Until last month, I was a member of the first ever interfaith sorority in the United States. The organization was founded a century ago by a group of mostly Jewish and some Catholic women. At the time, sororities were typically comprised of one religious group, so to create an organization with multiple faiths was considered monumental.
Yet, despite my sorority’s interfaith origins and boasts of religious tolerance, I felt constantly alienated and undervalued as a Jewish woman.
Last year, recruitment was held during Rosh Hashanah. When I complained about this to our leadership, expressing how insensitive it was to Jewish women both in the chapter and looking to join it, I was told there was simply no other time to have recruitment. They said potential new members who couldn’t attend recruitment because of Rosh Hashanah would have to reach out to our recruitment chair to schedule separate interviews at another time. But what kind of message does it send when such an important event (and one aimed particularly at creating community!) is scheduled on one of the holiest days in the Jewish religion?
Not a great one.
Whether my sorority meant to or not, ignoring the significance of Rosh Hashanah signaled to potential and current Jewish members that they were less important than the non-Jewish ones. And asking potential new members to schedule a separate time to go through recruitment simply because they are Jewish is deeply othering and subtly reaffirms Christianity as the normative religion.
But the most hurtful part of this particular experience? How other members responded to my anger. My complaints of insensitivity were mostly met with eye rolls and defensive responses from people trying to downplay the issue to avoid personal responsibility. Many of these women, who claimed to support one another, continuously invalidated my feelings as a Jewish woman.
But it wasn’t just an issue of timing. Throughout my year and a half spent in the sorority, I often had to act as a representative on behalf of all Jews even though I was not the only Jew in the chapter. I was frequently asked intrusive, condescending questions about Orthodox traditions, even though I communicated that I was unable to speak about Orthodox culture, as I am not Orthodox. Other members often made generalized comments about Jewish cultures and peoples, joked insensitively about signing up for Birthright, and lacked either understanding of — or care about — anti-Semitism.
I eventually left because the sorority’s national and local leadership responded very poorly to an act of racism that occurred within the chapter, and I decided that this was not an organization that I wanted to give time or money to.
Even with all of my complaints and time spent trying to educate others, the organization still has not changed. A few weeks after I disaffiliated, I heard from a friend that they held a “Diversity” event on Yom Kippur. Let the irony of that sink in. Unsurprisingly, when my friend complained to the president of the chapter, she was met with the same tired excuses of we didn’t know or we didn’t have any other time to have the event.
While these experiences in an “interfaith” sorority could be brushed off as insignificant, they should not be overlooked. In fact, it is the repeated trivialization of anti-Jewish bias that normalizes larger-scale anti-Semitism. These smaller instances of insensitivity — whether it be the disrespect of Jewish holidays, insensitive jokes, or just an unfriendly tone of voice — lets Jews know they’re unwelcome. While many non-Jews mistakenly believe that anti-Semitism is a thing of the past, it makes it even harder for Jews like myself to express our concerns of anti-Semitism out of fear of not being taken seriously.
I know my experience definitely does not define the experiences of all Jewish women in non-Jewish sororities. But ultimately, this is so upsetting to me because I chose my sorority specifically because I believed in its mission: to provide a community and safe haven to women of all religious backgrounds. I was deeply disappointed to discover that I felt perpetually isolated by the people who promised to support me no matter what. And given my sorority’s promises of being interfaith and socially conscious, it felt particularly hurtful that my frustrations as a Jewish women were routinely belittled and ignored. This feels almost self-explanatory, but it is not sufficient for an organization to promote feminist messages on social media or during recruitment; it must also walk the walk. And making Jewish members feel valued feels like a pretty basic walk.
I am a white Jewish person, and I know my experiences with subtle anti-Semitism in my sorority can’t compare with the experiences that many Jews of color and other women of color have in Greek spaces. Sororities and fraternities have white supremacist roots; even just a quick google search will lead you to numerous instances of racism in Greek Life. It’s no shocker that these organizations continue to foster a culture in which marginalized women are not safe.
But I refuse to be a part of that culture.
These organizations claim feminism by putting the word on a pink t-shirt and screaming Yasss queen from the rooftops of their gigantic houses, but when sisters of marginalized groups speak out, everyone is suspiciously silent.
Image via ChristinaDavis/Pixabay