Can a proud Jew and a pair of tefillin affect the outcome of a World Series game? Rabbi Moshe Feller, director of Chabad Lubavitch of the Upper Midwest and a self-confessed avid baseball fan, believes that it once did. Since then he is on a mission to link Jewish baseball players with the mitzvah of tefillin.
Feller, who is known among his colleagues as the “man who put tefillin on Sandy Koufax,” has been passionate about this idea since his meeting with the baseball hall-of- famer in 1965. Although he has told the story dozens of times and it has been widely circulated in the press, Rabbi Feller’s enthusiasm and obvious delight in the retelling, is as vivid today as it was almost forty years ago.
The 1965 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Minnesota Twins was predicted to be a nail-biter. The Dodger’s ace pitcher, a Jewish boy by the name of Sandy Koufax announced two weeks in advance that he would not pitch in the opening game because it was to be played on Yom Kippur.
The Bronx-born Feller who lives in S. Paul, Minnesota, recalls that “I read this in the papers and I’m stunned. Here’s this nice Jewish boy who ain’t pitching on Yom Kippur even if it’s the first crucial game and–it’s happening in my backyard. I knew enough after being trained by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, to recognize that Divine Providence is trying to tell me something. G-d is telling me to associate Koufax’s left arm with tefillin.”
“I decided I had to go and see him somehow. The day after Yom Kippur (the Dodgers lost) I bought him a special pair of tefillin designed to be worn by a lefty and went to the hotel where he was staying. How do you get in to see the most famous Jew in the U.S. at that time? I used good old-fashioned chutzpah and marched myself up to the desk and said as authoritatively as possible, “I’m Rabbi Moshe Feller of Lubavitch and I’m here to see Mr. Koufax.” Since by that time everyone in the world knew he was Jewish, they just assumed I was his rabbi and connected me to his room.”
“Koufax picks up the phone. He doesn’t know me from Adam, but I’m on a roll. ‘This is Rabbi Feller,’ I say. ‘I represent the Lubavitcher Rebbe and I’m here to present you with a gift because you gave us rabbis a tremendous assist. Because of you, more Jews knew about when Yom Kippur was going to be this year than they do with a calendar. How many Jewish kids didn’t go to school on Yom Kippur because you didn’t pitch? You did an awesome thing.’ And Koufax said, ‘come on up to my room.’”
“My first impression was that he was a very gentle soul. When I gave him the tefillin, and offered to help him wrap them, he seemed genuinely moved and told me he already knows how to put them on. He kept touching the tefillin and I hoped that he would put them on after I left. But I had no way of knowing whether he did. We had a nice visit and just before I left he said, ‘You know rabbi, they made a big fuss that I don’t pitch on Yom Kippur. I don’t pitch on Rosh Hashana either.’”
Feller knew that this encounter would be of interest to the Rebbe, who liked the idea of involving celebrities with mitzvahs in order to make Judaism and the Commandments more visible in the public eye. He immediately wrote a letter to the Rebbe telling him the story.
About a week later, Feller recalls, the Rebbe spoke at a public gathering for the Holiday of Simchat Torah. “The Rebbe talked about me without using my name and roughly translated from the Yiddish, said: A chasid with a beard went, and without asking me, told someone who didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur that he had done a good thing. He then gave him a pair of tefillin that he didn’t put on and he lost the game. But he will put them on.”
“Sure enough, the Dodgers had lost the second game and the score was 2-0 for Minnesota. However, right after that, they won four consecutive games and Koufax became the Most Valuable Player.”
Rabbi Feller also shared the story with the Anglo Jewish paper in his community and it created a lot of good feeling and Jewish pride. “When I saw how many kids loved the story and how thrilled they were that baseball was associated with yiddishkeit, I knew we had a mission and we started to go to the games and seek out the Jewish players. We’ve put tefillin on Mike Epstein of the Oakland Athletics and Ken Holtzman of the New York Yankees.”
More recently, Feller found himself again looking for entrée to meet another Jewish baseball player, Red Sox center-fielder Gabe Kapler. “The editor of the American Jewish World here in Minnesota, Mordechai Spector, promotes a “Jewish Day” at the stadium with proceeds to Jewish charities,” says Feller. “And on August 1st, the Twins were playing the Red Sox. I told Spector ‘we have to get Kapler to put on tefillin.’”
This time however, Feller had a plan. He knew that Kapler’s attorney-agent, Paul Cohen, has strong connections to Chabad of the Valley in California and to its director Rabbi Joshua B. Gordon. Feller put in a call to Gordon who conferenced him with Paul Cohen, and it turned out that the agent had given Gabe Kapler a pair of tefillin himself, a year earlier. “But he gave me Kapler’s cell phone and I set up a meeting with him at Humphrey Stadium before the game.”
“We had a very cordial visit,” said Feller. “I gave him a copy of the book The Rebbe’s Army which I had inscribed.” Feller also gave Kapler his trademark red white and blue patriotic yarmulke as well as a second one for his Jewish teammate, third-baseman Kevin Youkilis. “I also gave him a pushka, a charity coin box and told him to put money in every day except on Shabbat,” said Feller. “He was very warm and appreciative, a real nice guy.”
Paul Cohen, who represents several baseball players, is an observant Jew and lives in Encino, California. “I’ve known Gabe for a number of years,” he says, “and he used to talk to me about his interests and ask me questions about yiddishkeit. Because of my relationship with Rabbi Gordon and Chabad and my tremendous love for the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I knew how important tefillin is to the Jewish male, so I asked Gabe about putting on tefillin and he said he wasn’t ready. About a year later I told him, ‘let’s do this, it will be my gift to you.’ So we went and bought him a pair and Gabe put them on and said the Shema and it really touched him.”
“Gabe is very comfortable with his own Judaism,” says Cohen. As the star attraction every year at the Chabad’s Chanukah celebration at City Walk Universal, Gabe is “having a very positive influence on the kids.”