Zeta Beta Tau Fraternity was inspired by Richard J. H. Gottheil, a professor of languages at Columbia University and a leader in the early American Zionist movement. On December 29, 1898, Professor Gottheil gathered together a group of Jewish students from several New York City universities to form a Zionist youth society. The society was called Z.B.T.
During this brief period, the society came to serve as a kind of fraternal body for college students who, as Jews, were excluded from joining existing fraternities because of the sectarian practices which prevailed at the end of the nineteenth century in the United States. The continuing need for a Greek-letter fraternity open to Jewish students prompted Z.B.T. to change its raison d’etre, structure and emphasis and to become Zeta Beta Tau in 1903.
Zeta Beta Tau expanded rapidly. By 1909, it had established 13 Chapters throughout the Northeast and a14th at Tulane University at New Orleans, thereby taking on a truly national dimension. In 1913, it established its first Canadian Chapter at McGill University in Montreal. Five years later, it founded its first West Coast Chapter at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. At the 1954 National Convention, the delegates amended Zeta Beta Tau’s Constitution, Ritual and internal procedures both in theory and in practice to eliminate sectarianism as a qualification for membership.
Spearheaded by the growth of state and municipal university systems, hundreds of new institutions were opened in the quarter-century following World War II. By the 1960s virtually every American had an opportunity to attend college. From 1945 to 1969, the number of ZBT chapters increased from 30 to 80 units.
The history of mergers in the Zeta Beta Tau Brotherhood followed a pattern of linking common traditions. In 1959, Phi Alpha merged into Phi Sigma Delta, and in 1961 Kappa Nu merged into Phi Epsilon Pi. In 1969-70, Phi Sigma Delta and Phi Epsilon Pi merged into Zeta Beta Tau.
Traumatic experiences were generated by the polarization over the Vietnam conflict. The American fraternity system — including Zeta Beta Tau, was subsequently affected by the great wave of anti-establishment feeling that was pervasive throughout the country. Many of the Chapters which survived this period of turmoil did so in a weakened condition. During the late 1970s and the early 1980s, there was a renewed interest in fraternity life, resulting in increased initiation statistics, revival of many dormant Chapters and expansion to new campuses.
During the 1980s, every Greek-letter group continued their efforts to stop hazing. Despite ZBT’s best efforts, hazing continued and increased in frequency and severity. ZBT concluded that all efforts to reform the institution of pledging had failed; pledging was the problem. This was because pledges were considered second-class citizens, with no rights and no chance to refuse even the most outrageous demands of a Brother, unless he quit the Fraternity. In 1989, in a last-ditch effort to eliminate hazing, ZBT eliminated pledging and all second-class status from the Fraternity. In its place, ZBT established a brotherhood program with minimum standards (Brotherhood Quality Standards), as well as programs of education, bonding and earning one’s status that applies to all brothers of ZBT.
Through good times and bad, ZBT has been in the forefront in pioneering new concepts — as evidenced by its very founding, its elimination of sectarian membership practices, its acceptance of mergers, its elimination of pledging, and its ability to solve enormous problems when others abandoned the effort.
ZBT has built foundations and reached milestones that no other Greek fraternal organization has — we opened our arms to all men of good character while continuing to embrace our Jewish heritage, we rescinded all second-class status in our brotherhood when we abolished pledging, and now we are reaching and teaching our brothers using technology that few other groups have been able to adopt.