Before he became a U.S. senator, Rudy Boschwitz moved to Minnesota and opened a family business in 1963. By that time, Rabbi Moshe and Mindy Feller were already there.
Their first interactions happened by chance. Boschwitz, who would go on to serve two terms in Washington, noticed a man in his home improvement store sporting not only a hat and beard – both weren’t uncommon in the 1960s – but also ritual fringes known as tzitzit hanging around his waist.
“I stopped him and discovered that he was the local Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi,” remembers Boschwitz. “He originally had been a Minnesotan and had been sent back there by the Rebbe,” Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
The Fellers, who are celebrating a half-century of service to their northern state’s Jewish community, were among the first groups of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries dispatched to regions around the United States and countries around the world. They are regarded by many today as pioneers in a form of outreach that has strengthened Jewish life around the globe.
“We did not have a synagogue, a school, or a center,” relates Moshe Feller. “We were completely grassroots and people-to-people based.”
That was in 1962. Today, Lubavitch of Minnesota boasts synagogues, day schools, day camps and seven Chabad Houses, including one on the campus of the University of Minnesota, staffed by a team of 20 emissary families. Its Bais Chana Women’s International, which was co-founded with Rabbi Manis Friedman in the summer of 1971, is international in scope, attracting young adults and professional women from all backgrounds around the world.
Charting a New Course
From a base in S. Paul, the Fellers went to small towns throughout Minnesota and taught Sunday Hebrew school classes; they developed Sabbath programs and began a youth congregation for the children of local Holocaust survivors.
“We started out with things that nobody else was doing,” continues the rabbi.
They opened a day camp in the summer of 1963, and in 1965, they purchased a 10-acre farmhouse. They began hosting Sabbath retreats for young families and Jewish youth groups that they called “Live and Learn” weekends.
One year, they invited a youth group to join them for a Passover Seder.
“They walked in from a suburb,” shares Mindy Feller, whose women’s group has been meeting since the 1960s. “I don’t know how many miles away it was, but they came.”
Rabbi Dovid Greene, who grew up in Minneapolis and today runs Chabad-Lubavitch of Rochester under the Fellers’ auspices, has known the couple all of his life. His parents were among the first people the Fellers met in town, and he ticks off early memories of the Fellers including Sabbaths in Lake Elmo and staying at their house. He says emphatically that the Fellers helped revolutionize Jewish life in Minnesota.
“It’s not his administrative and organizational capabilities, it’s not his soaring rhetoric or his speaking voice,” Greene says of Moshe Feller. “It’s that the man is just absolutely devoted and you feel a sense of his devotion, and of his love for a fellow Jew.”
Greene also points to a famous story of his father’s first meeting with the rabbi, when Feller stopped the proceedings in order to pray before the time for the afternoon service passed. The incident very much moved Professor Velvl Greene, whose Jewish pride was more of a secular variety. The whole family eventually went on to embrace the religious lifestyle.
“It’s not a performance,” Greene says of authentic Judaism. “It’s a life, and that affects people. The truth counts.”
Michael Sher, of S. Paul, met Rabbi Feller for the first time in 1974 when he needed to borrow some Jewish texts. He remembers being impressed by his kindness and willingness to help. Then, about 10 years back, he started attending the rabbi’s Thursday night Midrash class.
“I’ve been going religiously ever since,” says Sher, who teaches at Metropolitan State University in S. Paul. “I’ve had the good fortune to have many great classes from people who are famous, and as I look back over the classes I’ve taken over the past 50 years. this is the best.”
Boschwitz recalls how, as his business grew throughout Minnesota, he helped the Fellers reach out across the state.
“Chabad was everywhere in Minnesota then, just as it is now everywhere worldwide,” he says, adding that he’s proud to have included his status as a supporter of Chabad-Lubavitch in his biographical sketch in the Congressional directory. “My association with Rabbi and Mrs. Feller has enriched my life, and the life of our family.”