunsch could have majored in extra-curricular activities, her mother would often tell her, she would have had a grade point average of 4.0. Evidently, mother knew best. A member of Alpha Epsilon Phi (AEPhi) while she was a student at Emory University in the 1980s, Wunsch also served on the Jewish sorority’s national council for several years following graduation before being appointed to its top professional post. Now 18 years later, the Louisiana native still serves as executive director of the nation’s oldest sorority, which boasts 102 chapters on campuses all across the country and is experiencing a period of unprecedented growth.
Recently, the Jewish Ledger spoke with Munsch from her office at the organization’s headquarters in Danbury about the importance of belonging to a Jewish sorority, as well as the AEPhi chapter that is set to open on the campus of UConn at Storrs later this month.
Q: Tell us a little about the genesis of the nation’s oldest sorority.
A: AEPhi was founded in 1909 by seven Jewish women at Barnard College in New York City. We were the first Jewish sorority. At the time Jewish women could not be admitted into membership in another sorority. Today, there are several sororities that are historically Jewish and there are two that have maintained their Jewish identity, they are AEPhi and Sigma Delta Ta.
Q: What’s the difference between a sorority being historically Jewish and one that maintains its Jewish identity?
A: There were organizations that were founded for the same reason we were n because there wasn’t a sorority on campus that allowed Jewish women to join. As time went on some of those groups have decided that while they were founded as Jewish sororities, their makeup and focus has changed through the years. Though AEPhi is a social and not a religious organization, our foundation is Jewish values and we are a place where Jewish women can feel comfortable.
Our membership is open to anyone. What we ask and what we expect is that everyone understands what the organization is about and that they honor and respect and appreciate our heritage.
Q: Though you are not religious, do you mark Jewish holidays or otherwise celebrate Jewish traditions?
A: That’s left to the discretion of each of our chapters. We do Shabbat blessings at our conventions. We give a chapter award and also individual awards at both the alumni and collegiate level for outstanding Jewish community service. We are also a senior partner of Hillel, and we have sponsored programs such as the Israel advocacy program “Israel Amplified,” which is a program we co-sponsored this past summer with the Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) fraternity, thanks to a grant from the Shusterman Family Foundation, that attracted several incredible speakers and attracted 200 students.
We’re not affiliated with the AEPi fraternity them and never have been. AEPi was founded in 1913 n four years after us. It’s not the only Jewish fraternity, but it is definitely the largest and the strongest in terms of Jewish values. But we’re good friends with them on a very personal level and we have a lot of common interests. So, it’s not uncommon for the two groups to partner on certain projects
Q: Do you think that there is still a benefit to belonging to a Jewish sorority n even though Jewish women aren’t barred from belonging to non-Jewish sororities anymore?
A: Absolutely. Interestingly enough, we are having one of the most phenomenal growth periods we have had in almost 20 years, solely because of our Jewish identity. We are finding that groups are cropping up across the country of women who specifically want a Jewish sorority, even though they know they could be accepted into any sorority. If they are kosher, if they are Shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observant), they want to know that the organization understands that. I don’t find that most of these women are necessarily very traditional, but there is still a comfort level in being among like-type peers. This is exactly why we’re going to be at UConn.
Q: How did the UConn chapter get started?
A: There are 44 women at UConn who were part of a local Jewish sorority that has been in existence at UConn since 2003. The group, called PEA n which stand for Partnership, Excellence and Academics n was established as an interest group with the intent to bring a historically Jewish sorority to campus. This has been an outstanding group and what these women have accomplished is amazing. Meeting these women was probably one of the highlights of my professional career. They were just phenomenal and their excitement over finally seeing this dream come to reality was incredible. The transition to becoming AEPhi will be very easy for this group. And the Greek life office there has been extremely supportive. So it’s been really outstanding for us and for them. AEPhi will be arriving on campus at the end of January and will begin membership selection the first week of February. Of course, UConn isn’t the only Connecticut campus with an AEPhi chapter. The University of Hartford also has a chapter that has been around quite awhile n since the 1980s. In fact, one of our council members is a graduate of Hartford.
Q: Are there any prominent or well known women who were AEPhi members?
A: Well, let’s start with the top of the list n that would be Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who went to Cornell. Some others include the late singer Dinah Shore, comedienne Charlotte Rae, actress Barbara Barrie. The Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric Aids Foundation was founded by three women, two of whom n Elizabeth Glazer and her friend Susie Zeegen n were AEPhis. The foundation is one our national philanthropies because obviously we have an emotional tie. The late mayor of Dallas, Texas, Annette Greenfield Strauss and the former Lt. Gov. of the state of Missouri Harriet Woods, who was president of the Democratic women’s caucus were AEPhis. So was Lauren Weisberger who wrote “The Devil Wears Prada.” So we definitely have some very famous AEPhis out there.
Q: What are some of your hopes and plans for the future?
A: Continued growth. The rules don’t allow us to contact groups, they must contact us. But we have previously been at Yale and I know that there is once again a group there interested in becoming AEPhi. That was one of the reasons that the move to CT made a lot of sense. A huge number of our chapters are in the area n we are predominantly northeastern-based. Even when you go to Midwest colleges you find that so much of our membership is from the northeast.
Q: Do most chapters work in concert with Hillel?
A: It varies from campus to campus. We are seeing a growing level of partnership at our chapter levels and we’re encouraging it. Hillel can add the religious piece that we don’t have, and we have the infrastructure to be able to support the community services and leadership development that Hillel hasn’t had previously. So we can really complement each other beautifully.
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