'When times come up that the group needs to support someone, there’s no shying away.'
More than 170 brothers of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity of the American University came back with graying hair, if any hair at all, for a reunion at the place where they first met between 1960 and 1970. On October 15, the group was welcomed back to the campus by university President Sylvia M. Burwell, who was moved by the significance of the reunion. “I am thrilled to see you all, and how you stay together,” Burwell said, reported The Washington Post, as she choked back tears.
The guys in the group, who received their degrees from American University between 1960 and 1972, have highlighted the enduring nature of their relationship through deeds of generosity. “This group is special,” Burwell said in an interview with The Washington Post. “ZBT helped set the culture of what these organizations should be. They are about community and a group of people that support each other.”
Now 80 years old, David Kanter had established the Beta Psi chapter of ZBT at American University and was its first president. “I never envisioned that this would go beyond graduation into a group that would stick together and take care of each other,” he said. “Fraternities are not all about exclusivity and drinking and partying. It can have a long-term meaning, and that is exactly what this has been.”
In universities around the nation, fraternity culture has been under scrutiny recently. Out-of-control hazing has resulted in fatalities, there has been an increase in reported sexual assaults and druggings, and there have also been alarming instances of racism and classism.
Despite being the first Jewish fraternity in the world when it was established in 1898, the Beta Psi chapter of ZBT accepted members of all religions and ethnicities. “I was the second African American in the group,” said Chuck Hill, 76, who graduated in 1967. “I never felt alienated. The comradery that has developed over the years has been as strong as any that I’ve experienced in many of the military organizations that I’ve had the honor to serve in,” said Hill, a retired Air Force pilot.
The fraternity came together with residents of the neighborhood to preserve a member's small bookshop in Lenox, Massachusetts, which was in danger of going bankrupt. The tale was made into a documentary movie. “When times come up that the group needs to support someone, there’s no shying away,” Hill said.
The brothers have further helped the neighborhood. They have kept a scholarship fund going since 1998 and have given partial four-year scholarships based on the need to more than 20 university students. The award is available to any students who satisfy the necessary academic and financial conditions, with precedence given to the fraternity's legacies. “All brothers contribute to whatever extent they can,” said Howie Soltoff, a member of the fraternity who serves as a liaison with American University.
The brothers have also supported one another through difficult personal situations throughout the years, such as the death of marriages and children, as well as difficulties with their health, finances, and legal troubles. “There have been many instances where I have helped and represented brothers and their family members confidentially, in matters of the most serious nature of one’s life,” said Ted Simon, 72, who graduated in 1971 and is a lawyer and former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “I’m sure I’m not alone.”
The brothers are a peculiar group, according to Simon, in part because they are quite different from one another. “This group, despite the vast political differences and divides, different social and cultural histories and experiences, significant age differences, and significant economic disparities, have remained a true band of brothers,” Simon said. “I don’t know people who have remained with a functioning group of this size for this long.”
One of the persons that got the group back together was 75-year-old Ron Nissenbaum. When Nissenbaum stumbled into a fraternity mate he hadn't seen since graduating in 1968 in 1985, the whole thing got started. Nissenbaum determined at that very moment that he would plan a reunion when the two guys caught up. ZBT hosted their first one that year, which attracted close to 200 individuals. The gathering was such a hit, Nissenbaum said, that not long after, “I started getting calls from the guys saying we want to have another one.”
I was thrilled to be part of the @ZetaBetaTau reunion – a special group of @AmericanUAlum who have helped and supported each other through thick and thin for decades. Community is an integral part of who we are @AmericanU and this is what it looks like! https://t.co/4B9PLK1Q8c— Sylvia M. Burwell (@SylviaBurwell) October 20, 2022
And so they did, starting a custom of routinely getting together and communicating often. Since Simon started a Listserv 15 years ago, it has been easier for the group to stay in touch. They have continued to be each other's go-to men for big and minor problems as the men have progressed through life.
“There are people that have had hard times financially, and there are brothers that have anonymously supported them,” said Simon, adding that several brothers contribute additional funds toward reunions to ensure everyone is able to attend. Simon said this group is a juxtaposition to the stories of “fraternity hazing, death, and sexual abuse.” The brothers hope their bond sets an example for what a fraternity can and should be like. “Some things change, some things never do and never will,” Simon said.