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Judaic chair receives $350,000 from foundation, alumnus

The College of Idaho’s effort to create the Intermountain West’s first endowed chair in Judaic studies took another major step toward its realization with a combined $350,000 gift from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation and alumnus Ray Neilsen (’88) on Jan. 23. The gifts were announced during the grand opening celebration of the exhibition From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America, which is showing inside the Langroise Center at C of I through March 19.

"Establishing the Chair in Judaic Studies will continue The College of Idaho’s legacy of outstanding teaching,” said C of I President Marv Henberg. “As a graduate of the College, Mr. Neilsen knows the impact that our dedicated professors have on their students, and we are very appreciative that he and the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation are supporting our efforts.”

With the $200,000 gift from the Neilsen Foundation and $150,000 from Ray and Nancy Neilsen, the College now has raised approximately $1.5 million toward the chair endowment goal of $2.3 million. The chair in 2010 received a challenge grant to raise up to $500,000 in matching funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The funds, which are to be paid out over four years, are being matched by $1.5 million raised by the C of I.

The endowed chair in Judaic studies is the dream of C of I history professor Howard Berger, who joined the College’s faculty in 1982. The goal of the chair is to promote greater understanding of Jewish traditions, culture and philosophy in Idaho and the West. Berger teaches Jewish history courses, hosts an annual Passover Seder and involves the campus in other Jewish traditions throughout the school year. In his honor the College has established the Howard Berger Lecture Series, which brings Jewish dignitaries and public figures to campus to speak about contemporary Jewish issues.

Sid Lapidus, co-chairman of the American Jewish Historical Society, gave a lecture during the Jan. 23 opening, which also included a ribbon-cutting ceremony, a reception and remarks by Neilsen announcing the$350,000 gifts and thanking Berger for more than 20 years of friendship and mentoring. Hundreds attended the event, including C of I students, faculty and staff members, trustees, community members and visitors from several local synagogues and other churches. 

“I am proud not only of our Foundation’s support for the endowed chair and the lecture series, but also, most importantly, I am pleased to have had such a rewarding experience at the College,” said Ray Neilsen, Chairman of the Neilsen Foundation. “Dr. Berger became my mentor and life-long friend and he taught me to love learning, a passion that still drives me today.”

Beth Goldsmith, Executive Director of the Foundation, added that the Foundation is pleased to support such an innovative program in the Intermountain West. 

“This lecture series and endowed chair will expose students to life lessons on tolerance, diversity, human rights and interfaith awareness which are critical in our world today,” Goldsmith said.

The Neilsen Foundation previously contributed $150,000 toward the establishment of the Howard Berger Lecture Series. From Haven to Home remains open to the public, free of charge, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily for the next six weeks.

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. It has a century-old tradition of educating some of the most accomplished graduates in Idaho, including six Rhodes Scholars, three Marshall Scholars, and another ten Truman and Goldwater Scholars. The College is located on a beautiful campus in Caldwell, Idaho. Its distinctive PEAK curriculum challenges students to attain competencies in the four knowledge peaks of the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field, enabling them to graduate with an academic major and three minors in four years. For more information on The College of Idaho, visit