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College hires first scholar for Judaic studies chair

A widely-published scholar of Jewish history and culture and Jewish-Christian relations will be the first to hold The College of Idaho’s newly established Howard Berger-Ray Neilsen Chair in Judaic Studies.

Dr. Federica Francesconi, currently a faculty member in the University of Oregon’s Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies, will join the C of I next fall. Francesconi specializes in the cultural and social history of Jews in early modern Europe, paying special attention to Italian Jewish culture. She is currently completing a book, Invisible Enlighteners: Modenese Jewry from Renaissance to Emancipation (1598-1814).

“We are pleased to bring such a prolific scholar as Dr. Francesconi to The College of Idaho,” C of I President Marv Henberg said. “The Howard Berger-Ray Neilsen Chair in Judaic Studies was created with the aim of encouraging interfaith dialogue and greater awareness of Jewish culture, and Dr. Francesconi has demonstrated her commitment to those goals throughout her career.”

Francesconi said she is honored to serve as the first Howard Berger-Ray Neilsen Chair in Judaic Studies at The College of Idaho.

“I feel deeply privileged to have the possibility to work with colleagues who are great teachers, accomplished scholars and admirable administrators,” Francesconi said. “I look forward to working with them and with community leaders in Idaho in order to promote the study of Judaism and dialogue between tradition and modernity, social justice, and interfaith relations. The students I met when I was on campus impressed me with their degree of preparation and motivation; working with them will be indeed challenging and stimulating.”

Francesconi has held academic and research fellowships at the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA and the University of Oxford. Her research and teaching interests also include Jewish-Christian relations, Jewish thought, the history of the Inquisition, Sephardic Diaspora and Jewish ceremonial art.

She recently co-edited a special issue of the journal Jewish History on “Tradition and Transformation in Eighteenth-Century Europe: Jewish Integration in Comparative Perspective,” and has curated exhibits on various facets of Jewish history at The Museum of the History of Italian Jewry and the Shoah in Ferrara, Italy, at the Italian Embassy of Israel’s Institute of Italian Culture, and with the Jewish communities of Bologna and Modena. Francesconi also has presented numerous community lectures on Jewish ceremonial art, contemporary Judaism, European Jewish history, and Israeli history and culture in the United States, Italy and Israel.

Francesconi received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history from the University of Bologna and her Ph.D. from the University of Haifa in Jewish history, writing her dissertation on "Jewish Families in Modena from the Renaissance to the Napoleonic Emancipation (1600-1810).”

The Howard Berger-Ray Neilsen Chair in Judaic Studies – the first of its kind in the Intermountain West – was created to promote greater understanding of Jewish traditions, culture and philosophy in Idaho and the West. Named after C of I alumnus Ray Neilsen ’88 and the longtime C of I history professor who was an influential mentor to him, the chair and an associated lecture series will help future generations of C of I students and the public gain a deeper understanding of diversity, human rights and interfaith awareness. The chair is funded in part by a National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant.

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 seven Rhodes Scholars, three Marshall Scholars, and another 11 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