Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies


Alumni and students explore faith in unique Catholic fellowship programs.

Not too many people can say they lived in a former German castle or studied at a Vatican university in Rome, but for four members of the Saint Leo University community, these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities have become a real and memorable part of their life stories. 

After being accepted into highly selective fellowship programs, these students, some now alumni, were not only able to travel and explore the world during their time at Saint Leo, but grow in their Catholic faith and more.

Engaging in Interfaith Studies at Vatican Institutions

It was an interest in interfaith studies that led Iris Semer ’16, ’19 and Gloria Guisbert ’18 to pursue prestigious fellowships at Vatican institutions in Rome, Italy. While students at Saint Leo, the pair served as fellows in the university’s Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies under the leadership of the center’s director and associate professor of theology, Dr. Matthew Tapie. Their exposure to conferences and events organized by the center helped them to learn about the importance of building relationships and dialogue between people of different faiths.

Iris Semer ’16, ’19
Iris Semer ’16, ’19

Semer, who had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Saint Leo, was able to secure a fellowship with the Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Guisbert, who was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in theology, obtained a fellowship with Angelicum: Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. Both of these institutions are highly selective. Hundreds of people apply to participate each year, but only a few are accepted.

As part of the fellowship, Semer spent two years living in Rome. She was able to make friends with people from different nationalities and was exposed to new ways of thinking. One of her most memorable experiences was visiting the largest Jewish synagogue in Rome. 

(Select a photo to view caption)

“It was exciting to observe the prayer taking place and see all the voices saying prayer and doing the liturgical practices we learned about,” Semer said.

Gloria Guisbert ’18
Gloria Guisbert ’18

Guisbert’s studies in Rome were slightly different due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While she did not have the opportunity to study in Rome for the full two years, she was able to spend some time there and partake in a similar experience as Semer.

“As part of the fellowship, I had the opportunity to go to Israel and see Jewish life,” Guisbert said. “That helped me understand more about the conflicts between faiths.”


Gloria Guisbert ’18 at the Roman Forum
Gloria Guisbert visits the ancient Roman Forum during her stay in Rome, Italy.

 Today Semer is a teacher at St. Peter Claver Catholic School in Tampa, FL,  where she takes the time to listen and understand her students, who come from different backgrounds, and does her best to model Christ-like behavior.

“My professors at Saint Leo were really invested and cared about my success as a student,” Semer said. “It was a good model for the teacher that I wanted to be.” 

Semer recalls how passionately her professors taught. She said they were not just researchers, but educators who she could tell invested time into how they presented information. 

As for Guisbert, she has plans to continue on a path toward learning, obtaining her master’s degree in theology. “I’ve had a love for theology since I was young,” Guisbert said. “I’ve always wanted to be a missionary, so pursuing a degree in theology just made sense.”

Developing a Catholic Worldview in Germany

Last summer, University Campus seniors Rafael Soto and Jeremy Bobowski had the opportunity to stay in a former castle in Schloss Wissen, Germany, as they participated in the Catholic Worldview Fellowship. Each year about 30 students from colleges and universities across the United States enroll in the fellowship to learn about the Catholic faith, while also earning college credit, in an engaging experience that includes a weeklong trip to Rome.

A former castle located in Schloss Wissen, Germany
The Catholic Worldview Fellowship took place in a former castle located in Schloss Wissen, Germany.

“It was an opportunity where I could grow as a leader, grow in my faith, and then have the experience of traveling to different parts of the world,” said Soto, who graduated this spring with a bachelor’s degree in political science.

Rafael Soto ’23
Rafael Soto ’23

Soto learned about the opportunity through Saint Leo’s University Ministry Department. He said the fellowship included a mix of classes where they explored ethics and philosophy, as well as took day trips that allowed them to study architecture and history. Overall, he said the program gave him great perspective about being a Catholic leader in today’s challenging world. 

“No matter what spiritual or religious journey you are on, it takes effort — one step at a time,” Soto said.

Jeremy Bobowski '23
Jeremy Bobowski ’23

Like Soto, Bobowski, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in religion, also enjoyed the opportunity to travel overseas and engage with others. After graduation, he would like to pursue priesthood.

