Gabe Oppenheim | The Jekyll and Hyde of ZBT
Penn's ZBT fraternity has long had a history of good and bad; the two have finally split up permanently
November 8, 2006, 5:00 am·
By now, you've probably heard about the two Zeta Beta Taus.
The first is the unofficial, underground fraternity comprised of those who were barred from Greek life in January 2004, when ZBT was expelled from campus. And the second is the reconstituted official ZBT chapter, which initiated 12 members Oct. 28.
"'Hey - we're the real ZBT,'" read a headline in this newspaper. "Recolonizing frat vs. unofficial alter ego," it added, promoting the split as if it were some new campus rivalry.
Of course, the ZBT rivalry isn't new at all. Even when only one ZBT chapter existed here, it was perpetually torn between two conflicting identities - one inherently good, the other quite evil.
A bipolar fraternity turned in on itself.
Just think back to that wild and distant time we called the '90s. ZBT started off the decade on an 18-month probation for hiring two strippers for a rush event and then performing sexual acts on them with cucumbers and ketchup.
The frat's dark side took center stage again two years later, when a brother was expelled for allegedly raping a visiting Harvard student. And during the next 10 years, the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs cited ZBT constantly for alcohol violations (plus a bizarre '97 instance in which a brother jumped out of a window).
Yet ZBT was not without a good side. The chapter co-sponsored the annual Cancer Ball, which raised $30,000 for research during three years in the mid-'90s. It participated in music events to benefit the homeless and held fencing clinics at a local YMCA.
In 2001, after U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan, ZBT teamed up with Lubavich House - only at Penn! - to send Jewish soldiers holiday packages and greeting cards. Two years later, while on probation, the frat hosted a concert that raised $6,000 for the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.
And the truth is, ZBT has acted as both Jekyll and Hyde for more than a decade - and not just at Penn. You almost can't blame the brothers here; ZBT itself is an institutional paradox.
It was initially founded in 1898 by rabbinical students at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary as a Zionist group. In fact, the 15 founders called themselves ZBT because the initials stood for "Zion bemishpat tipadeh," a Hebrew verse from Isaiah that means "Zion will be redeemed with justice."
Within two years, though, the founders had graduated, the group had spread to at least 18 schools, and the charter no longer spoke of Zionism. So began the Hellenization of a Hebraic society.
In 1906, ZBT adopted the Zeta Beta Tau name. And the official crest was redesigned to include both a Star of David and a Greek temple. As if the two symbols - which represented totally different cultures - could cohere.
At Penn, one could see the internal tug-of-war. In 1951, the ZBT chapter took a lovely photo of its Winter Formal for the national-fraternity magazine. But the editor, an old-timer, refused to run the shot without first cutting off its edges, where the picture revealed champagne glasses.
That brings us back to today, as Penn cut the ZBT chapter off literally. When the frat was expelled two years ago for its fourth violation in three years, Penn sent six cops to stand outside the house, effectively separating it from the rest of campus. ZBT was placed under 24-hour watch, and, at times, brothers could receive only one "non-academic" guest in the house.
Penn must now deal with the consequences of that punishment: The classic Zeta Beta Tau dynamic continues to exist on campus, but the ZBT rowdies and their charitable counterparts comprise distinct groups.
It might be too early, but it's worth asking whether two groups are better than one. As long as the two groups remain separate and distinct, they'll be unable to check one another as they once did. Which is fine for the good side.
I'm sure the new official ZBT chapter will do great things once it moves back into its house. But as for the underground group, which has alternately referred to itself as "Friendz," "Kingz," "XZBT" and "HOZ," Penn faces yet another unofficial society in addition to Owls, Tabard and Theos.
Frankly, most students won't care.
Those unofficial societies always throw the rowdiest parties anyway. And the administration will be glad it's no longer liable for that which occurs at unofficial-ZBT parties. But, by relinquishing all oversight, the administration might have set itself up for a fiasco worse than the cucumber-and-ketchup incident.
Gabe Oppenheim is a College sophomore from Scarsdale, N.Y. His e-mail address is email@example.com. Opp-Ed appears on Wednesdays.