In town for the Zeta Beta Tau national convention, more than 100 of the fraternity's members partnered with the Lubavitch House at the University of Pennsylvania last week to deliver food packages to needy Philadelphians.

According to Noel Johnson, a ZBT brother who hails from New York, the Friday distribution in advance of Shabbat was a huge success. He said that the idea of taking packages of food, grape juice and challah to Russian Jews dove-tailed with the visions of both ZBT and the Chabad on Campus International Foundation.

The entire philosophy behind the Greek system is to give to and help others, so "it was a perfect match between the two groups," explained Johnson, reached Saturday night in the midst of the July 12-15 convention.


With a history spanning more than a century, ZBT bills itself as "the oldest and largest historically Jewish fraternity." And while for more than 50 years the fraternity has stressed its non-sectarian nature, it still adheres strongly to a sense of Jewish purpose.

That's why when the fraternity's leadership expressed interest in a social service project timed to the convention, Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, executive director of the Lubavitch House, thought of helping the brothers reach out to those in need. The Jewish Relief Agency, a seven-year-old Chabad-Lubavitch project that manages monthly food drives to a list of primarily Jewish clients, was a natural choice to coordinate the effort.

"They wanted to do some community service and we thought this would be exciting for them," said Schmidt. "So we sponsored it."

Open Doors, Open Hearts

Jason Salit, a rising junior at the University of Texas, described a heart-warming scene repeated many times that day as the college students handed out food to the homes of people who could barely speak English.

"The recipients were really grateful that we came and brought them the challah and grape juice for Shabbat," said Salit. "There were mezuzahs on the doorposts and some were speaking Yiddish. While we did not know each other, there was a Jewish connection between us."

The poor families who received the packages are residents of Federation Housing, a collection of elderly housing communities funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Rabbi Ephraim Levin, co-director of the Lubavitch House, said that four busses of volunteers headed out from Penn's campus in West Philadelphia to the northeastern environs of the city, some 45 minutes away. Each box of food – the fraternity brothers packed the shipments themselves – contained a note in Russian to identify the students.

"Like other Jewish-identified fraternities, ZBT's members have an awareness of this underlying Jewish mission," said Levin, who manned a Chabad on Campus resource table at the convention. "So there's a lot of existing relationships between us."

At Penn, for example, Levin has organized classes for the fraternity's chapter. A full 20 of its members joined Levin for a Mayanot-birthright Israel trip three years ago. On the other end of the spectrum, ZBT alumni have even taken up the cause of fundraising among themselves to help with the Lubavitch House's planned construction of the new Perelman Center for Jewish Life.

It's an interplay that's been repeated many times on other campuses, such as Northwestern University, the University of Michigan and the University of Florida, whether Chabad House directors give classes, host special fraternity Shabbat meals or arrange birthright trips for members of the Greek system.

"We really share a core purpose in terms of philanthropy, educational and social initiatives," said Levin. "That's why we're always building on our past cooperation with a view to the future."