“We did so many things together as a group that it made it easier to learn and engage in spirituality and prayer,” Bobowski said.


(Select a photo to view caption)

Saint Leo University faculty are transforming the lives of students and making significant contributions to their fields of study. Take a look at some of the most recent accomplishments from our faculty.

Christina CazanaveChristina Cazanave, director of internships and instructor for the Undergraduate Social Work Program, was appointed legislative chair for the NASW-Florida Chapter. In this five-year, statewide leadership position, Cazanave works closely with NASW-FL lobbyists to develop legislative proposals, collaborates with the chapter board to set legislative priorities, tracks bills relevant to social work practice, prepares testimony on critical bills, assists members in communicating issues to their elected officials, and builds relationships with other supportive organizations.

This role allows Cazanave to support Florida social workers, lobby for social justice and equitable policies, and mobilize the profession in Florida to engage in voter and civic engagement. This work includes creating a statewide voter engagement toolkit and leading the charge in voter activities across Florida.

Cazanave has served as co-chair for the Social Work Programs’ LEAD Day committee and as chair of the university’s Why Vote? campaign. Additionally, she demonstrated her passion for civic engagement by conducting workshops, conference presentations, and discussions on civic engagement and expanding advocacy within the social work practice.

Passard DeanDr. Passard Dean, interim dean of the Tapia College of Business, was appointed to the Institute of Management Accountants Committee on Ethics (IMA® CoE).

“The purpose of the IMA Committee on Ethics is to encourage IMA members, their organizations, and other individuals to adopt, promote, and execute superior business practices consistent with IMA’s mission in management accounting and finance and its Statement of Ethical Professional Practice by advocating the highest ethical principles,” according to the IMA. 

“The objectives of the Committee on Ethics are to advance these principles by regularly contributing meaningful insights, perspectives, opinions, and analysis to ethical issues, activities, publications, and networking opportunities, as well as membership compliance, brought before or identified by the committee.”

Stephen OkeyDr. Stephen Okey, associate professor of philosophy, theology, and religion, contributed to a story for The History Channel on the history of exorcisms. Written by Dr. Elizabeth Yuko, a bioethicist and journalist, the story examined the centuries-long practices of expelling evil, and it was published and posted just in time for Halloween. 

“According to Okey, the term ‘exorcism’ is most commonly associated with Christianity, especially Catholicism, partly because of the numerous explicit references to Jesus casting out spirits in the Gospels,” the story stated. “In 2017, Pope Francis told priests that they ‘should not hesitate’ to call on a Vatican-trained exorcist should they need one.”

Dr. Matthew Tapie and Rabbi David Maayan

Dr. Matthew Tapie and Rabbi David Maayan, director and assistant director of the university’s Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies, will work with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Vatican, and other organizations to host a conference on the newly opened archives from the Pontificate of Pope Pius XII. The conference, New Documents from the Pontificate of Pope Pius XII and their Meaning for Jewish-Christian Relations: A Dialogue Between Historians and Theologians, will be held at the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome in October.

Dr. Jacci WhiteDr. Jacci White, professor of mathematics in the School of Computing, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, and Data Science (CARDS), received the prestigious Mathematical Association of America’s (MAA) National Meritorious Service Award in 2022. 

The award was established by the MAA Board of Governors in 1983 and is given once every five years to one recipient in each section — Saint Leo is in the Florida Section. It is awarded in recognition of extraordinary service to the MAA and the section.

“White is known for her dedicated teaching, providing student-centered education, and implementation of innovative teaching techniques,” the MAA noted. “At FL-MAA meetings, she often can be found surrounded by students who give presentations, participating in student competitions, and giving talks.”

For her distinguished teaching, White previously was awarded the 2007 MAA Florida Section Teaching Award.

Dr. Tammy Lowery ZacchilliDr. Tammy Lowery Zacchilli, professor of psychology, was elected as the Southeastern regional vice president of Psi Chi, the international honor society in psychology, beginning in July 2022. 

