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Mindelle Feller, 75, Pioneering Educator and Chabad Emissary in Minnesota

Mindelle Feller, 75, Pioneering Educator and Chabad Emissary in Minnesota

She fostered Jewish growth in the Upper Midwest for 56 years with a special sense of caring

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Mindelle Feller with her husband, Rabbi Moshe Feller, and their sons, Rabbi Mendel Feller and Levi Feller, circa 1990.
Mindelle Feller with her husband, Rabbi Moshe Feller, and their sons, Rabbi Mendel Feller and Levi Feller, circa 1990.

Mindelle Feller, one of the first Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in the United States, who pioneered Jewish life in the Upper Midwest area for more than 56 years, passed away on Dec. 6. She was 75 years old.

She was married for barely a month when she and her husband, Rabbi Moshe Feller, set out to found Upper Midwest Merkos–Chabad Lubavitch in Minnesota in the winter of 1961 at the behest of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. It was a mission that would span 10 U.S. presidencies.

“Before my wife and I moved out to Minnesota, we had a private audience with the Rebbe,” recalled her husband, acknowledging that “the Rebbe spoke mostly to my wife.”

Among other things, the Rebbe told Mrs. Feller to involve herself in the mathematics department at the University of Minnesota.

Mindy, as she was known, had graduated from Beis Yaakov in Brooklyn, N.Y., and cum laude Phi Beta Kappa from Hunter College with a degree in mathematics. She had became attracted to Chabad Chassidim as a teen, as did her elder brother, Rabbi Shmuel Lew, a longtime Chabad emissary in London.

Rabbi Moshe and Mindelle Feller in their early years in Minnesota.
Rabbi Moshe and Mindelle Feller in their early years in Minnesota.

Her parents, Dovid and Yenta Lew, lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where Dovid was a Shabbat-observant lawyer. Born in the winter of 1942, she grew up in an atmosphere of Torah, mitzvah observance and devotion to Judaism.

After the Fellers married, they eagerly looked forward to beginning their career together as emissaries of the Rebbe. Since the rabbi had previously found success as a “Roving Rabbi” in Mexico, he expected to be sent there. “The last place in the world I wanted to go was back to Minnesota,” he recalled. “But the Rebbe told us that he wanted us to go there to establish Chabad in the Upper Midwest, and we went with joy.”

Leading, Helping, Serving

At that time, the state had no Jewish day school, no chalav Yisrael dairy and few religiously observant Jews their age, but the Fellers persisted bravely.

The young couple began their work in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, with the firm resolve not to duplicate any of 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 discovered 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.

Feller, left, had a kind word for everyone and always stepped in to help.
Feller, left, had a kind word for everyone and always stepped in to help.

Despite walking in the halls of power (the rabbi 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 their events), locals say the Fellers have remained 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.

An anecdote in The Rebbe’s Army (2003) describes the largess of Mrs. Feller. The author of the book, journalist Sue Fishkoff, was dropped off at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport by Rabbi Moshe Feller after an interview and time spent working in the area. She was headed back to California and realized she’d brought nothing to eat, and after so many hours researching the Chabad movement couldn’t stomach the thought of purchasing non-kosher airport food.

“As I walked back to my gate, I saw Rabbi Feller running around the waiting area, clutching a small brown paper bag to his chest. Seeing me, he ran up and thrust the bag into my hand. ‘I got home, and my wife couldn’t believe I let you go without giving you lunch,’ he apologized. ‘Here, please, you shouldn’t go hungry.’ Inside the bag were neatly wrapped slices of kosher cheese, some bread, a cookie, and a bottle of juice. I almost cried.”

“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. “They cross all barriers, and do whatever they can to be a positive influence and a help to everyone he meets.”

Receiving a dollar from the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
Receiving a dollar from the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

A Focus on Education

In their 56 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 of 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 a 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.

With her candid manner and witty sense of humor, Mindelle Feller was a mother figure to many of the women, often spending hours with them, playing Scrabble and just schmoozing.

Feller was a mother figure to many of the women, often spending hours with them, playing Scrabble and just schmoozing
Feller was a mother figure to many of the women, often spending hours with them, playing Scrabble and just schmoozing

The Beauty of Mikvah

More than a decade later, in 1977, the time came to establish a Chassidic day school in St. Paul. Lubavitch Cheder Day School was born, with Feller serving as founding principal and dean.

Today, the school continues to thrive as a bastion of Jewish education and excellence, enrolling 100 children from ages 16 months through eighth grade, including those at the preschool and day care.

Feller threw herself into encouraging women to embrace the mitzvah of family purity, teaching them about the beauty of mikvah. She became responsible for greeting women at the St. Paul mikvah and guiding them through the immersion process, a duty she undertook with devotion until her health prevented her from attending to the often demanding task. Combining her mathematical acumen with her passion for encouraging the observance, she even created a calendar allowing women to easily calculate their mikvah dates and other information relevant to family purity.

In 2000, Chabad again relocated to a new 23,000-square-foot facility in West St. Paul.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by sons Rabbi Mendel Feller (West St. Paul, Minn.) and Levi Feller (Miami Beach, Fla.).

And in addition to her brother Rabbi Shmuel Lew of London, she is survived by siblings Sara Bleich (Brooklyn, N.Y.); Itty Mendelson (Brooklyn, N.Y.); Rochel Zuckerman (Lakewood, N.J.); Rabbi Chaim Lew (Brooklyn, N.Y.); and Rabbi Luzzy Lew (Lakewood, N.J.). She was predeceased by another brother, Yitzchok Yosef Lew.

The exterior of the Lubavitch Cheder Day School in St. Paul.
The exterior of the Lubavitch Cheder Day School in St. Paul.


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Laurie Savran Minneapolis December 13, 2017

Although this famous event involved Rabbi Feller and Not Mindy, Feller,it must be mentioned how Rabbi Feller approached Sandy Koufax after he famously refused to pitch during the 1965 world series on Yom Kippur and presented him with tefillin for his heroic act which inspires Jews up to this day. Reply

Anonymous Minnesota December 8, 2017

When the Feller's came to Minnesota there was a Jewish Day School already in existence, Torah Academy. One of the founders of that school was Rabbi Moshe Feller's father, Louis Feller. Reply

Jena Morris December 7, 2017

This article doesn’t mention that Mrs. Feller, av”sh, was the co-founder of the much acclaimed Bais Chana Women’s Institute in 1972 (a regretful oversight!) Bais Chana was the first “live and learn” program in the United States for adult Jewish women to study religious Jewish subjects and texts in an intense manner. It has often been said that Rabbi and Mrs. Feller, av”sh, have two sons but thousands of daughters. The Fellers had the honor to walk countless Jewish women down the aisle at their weddings. Reply

Anonymous December 7, 2017
in response to Jena:

You obviously didn't read the article properly, Jena! Reply

Anonymous Minnesota December 10, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

She may have been replying to an earlier version, where there was only a slight mention of Bais Chana.

Besuros Tovos! Reply

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