It can be said that the American college fraternity is as old as the United States, for in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa was founded at the College of William and Mary. From that time until the Civil War, no appreciable changes occurred in the fraternity system; however, starting in 1865, fraternities became more and more popular, and today Greek-letter fraternities are recognized as an integral part of the American educational system.
Today fraternity traditions, dating back half a century or more, are stamped with the circumstance and atmosphere in which they thrived many years ago. The college of today, however, has far outgrown those times; yet a resemblance to the halls of classical learning for the privileged few which existed remains. Stories of those college days have come to us clothed in romance and largely in fictional form.
The time came when the fraternity world expanded to allow into its midst greater numbers and not just an exclusive few. At this time, the broader thought of the university was included in the ideas of fraternity. Fraternity chapters then became self-governing campus units aiding in faculty administration. Later, as a result, fraternities earned the respect of the university and surrounding community.
At the start of the twentieth century, a number of older fraternities modified their policies and admitted larger numbers. Moreover, with the growth of these fraternities, new fraternities came into being. They came unhampered by tradition, unimpeded by caste, and sponsored by leaders of great foresight, indomitable zeal, and high ideals. And like many other organizations, Sigma Alpha Mu owes its founding to mere chance. Indeed, even the meeting at which it was founded was called with no thought of permanent organization at all.
In the fall of 1909, the sophomore class at the College of the City of New York had found itself embarrassed by "lowly freshmen". At a school where "warfare" between freshman and sophomore class was a tradition, the sophomores found it necessary to regain their fallen honor. Class Marshal Lester Cohen called a meeting of sophomore leaders on November 26, 1909 to decide on a plan for redemption. Eight appeared- Cohen, Hyman Jacobson, Adolph I. Fabis, Samuel Ginsburg, Abram N. Kerner, Jacob Kaplan, Ira N. Lind and David D. Levinson, who are now known as the Founders of Sigma Alpha Mu.
It is interesting to note that while there were many friends among the eight, none of them knew all the others. During the discussion which took place, much loftier ideals were expressed than the mere formulation of plans for asserting sophomore honor. The men discovered that they held many ideals in common, and the inspiration for the formation of a new fraternity came to them. During this meeting, it was suggested that the Greek Letters "Kappa Phi Omega" be used to symbolize the words "Cosmic Fraternal Order" as the new name for the fraternity. This proposal was accepted and the meeting was adjourned.
A second meeting was held a week later. It was found necessary to revise the name of the fraternity because several members had inadvertently made public the chosen name. Ginsburg then suggested a motto which was unanimously adopted and which has since remained the Fraternity motto. From that time the Fraternity was known as Sigma Alpha Mu.
The new Fraternity settled down to the accomplishment of the ideals which had promoted its creation. It was its aim to prove to the outside world that criticism and objectives leveled against fraternities in general-specious though many of those arguments may have been-were not applicable to Sigma Alpha Mu. The founders decided to plan and grow along lines different from those of existing fraternities.
Two years after the founding Sigma Alpha Mu began to grow. To a small group of five at Cornell University, the Founders imparted their ideas and inculcated their ideals, and then guided, watched and aided them-their brothers in far off Ithaca. Little wonder that Beta chapter patterned its growth as Alpha had and the two chapters, in bond of brotherhood, were as one. After this, slowly but surely, Sigma Alpha Mu expanded North, South, East and West. Sigma Alpha Mu maintains its commitment to growth and attends and assists both the old and new chapters.
The eight Founders of Sigma Alpha Mu were all of the Jewish faith, and it naturally followed that they attracted to their brotherhood men of similar background. They believed in fraternalism among Jewish college men, convinced that without it, a large number of Jewish students would be deprived of the pleasant associations and companionships they now find in most colleges.
Sigma Alpha Mu has always acknowledged with deep appreciation its Jewish heritage and the ethical values of Judaism which have enriched its life and the lives of its members. With the advent of the mid-twentieth century, expressions of liberalism suggested that constitutional limitations of membership to any particular religious group was not in keeping with the ideal of democracy which had always been part of the Fraternity's creed. Thus, responsive to this thinking, Sigma Alpha Mu at its 1953 Convention amended its constitution, making eligible for membership any male student of good moral character who respects the ideals and traditions of the Fraternity.
Sigma Alpha Mu's profound interest in matters of culture and education was clearly manifested many years ago. For example, in 1927, when Jewish students in Rumania were subjected to merciless persecution, the Fraternity sent one of its officers to investigate conditions there. His report, subsequently reprinted in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, was instrumental in preventing further assaults in that country. Also, in 1929 Sigma Alpha Mu was the first college fraternity to award a scholarship to the Hebrew University in Palestine.
Later, in 1935, Sigma Alpha Mu adopted as a national project the rehabilitation of refugee students. More than a score of outstanding scholars were brought over from central Europe and given the opportunity to complete their studies and research in American universities. These student guests, in turn, brought to the undergraduate members a broader outlook on life and an appreciation of cultural achievements.
Our willingness to serve extends beyond campus limits to embrace the community in which the college is located. The range of projects grows with each passing year. Large or small, these civic and community endeavors are significant, enriching each participant with the inner joy of altruism when a collective effort is undertaken with genuine concern for the welfare of others. Bounce for Beats, a national service project copyrighted by Sigma Alpha Mu, was an innovation of the 1960s. Scores of chapters bouncing a basketball to symbolize the heartbeat have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars for worthy causes including the American Heart Association and Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Today, Sigma Alpha Mu's commitment to service continues through support of the Alzheimer's Association, our national service project.