Psi Chi has more than 800,000 members and is one of the largest honor societies in the United States. Zacchilli works with chapters in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, U.S. Virgin Islands, Virginia, and West Virginia. In this role, she coordinates Psi Chi programming at the Southeastern Psychological Association Conference. She also serves on committees, reviews for awards, and serves as a liaison between the southeastern chapters and the Psi Chi Board of Directors. 

Zacchilli has served as the Psi Chi faculty advisor at Saint Leo University since 2010 and has served as an associate editor to the Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research since 2017. She also was the 2015 recipient of the Psi Chi Faculty Advisor Award for the Southeastern Region and has recently served as a psychology expert on WTVT, FOX 13, several times.

Rabbi Rudin posing with Bishop Mark O’Connell and his medal of the Order of St. Gregory.
Rabbi A. James Rudin receives the medal of the Order of St. Gregory from Bishop Mark O’Connell, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston, on behalf of Pope Francis.

In November, Rabbi A. James Rudin, one of the co-founders of the university’s Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies, became the third American rabbi in history to be honored with the Papal Knighthood of the Order of St. Gregory for his work in interfaith relations.

In a ceremony held at Saint Leo University, Rudin received the medal of the Order of St. Gregory from Bishop Mark O’Connell, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston. O’Connell conducted the investiture ceremony on behalf of Pope Francis in recognition of Rudin’s decades of work in building positive Catholic-Jewish relations throughout the world, fostering interreligious dialogue and understanding.

Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) senior interreligious adviser, having previously served as its interreligious affairs director. He also is a distinguished professor of religion and Judaica at Saint Leo University.

“It is an honor and privilege to accept this extraordinary award,” Rudin said. “To be selected for a papal knighthood is a highlight of both my professional and personal life.”

When Saint Leo’s Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies (CCJS) was established more than two decades ago, its mission was to provide interfaith education and dialogue for thousands of students and members of the Tampa Bay area community. Today, with the creation of the Maureen and Douglas Cohn Visiting Chair in Jewish Thought, the center is providing more opportunities to engage in dialogue with better resources and information, making CCJS the only academic center of its kind in the Southeast.

Made possible by the generosity of Maureen and Douglas Cohn in December 2021, the new chair enables CCJS to feature a Jewish scholarly voice at the center of its vision, mission, and educational programs. A unifying force in their work with the Tampa Jewish Community Centers and Federation, the Cohns are longtime friends of CCJS and have supported Saint Leo on this front since the early 2000s.

“We are excited to collaborate with the university and the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies to help increase engagement between the Jewish and Catholic faith in our community,” Maureen Cohn said.

“By establishing a full-time faculty position that also works closely with local religious leaders, we can create more opportunities for people of all faiths to talk directly to a scholar for generations to come,” Douglas Cohn continued.

The Cohn Visiting Chair is devoted to scholarly research and teaching and allows students, faculty, and members of the community to significantly deepen their understanding of Judaism by having direct and regular access to a scholar of Jewish thought.

The west coast of Florida is home to many Catholics as well as Jews. One of the most unique aspects of the Cohn Visiting Chair is that it puts a scholar of Jewish thought and culture into regular conversation with individuals outside of the college classroom—with everyday people, including members of other religions. In addition to teaching undergraduate students, the visiting scholar will provide a series of spring educational workshops for the Tampa-area community.

“The center is unique in the way our faculty teach in the community, as well as in the classroom,” said Dr. Matthew Tapie, CCJS director. “We are building bridges of understanding that lead to a more just and peaceful society.”

Because the position is a visiting chair, the scholar will teach and research at CCJS and in the community for up to three years before another scholar takes the helm to carry out the center’s mission, building mutual respect, understanding, and appreciation among people of goodwill.

Saint Leo University faculty are transforming the lives of students and making significant contributions to their fields of study. Take a look at some of the most recent accomplishments from our faculty.

