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Looking back on four Greek years

Published: April 26, 2013
Section: Opinions


“I got you, brother!” exclaimed Matt as he gripped Eric by the waist. We were climbing up a steep, iced-over, 50-yard stream to the summit of Mount Mansfield, and Eric was wearing Nike sneakers. He had no traction. Matt, donning a sleek pair of Timberlands, straddled the four-foot wide luge track and found his footing in roots and mossy earth. Eric slipped back into Matt’s arms with every step. Occasionally both Matt and Eric would lose grip and come tumbling backwards into me. If I lost control, we three would go tumbling down the face of the mountain.

Mount Mansfield is the tallest peak in Vermont. I had organized a trip for 11 of us to summit this bad boy last November. We packed water, food, layers of clothing and did our best to gather appropriate footwear and gloves. We climbed icy boulders, crawled hand in hand across steep ledges and trekked, branch by branch, through uncharted wooded territory. We were in over our heads. The trails were not appropriate for my group of inexperienced young men. Alas, we pushed on, physically and emotionally dependent on one another.

At one point we came to a five-foot gap. Falling into the gap meant riding a frozen stream down toward a potentially painful, distant end. When I arrived, Fritz was on the far side, one hand wrapped around a tree, the other beckoning me to jump. His sinister grin was not comforting. I looked down at the gap, said the Shema and leapt into Fritz’s arms. After making it safely across, I wanted to hug Fritz, but he was already focused on the next brother.

Fritz was my pledge. One of 11 young men entrusted to me for several long weeks last semester. I pushed Fritz and the other young men as hard as I could. The 12 of us met twice a week for 7 a.m. workouts, and twice a week for three-hour library sessions. We camped, hiked, farmed, laughed, studied, wrestled, cooked, opened up and became intimate friends. We shared a process that was exhausting, spiritually challenging and deeply gratifying—one that we would not want to repeat.

One of the hardest things I have ever done was to stand before my brothers and tell them that the way we initiate new members is wrong. I took it upon myself to rewrite our process of new member education. Firm traditions defined what we did with our new members and how we treated them; practices that I felt were no longer appropriate or relevant. I decided that the time was right for a new playbook, for building a fresh process rooted in hard work, cooperative learning, unforgettable fun, love, respect and a true sense of commitment. Build away I did, eventually gaining the support of many brothers. The results of our elections last week symbolize a victory of progress and courageous foresight over narrow-minded tradition. They demonstrate a fundamental shift within our organization toward a new era in which deliberation and critical thought shape what we do and why we do it.

In hindsight, my semester as Fraternity Educator was the most exhausting and rewarding of my time at Brandeis. The men who yelled at me for failing in my job were also my best friends. The men who were hesitant and uncomfortable with my changes were respectable peers and beloved brothers. My ideas came from the heart; their resistance stemmed from a commitment to protecting the fraternity. That clash cuts to the core of something unique to our chapter of Phi Psi and Greek Life in general: doing business with friends. We 60 men collectively manage a six-figure budget and a mortgaged 10 bedroom home. We fill 20 committees and a leadership council, who organize events, fundraisers and complete hundreds of community service hours. And, the men who keep this 25-year-old organization alive, with zero professional oversight, must also be best friends. And we are darn close.

Although I will miss many brothers dearly, I know I will see them again soon. Not only will I return for alumni weekends and ad-hoc surprises, but many will come to my wedding. Others will visit me when I have children. Even more brothers will help me move, help me find a new career, help me vacation and help me stay young as I grow old. The relationships in this fraternity are as real as they come, strengthened by the fact that despite our antics, we must do business with each other.

If I have learned anything at Brandeis, it is that I know nothing. Phi Psi introduced me to young men from all walks of life, and humbled me to the point of recognizing that I ought not pass judgment on any person, culture or organization. I am deeply indebted to the men of this chapter who took care of me as an underclassman, and am forever grateful to the underclassmen who let me struggle, plow, improvise and guide their way into this fraternity.