When Jacklyn Liberman rushed during her freshman year at the UW, few of the houses she visited knew how many Jewish girls lived under their roofs.
In search of a community that could mirror her own interests and beliefs, Liberman paired with fellow student Emily Levine to create the first Jewish sorority on campus. The idea had been in the works for a while but lacked the leadership needed to secure a house on high-demand Greek Row.
"When I rushed, I was asking houses how many Jewish people were in each house, just as a rough estimate ... But nobody [could come up with a number]. Wouldn't you want to know if the girls in your house were Jewish?" Liberman said. "How does that not come up in conversation?"
Many students "go Greek" hoping to create a more personable college experience, but for some, the mainstream houses on campus don't provide the sense of belonging they'd hoped for. Those who don't feel at home on Greek Row have the option of joining nontraditional fraternities or sororities that typically cater to minority students. These include Latino-, black- and Asian-interest houses, and a fraternity for gay, bisexual and progressive men.
Liberman and Levine have yet to hear back from the Panhellenic Association about the status of their sorority
Both girls agree that it wouldn't be a strictly religious house. Liberman wants the sisterhood to recognize certain Jewish holidays and cater to the dietary needs of Orthodox members. Their hope is that the house will provide a safe haven for Jewish students of all degrees of faith.
Most nontraditional houses are rooted in a history of social segregation, when blacks or Asians weren't permitted to join mainstream sororities and fraternities.
Solomon Robbins II, president of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, said their fraternity started in such an era. He said the UW chapter of the house was not recognized until 1978.
Because nontraditional houses sometimes lack the funding and alumni base to sustain themselves, membership is smaller and the recruitment process more challenging. Minority fraternities and sororities vary in size, ranging from five to 20 affiliates and rarely have their own house.
"We don't have that strong alumni base to donate money to get a house," said Jilberto Soto, a member of the Latino fraternity Omega Delta Phi. "But we share similar traditions to most of the mainstream houses. We also have house colors, hand signs, signals and chants."
The United Greek Council (UGC) was established in 2002 to unify the historically underrepresented houses on campus.
"For the nontraditional houses, because of the way our system is organized, the bond is stronger, and it usually lasts a lifetime. It would be nice to have a house close to campus, but then again ... it's a different type of membership," said Robbins. "It's hard to leave a brotherhood. Once you're in, you're in."
But while members benefit from shared heritage, religion and beliefs, their minority status means that houses lack the perks and privileges of being mainstream.
"It's definitely a struggle being here on a predominately white campus, and it's not that we're exclusive - we are very inclusive - but it's hard to reach out to people who aren't people of color," said Natalie Hart, president of the National Panhellenic Council and a member of Zeta Phi Beta sorority. "That's why our numbers are so much smaller in comparison to sororities and fraternities that do have houses."
The problem is one of visibility. Just as minority students struggle to gain recognition in all other areas of campus life, nontraditional houses struggle to find their niche. For them, the Greek community isn't representative.
"I don't think there's much diversity in the Greek system," said Levine. "Part of that just has to do with its predominantly white, Christian history. Houses are definitely accepting of minorities, but some students want closer-knit communities. That's what we hope to gain with our [Jewish] sorority."
Reach reporter Celina Kareiva at email@example.com.