“The Leven Leadership Academy was really amazing. I’ve always been told that AEPi is more than just a four-year experience but being in the room with all of these successful people and hearing them say that they owe at least some of their success to AEPi, meant a lot,” said Brother Tom Hirshfeld (UC – Santa Barbara, 2024).
The son of two Israelis who emigrated to California’s Bay Area when they were in their 20s, Brother Hirshfeld arrived at UCSB a much different person than the one who will be graduating in a few months. And he gives a lot of the credit to that development as a person, a leader and a Jew to AEPi.
“When I started college, I wasn’t very connected to my Jewish identity and I definitely wasn’t interested in fraternities,” said Brother Hirshfeld. “Look at me now!”
In 2021, while taking classes online during the pandemic, he first realized that, as a Jew, he needed to do more. “I started seeing people I thought were friends putting things about Israel on social media that were just wrong. It was the first time that I realized the extent of the problem here.”
During the pandemic, a BDS resolution was proposed on campus, and someone reached out to him to participate in the meeting to discuss it because they saw that he had an Israeli flag in his bio. “There was a 15 hour zoom student government meeting to debate this resolution. It took us the whole 15 hours, but we won that vote.”
“That meeting ended up changing my life for the next three years.”
With classes returning to in-person the next fall, someone approached me and said they recognized him from the student government zoom. “He told me that he recognized me from that meeting and that he was in a Jewish fraternity and that I should come by the house for a gathering. I met the guys and, long story short, I joined. We started with about 10 guys that fall and now we’re at 60 Brothers.”
Having served as exchequer and now chapter Master, Brother Hirshfeld has an interesting take on the development of the chapter. “We have built a culture of Jewish leadership in our chapter and its kind of funny that that is AEPi’s mission. We want to make sure that every single leader of a Jewish organization on our campus is associated with AEPi.”
When he was invited to attend the Leven Leadership Institute in Atlanta last month, Brother Hirshfeld jumped at the chance to meet with Brothers from all over and to share some of his and their experiences. “We passed a bill last year to establish a Jewish commission in the campus ‘administration to ensure that the Jewish population has an institutional seat at the table. I knew that I wanted to share that experience with other Brothers to expand the idea around the country.”
“Being at Leven and seeing all of these Brothers who operate at such a high level – both the alumni and the undergrads – it really kept me locked in.” One of the capstone events at Leven each year is a group case competition mentored by AEPi alumni. “You pick up a lot of skills running a chapter – public speaking, sales, even analytics – and putting them to use in a different setting and testing us on those skills was great. The level of competition was very high.”
“Our mentor was Past Supreme Master Marc Katz. He stayed up with us until 2 a.m. to work on our presentation. He’s an animal.”
In the fall, shortly after the October 7 terror attacks, a bill was introduced in UCSB Student Senate to condemn Hamas. “One of our Brothers who is Israeli introduced the bill. Our whole chapter came out to support him and the bill. We faced a lot of opposition including a walk-out by some who opposed the measure and the usual disruptions and chants about ‘from the River to the Sea.’ We wouldn’t give up. We didn’t let a group of students pressure others to support a terrorist organization.” In the end, the bill condemning Hamas passed.
“After October 7, we also organized a day of Jewish pride on campus to show everything that we won’t be afraid to be Jewish. For me, though, I really remember sitting with my Brothers in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. A bunch of our Israeli Brothers were frantically looking at our phones to find out news…to find out if anyone we were related to or knew were dead. We were literally surrounded by our Brothers. It reminded me of why I’m in AEPi. As sad as it was that we needed to mourn together, it was important for us to be together. That, to me, defined our fraternity. That is AEPi.”