Turning German Jews into Jewish Greeks: Philanthropy and Acculturation in the Jewish Greek System's Student Refugee Programs, 1936-1940.

Author:Kohn, Shira

In March 1939, a few months before the outbreak of World War II, Margot Bloch, a Jewish refugee from Augsburg, Germany living in the chapter house of the Alpha Epsilon Phi (AEPhi) sorority at the University of Missouri, offered an assessment of her situation in a feature piece of the historically Jewish sorority's periodical. Margot arrived on Missouri's campus in 1937, fleeing Germany "after experiencing the transformation of a perfectly good-natured people into a flock of uncultured puppets whose strings are being pulled by a madman." (1) She resumed her college studies in the United States under the auspices of AEPhi, in which she "found a new home" and expressed her gratitude "to the sorority for giving me this wonderful chance ... I am learning how to act and think independently and, above all, how to act and think freely as an American citizen." (2) Margot not only thanked the sorority for the material aid that it provided, but for acculturating her socially and politically into her new American surroundings.

Other recent refugees found similar opportunities to build new lives in America through sponsorship by collegiate Greek organizations. Max Wolfson, a native of Zoblen, Austria, contributed a brief testimony to the newspaper of the Phi Epsilon Pi (PhiEP) fraternity's chapter at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1938. Max shared that he was "not a member of the fraternity, but a guest in its house and here get my first and best opportunity to thank the whole fraternity for its hospitality. I have lived now about three months with them under one roof and have not felt like a stranger. At home I was always an opponent of fraternities but now I am a loyal convert to this institution." (3) At the end of Max's submission, the fraternity chapter's editors provided readers with a note. "Interested in photography, his job, and everything American, Max is a very pleasant addition to our group. Now working for the Atlanta Paper Co., he hopes to be followed soon by his brother and then the rest of his family in his migration to the 'Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.'" (4) Invoking the lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner, adapted as the country's national anthem only years before in 1931, PhiEp testified to both the potential of their new houseguest's ability to Americanize and the fraternity's own good citizenship through American civic knowledge and philanthropic efforts at a time of global political and economic upheaval.

Max and Margot both appeared as success stories in the German Jewish student refugee programs set up by the national Jewish fraternities and sororities during the late 1930s, which aided those fleeing Nazi Germany and its occupied territories. These programs, in which at least four national Jewish fraternities and one Jewish sorority participated, could claim responsibility for taking in more than a hundred young scholars who began pursuing their studies in Central European universities, only to face expulsion or intimidation after Hitler's rise to power in 1933. (5) Working with government officials, university administrators and a broad array of Jewish communal professionals, Jewish fraternities and sororities provided participants with free tuition, room, board and a modest living allowance for the completion of their studies at an American college or university. The members of the Jewish Greek organizations that sponsored students through these programs took great pride in their philanthropic endeavors and showcased both "their" refugees and their own benevolence to the broader community as evidence of their humanitarianism and the ability of Jews to integrate into American society more generally.

While the refugee programs operated primarily to provide much-needed relief to imperiled youth from Central Europe, the German Jewish student refugee programs reflect middle-class American Jews' own domestic struggles against antisemitism. The spirit of transnational Jewish solidarity, paradoxically, offered them a means by which to enhance their own social and political standing in American society in the years leading up to World War II. As Alan Kidd has argued, a "gift"--in the sense of any form of bequest, present, or charitable donation--can be "instrumental in creating a status hierarchy; the competition being for honor and status not wealth." (6) By providing Jewish refugee students with the "gift" of an elite education, and in some cases, their lives, Jewish fraternity and sorority members attempted to confirm their status within American social hierarchies during the very period that marked an increase in antisemitism, threatening that very status. No doubt their efforts constituted crucial relief work. But activities directed towards foreign Jews enabled them to forge an image of themselves that they could then present to the wider American world, that of having "made it" in America.

American Jewish philanthropic efforts are practically as old as the historical community's time in the United States. From their defense against expulsion to Dutch governor of New Amsterdam Peter Stuyvesant, Jews accepted the responsibility of providing for other Jews, lest they become public charges. Jewish communal welfare became linked with demonstrating good character and the beginnings of citizenship, which only grew more intertwined over the succeeding centuries. American Jewish philanthropy, by the late nineteenth century, already looked beyond national borders as Jews, even recent arrivals, funneled significant amounts of charitable giving towards their brethren remaining in Europe, though at that time, Eastern European Jewry served as the main recipients of these funds. As Rebecca Kobrin has noted about these efforts, "the power their dollars brought them in Eastern Europe enabled immigrant Jews to re-envision themselves as powerful leaders, not struggling foreigners who faced rising anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-Semitism." (7)

By the 1930s, when the Jewish fraternities and sororities launched their refugee programs, they acted in ways both similar and dissimilar to earlier American Jewish philanthropic efforts. Lila Corwin Berman posits that "far from a system removed from the American state, Jewish philanthropy gained its sanction from state policy that favored philanthropy, in general, as an agent of liberal capitalism. That a particular group could channel its resources to take care of and strengthen itself at the expense of the public was a hallmark of American political theory and its endorsement of decentralized government." (8) The support for religious groups and organizations taking care of their own became increasingly important during the Depression, as President Herbert Hoover championed the notion of voluntary organizations taking on primary responsibility for intragroup welfare. (9) In assisting other Jews in need, even from abroad, Jewish Greeks sought to situate their own efforts within this discourse of charitable care and self-help through communal giving--a quintessentially "American" act.

Acting "American," both economically and socially, was what Jewish fraternity and sorority members sought to portray through their participation in Greek organizations during both college and in the years after graduation. Whereas college fraternities and sororities had been a feature of American higher education since the early nineteenth century, the Jewish national social clubs with local chapters on college campuses throughout the country were primarily founded in the 1910s in the Northeast as greater numbers of Jewish students, usually the children of immigrants, entered higher education. Within a decade, Jewish students became visible enough on several elite Northeastern campuses, including Harvard University and Columbia University, that these schools' presidents worked with their boards of trustees to institute quotas, significantly culling the percentage of Jewish enrollees so that they made up no more than 10-20% of the general student body on a given campus. (10) With these quotas and dwindling opportunities to enroll in some of the most prominent institutions of higher education in the urban northeast, where many second-generation American Jews also resided, thousands of aspiring college students fled west and found a friendlier welcome--or at least an acceptance letter--at numerous southern and midwestern colleges and universities.

Securing admission was only the first step for many Jewish college students. Many arrived on campuses eager not only to succeed academically, but to learn the social mores and behaviors of white, middle-class Americans, which the centuries-old Greek system promised to deliver. Yet Jewish students, like those from Catholic and non-white backgrounds, found the doors of these prestigious social clubs barred to them; several fraternities and sororities included language in their groups' constitutions limiting their membership to those of either white or Christian backgrounds and most others operated on a similar, unspoken understanding. Since, with the occasional exception, Jewish students could not join the existing Greek organizational landscape, they created their own fraternities and sororities to cater to an exclusively Jewish clientele, offering accepted members unprecedented opportunities to move in elite Jewish circles on campus and emulate the social lives of the non-Jewish Greek members around them.

Membership in Jewish fraternities and sororities proved popular in the interwar period. In 1927, the American Jewish Year Book counted twenty-six Jewish Greek organizations for either men or women, with a combined membership totaling over 25,000 collegiate and alumni members. These statistics meant that Jewish Greek organizations had more members than other national Jewish college groups such as the Menorah Society and emerging Hillel Foundation. (11) Like their non-Jewish counterparts, Jewish fraternities and...

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