It could be argued the Feller family has Chabad’s mission running through its veins.
Rabbi Yossi Feller’s grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Feller, grew up Orthodox in Minneapolis and, after studying at a Yeshiva in Brooklyn, opened Chabad of Minnesota in 1962. The younger rabbi’s wife, Leah Feller, is the great-granddaughter of Rabbi Sholom Posner, who launched Chabad in Pittsburgh generations ago.
“I’m lucky enough to have been born into a family of Chabad emissaries,” the new Rabbi Feller, who moved recently from Brooklyn to Pittsburgh, said. “I’m a third-generation emissary.”
This, then, might be known as the year Rabbi Yossi Feller blossomed. He is preparing to move up Route 19 to Pittsburgh’s North Hills with his wife, Leah, to launch a new Chabad location in Cranberry Township, Butler County. Though COVID-19 timelines are complicated and difficult to predict, Chabad hopes to have a full-fledged operation up and running in Cranberry by Rosh Hashanah this year.
Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, who heads Chabad of Western Pennsylvania, spoke with the Chronicle about the new location on July 5, which also happened to mark the 93rd anniversary of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn being released from a Soviet prison on charges – and a proposed death sentence – of counter-revolutionary activities.
In the 1940s, Schneersohn brought Chabad from Europe to the United States.
“This is an extension of that,” Rosenfeld said. “Cranberry is a place we don’t have a full Chabad office but we want to help out in every way we can.”
For about the past 10 years, there has been outreach by Chabad to Jews living in the Cranberry area, including lightings of a nine-foot menorah around Hanukkah in the township’s public spaces, Rosenfeld said. Feller said he and his wife, who will be co-directors of Chabad of Cranberry, have been delivering challah and talking extensively with area Jews.
“It’s really exciting to build on this branch to reach out to more people,” Rosenfeld added. “It’s exciting we’ll be there to teach, to help, whatever it takes.”
It’s tough to say how many Jews live in Cranberry. The U.S. Census Bureau does not poll based on religious affiliation. There is no shul in township limits, though some Jewish residents worship at Congregation B’nai Abraham in the City of Butler or across county lines at Beth Samuel Jewish Center in Ambridge.
That doesn’t give Jack Cohen pause.
The president of Butler County’s tourism agency launched a group unofficially nicknamed Cranberry Community Jews about nine years ago. Cohen, a Peabody High School alumnus who moved to Cranberry about 35 or 40 years ago, started the group with childhood friend Michael Berman, whom he met through the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. Today, the group is most active around Jewish holidays.
“The only synagogue in Butler County is in Butler so we thought there were enough Jewish folks here that we could get together,” Cohen told the Chronicle.
Cohen said he has spoken with Fuller and is excited to welcome Chabad to a Pittsburgh suburb where “everything you can imagine is here.”
“Hopefully, we’ll get together and start that conversation – it was always our hope we could establish something out here,” Cohen said. “[Chabad] will be a place where you can learn and gather and meet other folks.”
Chabad is looking for a physical space in Cranberry for offices and programming, according to Feller. He could not cite the percentage of the township’s or the county’s population that identifies as Jewish but stressed that number was relatively unimportant.
“For us, having one Jew is a world,” Feller said. “Rabbi Rosenfeld decided it was necessary to have a Chabad there and I believe him – that’s why we’re here.”
Feller isn’t totally poker-faced about the move, though – he joked some Cranberry residents have expressed anticipation to sample his wife’s home-baked challah. That’s for good reason, Feller said.
“People have been licking their lips,” he laughed.
“It’s exciting to be continuing in the family’s path,” Leah Feller said. “The way I’ve been brought up … is about connecting with those who are building a community where we need one.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.