Dr. Daniel DuBois, assistant professor of history, is serving as the 2022-2023 president of the Florida Conference of Historians. The organization is dedicated to promoting scholarship and collegiality among historians teaching history in Florida’s colleges and universities. In February, Saint Leo University hosted the group’s 2022 annual meeting at University Campus. The conference featured panel and individual presentations on a wide variety of topics from state, national, and international history. Additionally, DuBois was recently selected as one of only 20 participants from hundreds who applied nationally for a weeklong summer workshop on teaching American Civil War history, led by Dr. Gary W. Gallagher, author and professor emeritus at the University of Virginia.

Dr. Kathryn Duncan, professor of English, is the author of Jane Austen and the Buddha: Teachers of Enlightenment, a work of literary criticism recently released by McFarland Books. Duncan was inspired by a realization that the popular English novelist Jane Austen and the religious teacher and thinker had ideas in common about human nature and happiness. Duncan became a faculty member in the English Department in 2001.

Dr. Phillip Neely Jr., director of the Doctor of Criminal Justice program, recently published a book entitled, When the Watcher Becomes the Watched: The New Policing. Released by Paramount Publisher, the book delves into how technology, such as the cameras worn by police officers, has fared at law enforcement agencies and examines if its use has been effective. Prior to becoming a faculty member at Saint Leo, Neely worked in law enforcement for 21 years, serving in progressively responsible leadership and field positions at local agencies.

Dr. Matthew Tapie, associate professor of theology and director of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies, is co-editing a new series at The Catholic University of America Press, entitled Judaism and Catholic Theology. The Judaism and Catholic Theology series aims to further Catholic theological reflection on Judaism and the Jewish people for scholars, the lay faithful, and interreligious leaders. The first of several books in the new series was published in February 2022. Additionally, Tapie is co-editing a collection of 14 essays on the challenges of theological dialogue for the Catholic University of America Press. The essays were originally presented at the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies’ online symposium in 2021.

Gianna Russo, assistant professor of English and creative writing, recently published a new book of poetry entitled, All I See is Your Glinting: 90 Days in the Pandemic. The book features poems and photographs that document each day of the last quarter of 2020 during the pandemic, capturing the small and meaningful moments of daily life. The book is available through Madville Publishing. Russo, who was named the inaugural Wordsmith of the city of Tampa in 2020, will wrap up her work in the role at the end of 2022.

Dr. Moneque Walker-Pickett, professor of criminal justice, was selected as one of 38 American Council on Education (ACE) Fellows for the 2020-2021 class. The ACE program is the longest-running leadership development program in the United States and offers participants interactive learning opportunities and visits to campuses and other higher education-related organizations. Walker-Pickett joins other ACE fellows from institutions such as Georgetown University, Purdue University, Ohio State University, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and more.

Christian Schindler

Image 1 of 19

Christian Schindler has joined Saint Leo University as vice president of Marketing and Enrollment. Prior to this position, Schindler served in a variety of leadership roles in marketing and enrollment, including divisional vice president of Strategic Recruitment and Global Marketing at Laureate Education, vice president of Marketing and Enrollment at Straighterline, and senior director of International Global Marketing at LeapFrog Enterprises. He has an extensive background in lead generation, branding, and strategic recruitment for both campus-based and online institutions of learning. He is a graduate of the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, where he also received his Bachelor of Arts in political science.

President Bill Lennox continues to promote Saint Leo throughout our community. In September 2016, Saint Leo University was one of the sponsors of One Community Now Stand Down for Pasco County veterans, which took place at Veterans Memorial Park in Hudson, FL. Dr. Lennox and his wife, Anne, attended the event, spoke to veterans, and served them steak dinners.

Also in September, Dr. Lennox served as honorary captain for the Tampa Bay Rays (pictured above) before their game against the New York Yankees. In early November, he assisted the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies in hosting Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a leader in the Jewish community and friend of Pope Francis, at University Campus. He also presented Rabbi Skorka with the Eternal Light Award following a presentation at Temple Emanu-El in Sarasota.

On March 1, Dr. Lennox was honored on the ice by the Tampa Bay Lightning at the National Hockey League matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes. He appeared in an episode of Military Makeover, airing on Lifetime Television®, in March. He is also active with the Florida Council of 100, serving as an ex officio member