The first document relating to Jews in Modena may date back to 1025, but the existence of a stable Jewish community, formed by loan-bankers who originated from Perugia, Rimini, and Fermo, was not recorded until 1393. For many years, the Jews of Modena enjoyed the protection of the house of Este, which ruled Modena as well as Ferrara. After the expulsion from Bologna (1569) and the devolution of Ferrara (1598), when Modena became the capital city of the Duchy of Estense, a number of Jews moved to the city. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the duchy of Modena attracted a large Jewish settlement. Generally, the dukes considered favoring Jewish settlement and development as beneficial to the state, mainly for economical reasons, but this did not prevent the establishment of the ghetto (1638–1859), Inquisitional controls, and the activity of the Opera Pia dei Catecumeni, founded in 1700. When the ghetto was established in 1638, the Jews in Modena numbered 750. By 1767, they were 1,262 and in 1847, 1,538 lived in the entire province of Modena.
Modena was long a principal center of scholarship for Italian Jewry and was distinguished as a seat of kabbalistic study. Among its scholars were the kabbalist *Aaron Berechiah of Modena, author of Ma’avar Yabbok (Mantua, 1626); the scholars Leone Poggetti, Natanel Trabotti, and Yedidià Carmi; the remarkable bibliophile Abraham Joseph Solomon *Graziani; Abraham *Rovigo; and Ishmael Cohen (Laudadio Sacerdote). During the first half of the 16th century, the Hevrot Ghemilut Chassdim and the Talmud Torà were founded; in 1614, Aharon Berechiah of Modena founded the Hevrat Machshivim for kabbalistic studies.
The cultural and economic activities of Modenese Jewry were central to the Duchy of Este. Although they were confined to the ghetto in 1638, the Jews of Modena were allowed to carry on their business activities. In fact, the Jews of the Este Dukedom were involved in a variety of entrepreneurial, commercial, and cultural activities – among other things, the manufacture and trading of precious silks, silver, and diamonds. These activities were handled by large-scale entrepreneurs, along with a number of ordinary workers. Jews played important cultural roles – as ducal librarians, court silversmiths, printers, etc. – in the city, and often it was Jews who imported new cultural ideas from abroad. From 1638 to 1721, the Jews of Modena opened nine synagogues with women’s galleries and two schools.
The hevrot in Modena at the end of 18th century numbered 15. In 1735, the Hevra Soked Holim for women was established. There was also a renowned yeshivah in the city. In 1796, Modena was occupied by the French and became part of the Cisalpine Republic.
Moisé Formiggini was the first Italian Jew to be elected to office in the government of the Repubblica Cisalpina (1797). He took part in the Lyon consultation in 1802 and in the Great Sanhedrin of Paris in 1806. In 1796, he moved to Milan, where he expanded his entrepreneurial activities and became a public figure, uniting the Jewish communities of Northern Italy. At the same time, with his brother Salomone, the merchant Angelo Sanguinetti and the rabbis Buonaventura Modena and Ishmael Cohen, he continued to lead the Modena community. During the Restoration, the ghetto restrictions were renewed, but the Jews of Modena contributed effectively to the Italian Risorgimento, collaborating with the Carbonari, the secret revolutionary movement.
In particular, Angelo and Emilio Usiglio were among the supporters of Giuseppe Mazzini. With the arrival of the Piedmontese troupes of the Savoy in 1859, the Jews of Modena were granted full equality with the other citizens. Yet the community, which up to the middle of the 19th century still consisted of about 1,000 Jews, then began to diminish numerically because of immigration, mostly to Milan. Devotion to Ereẓ Israel was particularly strong in Modena in the ghetto period, and later on Zionism obtained an early foothold there; the monthly L’Idea Sionnista was published in Modena from 1900 to 1910, founded by Professor Carlo Conegliano, of the Faculty of Economics. Moreover, in the 1930s, thanks to the educational activity of Angelo da Fano, the Jewish community contributed greatly to the Italian Zionism movement.
In 1931, the community of Modena had a membership of 474 Jews. During the Holocaust, 70 Jews were deported to the death camps from the province of Modena and over 15 Modenese Jews died. Many Jews of Modena participated in antifascist activities and the Resistenza movement. Angelo Donati organized the escape of thousands of Jews from Nice to Palestine; the president of the community, Gino Freidman, was one of the organizers of the rescue of young refugees at Villa Emma.
After the war, 185 Jews remained in the community; by 1959 their number had decreased to 150 and by 2005 to 100, though the main synagogue remained open and there were regular Sabbath services. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the community president, Massimiliano Eckert (1908–2004) and Rabbi Adolfo *Lattes (1910–1995), continued to encourage the immigration to Israel of young people and the maintenance of religious life. In spite of its small number, the Jewish community of Modena is very active in promoting cultural activities on Jewish and Israeli themes and Jewish education at the primary and secondary levels.