Catholic leaves his mark on Jewish fraternity
by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Mark Wolf, a parishioner at Holy Family Church here and a junior at the University of Kansas, still remembers the day he told his parents he was pledging Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity.
“At first, they were pretty shocked,” he recalled. “They looked into it and said, ‘Isn’t that a Jewish fraternity?’”
A greater shock would come a year later when Wolf, the only Christian member of the house, would be elected its president.
Wolf’s initial interest in a Jewish fraternity had less to do with interfaith harmony than a simple desire for friendship.
He attended an orientation month at KU the summer before his freshman year and met a couple of guys he really got along with.
They just happened to be Jewish.
“So these two guys joined Pi and their dorm suitemates were also Jewish and joined,” he explained.
“I went over to the house with them to hang out and meet other people,” he continued. “I really started to become friends with a lot of the guys there.”
The bylaws of the fraternity didn’t allow discrimination so, technically, there was no reason a Christian couldn’t join. When spring semester began, Wolf decided to look into it.
“I went to some of their rush events, and I liked it,” he said.
John Seldin, who met Wolf at orientation and introduced him to the fraternity, was one of many friends who encouraged him to pledge.
“Well, we played him up as Jewish at first,” he confessed. “But everybody figured it out.”
As things turned out, it didn’t matter anyway. The fraternity offered Wolf a bid and he started his spring semester as the first Catholic member of the house.
Wolf’s parents, Martha and Mark, visited the fraternity and were pleased with what they found.
“When I got to meet the boys at a mother’s day weekend, they were all so nice, and I was very happy,” said his mother. “It seemed like a really good fit for him.”
The Wolfs had no concern about their son being pressured to relinquish his Catholic faith, since Alpha Epsilon Pi is a social fraternity. There are Jewish organizations on campus that offer members faith-related activities, but no one is required to attend.
When Martha Wolf visited her son at the fraternity, she was happy to see a rosary hanging from the mirror in his room.
“That made me feel really good,” she said. “I asked him, ‘Do the other boys say anything to you about that?’ And he said, ‘No, not at all.’”
In fact, Wolf’s Catholic identity really isn’t seen as an anomaly by his fraternity brothers.
“We’ve known Christians all our lives,” explained Seldin. “When you’re a Jew, you’re in the minority. And so you have to make friends with the majority.”
Going for it
Wolf stood out in the fraternity, not because of his Christianity, but because of his involvement in activities and fundraising.
Shortly after he joined, an opportunity to run for an executive board position presented itself. The fraternity president at the time encouraged him to run for the position.
“It was a secretary position, called the Scribe,” explained Wolf. “I ran against one other member. We both gave speeches, and I ended up winning.”
Serving on the executive board qualified Wolf to run for president. Some of his friends suggested that he think about it.
When his parents learned he was giving it seriously consideration, they were pleasantly surprised. Wolf had attended St. Pius, a small Catholic high school in North Kansas City, Mo., where he played sports, but wasn’t very involved in other school activities.
“So I was happy, but a little bit surprised, when he decided to go to a big university like KU,” said his mother. “I was shocked when he said he was going to run for this president’s position.
“For a kid who was shy and not that outgoing in high school, this was a big change.”
The election was last December. Wolf ran against three other members, all of whom had more experience on the executive board and, of course, were Jewish.
“I was a little worried,” he said. “I thought maybe being the only Christian, I might not receive votes for that reason, and so I almost decided not to run.”
Wolf sat down with some of his friends in the fraternity and voiced his concerns.
“And they were very supportive,” he said. “They were like, ‘No matter what, you should do it.’”
Taking the lead
When the election results were announced, Wolf was surprised.
“To be honest,” he said, “I had a backup. I thought if I didn’t win Master (president), I would drop down and run for another position. And I kind of half-expected that to happen.”
Wolf’s term started last December and will continue through the end of this fall semester. So far, it’s been a great deal of work and a very enlightening experience.
As president of a Jewish fraternity, Wolf knew he would have to get involved with other Jewish organizations on campus.
“That was a little nerve-wracking at first,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t very familiar with Jewish religion and culture as a whole. But that’s something that I definitely learned a lot about — and everybody has been very supportive and friendly.”
In addition to running the day-to-day business of the fraternity, Wolf has been to two regional conclaves and, this August, represented his fraternity at the national convention in New Orleans.
Last summer brought another, more unexpected, opportunity. Alpha Epsilon Pi’s national advisor was so taken with Wolf’s involvement in the Jewish fraternity that he recommended that Wolf apply for a tour of Israel sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“They were looking for people who aren’t Jewish, but who are pro-Israel activists or politically involved,” explained Wolf. “When I applied, I talked a lot about my experience as president. They contacted me and told me they were very impressed.”
When Wolf was placed on a waiting list, his mother had mixed emotions.
“I was so scared when he first told me [he wanted to go],” she admitted. “I knew he wanted it, but I would have been OK if he hadn’t been chosen . . . just because of a mom’s fear. It’s always turbulent over there.”
Like any good Catholic mother in times of trial, Martha Wolf prayed that God’s will be done. Her prayers were answered, an opening became available, and her son started packing for Israel.
Before he left, though, she made sure he was thoroughly blessed by her family, whose Mexican heritage includes a strong Catholic tradition of giving blessings before travel.
“The last Sunday before his trip, we all went to Mass together and I asked Father Peter (Jaramillo, pastor of Holy Family) to give him a blessing, which he did,” she said.
After Mass, the family shared a farewell meal.
“And everyone from my side of the family gave Mark a blessing,” she continued. “And Mark was a good sport about it — he let us do it.”
The blessing worked. Wolf said the 10-day trip was nothing short of amazing.
The group toured historical sites, met with political advisors and Israeli journalists to discuss current events, and toured military facilities and the embassy.
Wolf’s favorite experience was visiting the Garden of Gethsemane.
“It was extremely beautiful,” he said. “Some of the olive trees had been there since the time of Jesus.”
“That’s the one place where I really felt a spiritual presence that was overwhelming,” he added.
At his mother’s request, Wolf called home every day and described his experiences.
“That was really neat,” she said. “We were praying for him, and we got to kind of live vicariously through his journeys.”
Like many college students, Wolf went through a period when he was unsure of his faith.
“You know, as a child, you’re brought up in a faith, and this is what you’re taught, this is what you believe, this is what you do,” he explained.
“Now that I’m older, especially in this environment,” he continued, “there was a time when I did question my faith.”
Being part of a Jewish fraternity has actually strengthened Wolf’s beliefs, though.
“I guess after enough time of exploring religion as a whole and within myself, I’ve kind of come full circle and regained confidence and strength in my own spirituality,” he said.
The fraternity has also helped Wolf put his faith in historical perspective and make sense of many traditional practices.
“I always knew the Mass was based on the Passover Seder,” he said. “I had learned that but, at the same time, I had no idea what a Seder was.
“Last year I participated in a Seder for the first time and it was a really great experience.”
His family has profited from the experience, too.
“We have learned so much ourselves about the Jewish faith and Jewish culture through him,” said his mother. “I think it has strengthened our faith. The Jewish and Christian people share a lot of common ground.”
Indeed, Wolf has a deep respect for the principles and values of his Jewish brothers. And this Jewish fraternity is thriving with a Catholic at its helm.
“We’re pretty much awesome,” said Seldin. “Make sure you put that in there.”