By Janis Siegel, Jewish Sound Correspondent
It’s a name that may be well-suited to a great Italian painter or a powerful star of the Italian opera, but Dr. Federica Francesconi, the first-ever Jewish Studies chair at the College of Idaho seems destined to rock the academic world there when she arrives in Caldwell this fall.
The widely published scholar with an irresistible native Italian accent has an obvious command of her research specialty, the social and cultural history of Jews in early modern Europe with a focus on Jewish-Italian culture.
But she is now accustomed to the open-minded hospitality of the Northwest.
Francesconi’s last three years at the University of Oregon as a visiting assistant professor in The Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies and the Department of Religious Studies leaves her excited about her move to Idaho.
“I feel really proud,” Francesconi told The Jewish Sound in a phone interview from her office at the University of Oregon. “The community is really vibrant, eager to learn, and to be engaged in scholarly topics. “
The Howard Berger-Ray Neilsen Chair in Judaic Studies was created to promote a better understanding of Jewish culture, philosophy, and traditions in the Western U.S. and is funded, in part, by a National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant and largely by private non-Jewish sources.
“I think this is very rare,” said Francesconi. “There is no religious agenda. The mission here is education.”
Neilsen was the longtime mentor of Dr. Howard Berger, the C of I John Weyerhaeuser chair in American history. Neilsen was an advocate for human rights and interfaith relations.
“Ray Neilsen is a great entrepreneur, a great philanthropist, and a great friend,” said Berger in an email. “His financial support for the chair was THE reason for the chair’s reality.”
C of I history professor Dr. Steve Maughan applauded Berger for promoting Jewish history there.
“Dr. Berger has made the experience of the Jews central to the story of America and to the developing understanding of human rights in the modern era,” Maughan told The Jewish Sound. “His course on the Holocaust has become a ‘must have’ experience for students at The College of Idaho.”
Appointing Francesconi not only gives students a first-rate scholar, said Berger, but she is also someone who will be their friend while they attend the college.
In 2010, Francesconi was a religious studies visiting assistant professor at Rutgers University and at the University of Oxford, Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
In 2007, she earned her doctorate from the University of Haifa’s Department of Jewish History, and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Bologna.
The Mediterranean and Jewish history scholar is now finishing her new book, “Enlighteners: Modenese Jewry from Renaissance to Emancipation (1598-1814).”
“Italy is the most ancient Jewish community in the Diaspora — they weren’t expelled,” said Francesconi. “Jews had the need to become Italians — they were Italians. They were elected and they were representatives of their areas. The Jews, the Jesuits, and the duke opened the first public library and they worked together to acquire books.”
Francesconi believes her time in Eugene, Ore., getting to know the student body there, has also prepared her for the move to Idaho.
She said her students choose from a variety of Jewish practices including Reconstructionist Judaism, The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, and Reform Judaism, and that being Jewish is not necessarily the uniting trait in her classes.
“It is a really different model here,” said Francesconi, who was raised in a Modern Orthodox Jewish family that lives in Italy today. “I have a variety of students who are Jews but they don’t have a strong Jewish background or a Hebrew school background. On the other hand, they are very open-minded.”
Berger is confident that the course offerings in Jewish history at the college will increase under her leadership.
“Things Jewish are of great interest to the bulk of the students at the College of Idaho,” said Berger, “and that will not only continue but will be expanded with the arrival of Federica.”