by Menachem Posner – Chabad.org
It’s been 55 years since Rabbi Moshe and Mindelle Feller set out to found Upper Midwest Merkos–Chabad Lubavitch in Minnesota in the winter of 1961, a mere month after their marriage. Now, for the first time in a career that has spanned 10 U.S. presidencies and countless meaningful interactions, the couple has agreed to be honored at a gala dinner of the Cheder Lubavitch Day School, which the couple founded 39 years ago in St. Paul.
“Before my wife and I moved out to Minnesota, we had a private audience with the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory],” recalls the rabbi, now 79. “The Rebbe spoke mostly to my wife. However, among other things, the Rebbe told me—and he said this word in English—that I would need to be ‘flexible.’ ”
The rabbi credits that flexibility with his ability to constantly adapt and innovate during his and his wife’s long and fruitful career.
It was that flexibility that inspired him to visit Sandy Koufax in his in his St. Paul hotel room the morning after the Jewish southpaw famously sat out of a game during the 1965 World Series. Feller congratulated Koufax for not playing on Yom Kippur, and for “the great assist he gave rabbis and Jewish educators the world over.”
He also brought the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born pitcher a pair of tefillin.
Growing up in the 1940s, there was no Jewish day school in Minnesota for the young Moshe Feller to attend. Like most of his peers, he learned basic Hebrew literacy at an after-school program and learned by example through observing his parents. His father was car salesman who never worked on Shabbat, which was a rarity in those days.
‘Dedication to Tradition’
As a young teenager, he was sent by his parents to learn in a yeshivah in New York, an opportunity his father had never had.
There, he became attracted to the Rebbe and Chabad, and came to learn in the Chabad yeshivah at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
After the Fellers married, they eagerly looked forward to beginning their career together as emissaries of the Rebbe. Since he had previously found success as a “Roving Rabbi” in Mexico, the young rabbi expected to be sent there. “The last place in the world I wanted to go was back to Minnesota,” he recalls. “But the Rebbe told us that he wanted us to go there to establish Chabad in the Upper Midwest, and we went with joy.”
Upon their arrival, it was the flexibility the Rebbe spoke about that inspired the young couple to begin their work in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, with the firm resolve not to duplicate the existing Jewish infrastructure in the city.
They started by traveling to small towns that had no organized Jewish life, arranging Hebrew schools, adult-education classes and holiday programs for the Jews they found there. That first year, they also arranged special father-and-son Shabbat services in their home for Holocaust survivors and their sons, many of whom were approaching bar mitzvah age.
By 1963, they had founded what may have been the first Gan Israel day camp in history, a success that has been replicated in hundreds—if not thousands—of cities around the world.
The rabbi is quick to point out that “flexibility” does not mean religious compromise. In fact, it is his unwavering fealty to Jewish belief and practice that has endeared him to Minnesotans.
“In a world of moral relativism, you can count on Rabbi Feller to be a bedrock of eternal Jewish values,” says former U.S Senator Rudy Boschwitz, who first met the rabbi in 1963 and has maintained a life-long relationship with him. “Rabbi Feller, and Lubavitch as a whole, is very impressive to me because of their firm beliefs. I like that very much.”
The two met when Feller came to Boschwitz’s lumber store in search of supplies to build a sukkah. “In those days, black hats and beards were not uncommon,” recalls the former senator, who was born in Germany and came to the U.S. with his parents as a 4-year-old. “But he was wearing tzitzit, which was unique. I offered to sponsor the supplies. Little did I know just how ambitious this rabbi was about sukkah-building. Before I knew it, I was thesukkah king of Minnesota.
When Boschwitz was elected to the U.S. senate in 1978, it was natural that he would invite “his” rabbi to open the senate session, something Feller went on to do eight times. Yet, despite walking in the halls of power (he has been invited to the Oval Office more than a dozen times) and rubbing shoulders with celebrities (Minnesota native Bob Dylan was known to frequent the rabbi’s services and events), locals say the Fellers remain dedicated to all Jewish community members and the principal duties at hand: teaching Torah, helping people perform mitzvahs, and providing a listening ear and a hot meal to those in need.
“The Fellers have a heart like that of King David, which encompassed all of Israel,” says Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Leiff, who served as rabbi of Congregation Bais Yisroel of Minneapolis for two decades before moving to New York. “Rabbi Feller crosses all barriers, and does whatever he can to be a positive influence and a help to everyone he meets.
“On one hand, he has an uncompromising dedication to tradition. At the same time, he packages things in such a way that anyone can accept and appreciate,” explains Leiff. “I would say that he has been both in the box and out of the box for decades—and the results are the many innovative programs that have benefited world Jewry.”
That same mix is what brought the late Professor Velvl Greene to Jewish observance. In 1963, Feller had sought out Greene—then a rising star in the Minnesota Jewish scene—to lend his name to the rabbi’s first banquet.
Having requested an appointment with the professor, the rabbi suddenly remembered that the sun was about to set and he had not yet said the afternoon prayers. “Disregarding the fact that he is in my office, that he had asked for the appointment, that he is requesting a favor—he stands up, walks to the wall, ties a black cord around his waist, and proceeds to mumble and shake,” recalled the professor, who passed away in 2011. “There were a lot of things I didn’t know then. But I did develop a definite interest and a special affection for this young man who was so pleasant and so different. He had a completely different set of rules to guide him—at once so radical and so archaic. He not only marched to the beat of a different drum—he seemed to enjoy the music more than we did ours. If he tried to influence us, during those early months, it must have been a very subtle effort.”
In time, through their connection to the Fellers and to the Rebbe, the Greenes and their children adopted a fully Jewish lifestyle.
‘One Smile at a Time’
Over their 55 years of communal service, the Fellers’ operation has evolved and grown.
After two years of living in the rabbi’s father’s house in Minneapolis (his mother had passed away), the Fellers moved to neighboring St. Paul. All the Orthodox synagogues had since closed, and there was a need for services and programming.
In 1965, the Fellers opened the Lubavitch House in a 12-room home. Then an innovation, it served as retreat for Shabbat and other Jewish gatherings. Through their efforts a year later, Rabbi Asher Zeilingold was brought in to serve as rabbi at the revitalized Adath Israel Congregation, a position he has now held for 50 years and counting.
When the Lubavitch House was burned by arsonists in 1968, the Fellers buried the Torahs and went on to purchase a mansion in Highland Park. In 1971, together with Rabbi Manis Friedman, the Fellers founded Bais Chana—the world-renowned educational institute for women seeking to learn about Judaism—which today boasts some 20,000 alumnae. In 2000, Chabad again relocated to a new 23,000-square-foot facility in West St. Paul.
More than a decade later, in 1977, the time came to found a Chassidic day school in St. Paul, and Lubavitch Cheder Day School was born, with Mrs. Feller serving as founding principal.
Today, under the directorship of Rabbi Shlomo Bendet, the school continues to thrive as a bastion of Jewish education and excellence.
“When we look to celebrate the ideals and the inspiration of the Lubavitch Cheder, it is clear that the best we to do so is by showcasing the Fellers,” states Rabbi Yossi Bendet, director of development. “Genuine Chassidim, they have touched countless people and have made a world of a difference, one smile at a time.”
Please click here to place an ad, reserve, or to learn more about the gala, which will take place on Sunday May 22nd, Pesach Sheini in downtown Minneapolis.