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Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee University

'59 Zebes Bring Back the Matzoh

from The Bridge: Fall 2009 issue

"When I make a donation, I am more interested in programs than a plaque on the wall," said Jerry Sklar. That's why he and his fraternity brothers from the Class of 1959 are making a donation that will help construct a building--and also revive a part of campus culture. The '59ers who are members of the Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau, or "Zebes," as they are known, are making a collective gift of more than $1.1 million to help build the W&L Hillel House. The gift also honors their 50th reunion in 2009.

The Hillel House project, which will create a physical home for Jewish life on campus, resonated with this tight group, who had a great experience as Jewish students at W&L. When the Class of 1959 arrived on campus, Jewish students made up between 8 and 10 percent of the student body. "At that time, we had to pledge a Jewish fraternity or not join any," said Steve Marks. They could choose between two Jewish fraternities, Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) and Phi Epsilon Pi. "However, we did not feel discriminated against," said Marks. "We had a good relationship with the other fraternities and were always at the top in terms of academics, as well as leadership."

After the eventual religious integration of the fraternity system, the two Jewish fraternities declined in membership and disappeared. Nevertheless, the bond of the 1959 ZBTs has lasted half a century. "We were a close-knit group. There was lots of camaraderie," said Steve Friedlander, former ZBT president. "We made lifelong friendships," added ZBT brother Ed Levy, "and have continued to see each other regularly over the years."

"It's only because of their strong bond that the '59 ZBTs were able to make a significant group gift," said Dennis Cross, W&L's vice president for advancement. "It's very rare to see a group of alumni organize themselves like this and achieve such impressive results." The results are remarkable: nine '59 ZBTs are footing a full quarter of the bill for the facility. The leaders in organizing the gift were Marks and Don Sigmund, who have the reputation among their classmates of energy and persuasiveness. They also had an assist from fraternity brothers Friedlander and Ralph Evans.

Marks, who first suggested the project to his fraternity brothers, had good reasons to support the Hillel House. During 10 years in which he served as a W&L trustee, Marks observed with concern that by 1999, the Jewish population at W&L had declined to about 1 percent of the student body. The numbers told the tale: while religious integration of W&L's fraternities represented progress, the departure of the Jewish fraternities left a void in the community.

Fraternity brother Sklar, who fondly recalls making matzoh balls at ZBT for 60 people at Passover, knows the ZBT gift will allow future W&L students to enjoy the same kinds of experiences. "Many parents are concerned that once their children leave the house, they will lose their exposure to Jewish culture," he said. "They want their children and grandchildren to be able to continue their Jewish education and experience. To be able to provide this at W&L was a big motivation." W&L's Hillel program is already well on its way to bringing that vital experience back to W&L. Hillel is an international organization that fosters Jewish social and cultural life on college campuses. While W&L's chapter had existed for some time, it really took off with the arrival of director Joan Robins in 2001. Although the program lacked a dedicated space, Robins quickly organized cultural activities and services that attracted students, and the Jewish population at W&L slowly began increasing. This momentum attracted the attention of W&L's administration and Board of Trustees, who in 2007 determined that building a Hillel House was one of their first tasks within W&L's strategic plan.

While the revival of Jewish cultural life on campus already has come a long way, the Hillel House represents a tipping point. "There are many churches here in Lexington, but there is no synagogue and no support for Jewish cultural life. With this building, we will be able to attract students and faculty who might not otherwise come to Lexington," said Robins. The benefits of the Hillel House are not limited to just Jewish students. "A thriving Jewish community enriches the campus for everyone," she added.

For the '59 ZBTs, who saw their fraternity slip away but never lose its spirit, the project brings them full circle. "I'm hopeful that Jewish students at W&L will continue to seek out membership in the fraternity system," said Marks, "but Hillel House will be a meeting place where they can express their Jewish identity and interact with faculty and the Jewish community in Lexington."

W&L seconds that hope. Bring on the matzoh balls!