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Jewish Education for Kids with Special Needs

Jewish Education for Kids with Special Needs


Editor’s note: This letter is one of a four-part correspondence, in which the term “retarded” is often used. However, in a letter to participants in a conference on the “Issues and Needs of Jewish Retarded,” the Rebbe expressed his view that this was an improper characterization, and that he much preferred the term “special.”

By the Grace of G‑d
22 Av, 5739
[August 15, 1979]
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Mr. R. Wilkes, Asst. Program Director/
Chairman, Region 11 Council For Mental Retardation
Coney Island Hospital
260l Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11235

Greeting and Blessing:

This is in reply to your letter of Aug. 9, in which you ask for my views on “the care and education of Jewish retarded children,” outlining some of the problems connected therewith and prevailing policies, etc.

I must, first of all, make one essential observation, namely, that while the above heading places all the retarded in one group, it would be a gross fallacy to come up with any rules to be applied to all of them as a group. For if any child requires an individual evaluation and approach in order to achieve the utmost in his, or her, development, how much more so in the case of the handicapped.

For if any child requires an individual evaluation and approach in order to achieve the utmost in his, or her, development, how much more so in the case of the handicapped.

Since the above is so obvious, I assume that you have in mind the most general guidelines, with a wide range of flexibility allowing for the necessary individual approach in each case. All the more so, since, sad to say, our present society is poorly equipped in terms of manpower and financial resources to afford an adequate personal approach to each handicapped boy and girl. Even more regrettable is the fact that little attention (at any rate little in relation to the importance of the problem) is given to this situation, and consequently little is done to mobilize more adequate resources to deal with the problem.

Now, with regard to general guidelines, I would suggest the following:

(l) The social worker, or teacher, and anyone dealing with retarded individuals should start from the basic premise that the retardation is in each case only a temporary handicap, and that in due course it could certainly be improved, and even improved substantially. This approach should be taken regardless of the pronouncements or prognosis of specialists in the field. The reason for this approach is, first of all, that it is a precondition for greater success in dealing with the retarded. Besides, considering the enormous strides that have been made in medical science, human knowledge, methodology, and know-how, there is no doubt that in this area, too, there will be far-reaching developments. Thus, the very confidence that such progress is in the realm of possibility will inspire greater enthusiasm in this work, and hopefully will also stimulate more intensive research.

(2) Just as the said approach is important from the viewpoint of and for the worker and educator, so it is important that the trainees themselves should be encouraged both by word and the manner of their training to feel confident that they are not, G‑d forbid, “cases,” much less unfortunate or hopeless cases, but that their difficulty is considered, as above, only temporary, and that with a concerted effort of instructor and trainee the desired improvement could be speeded and enhanced.

(3) Needless to say, care should be taken not to exaggerate expectations through far-fetched promises, for false hopes inevitably result in deep disenchantment, loss of credibility and other undesirable effects. However, a way can surely be found to avoid raising false hopes, yet giving guarded encouragement.

(4) As part of the above approach, which as far as I know has not been used before, is to involve (some of) the trainees in some form of leadership, such as captains of teams, group leaders, and the like, without arousing the jealousy of the others. The latter could be avoided by making such selections on the basis of seniority, special achievement, exemplary conduct, etc.

(5) With regard to the efforts which have been made in recent years to create “group homes” for retarded individuals, which, as you say, has been a source of controversy it is to be expected that, as in most things in our imperfect world, there are pros and cons. However, I believe that the approach should be the same as in the case of all pupils or students who spend part of their time in group environments: school, dormitory, summer camp, etc., and part of their time in the midst of their families, whether every day, or at weekends, etc. Only by individual approach and evaluation can it be determined which individual fits into which category.

(6) There is surely no need to emphasize at length that, as in all cases involving Jews, their specific Jewish needs must betaken into account. This is particularly true in the case of retarded Jewish children, yet all too often disregarded. There is unfortunately a prevalent misconception that since you are dealing with retarded children, having more limited capabilities, they should not be “burdened” with Jewish education on top of their general education, so as not to overtax them. In my opinion this is a fallacious and detrimental attitude, especially in light of what has been said above about the need to avoid impressing the child with his handicap. Be it remembered that a child coming from a Jewish home probably has brothers and sisters, or cousins and friends, who receive a Jewish education and are exposed to Jewish observances. Even in the American society, where observant Jews are not yet in the majority, there is always some measure of Jewish experience, or Jewish angle, in the child’s background. Now therefore, if the retarded child sees or feels that he has been singled out and removed from that experience, or when he will eventually find out that he is Jewish, yet deprived of his Jewish identity and heritage, it is very likely to cause irreparable damage to him.

The trainees themselves should be encouraged both by word and the manner of their training to feel confident that they are not, G‑d forbid, “cases”

On the other hand, if the child is involved in Jewish education and activities, and not in some general and peripheral way, but in a regular and tangible way, such as in the actual performance of Mitzvos, customs and traditions, it would give him a sense of belonging and attachment, and a firm anchorage to hold on to, whether consciously or subconsciously. Eventually even a subconscious feeling of inner security would pass into the conscious state, especially if the teacher will endeavor to cultivate and fortify this feeling.

I am, of course, aware of the arguments that may be put forth in regard to this idea, namely, that it would require additional funding, qualified personnel, etc., not readily available at present. To be sure, these are arguments that have a basis in fact as things now stand. However, the real problem is not so much the lack of resources as the prevailing attitude that considers the Jewish angle as of secondary importance, or less; consequently the effort to remedy the situation is commensurate, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy. The truth of the matter is that if the importance of it would be seen in its true light that it is an essential factor in the development of the retarded Jewish child, in addition to our elementary obligation to all Jewish children without exception, the results would be quite different.

Perhaps all the aforesaid is not what you had in mind in soliciting my views on “group homes.” Nevertheless, I was impelled to dwell on the subject at some length, not only because it had to be said, but also because it may serve as a basis for solving the controversy surrounding the creation of “group homes” for those children who are presently placed in an environment often quite distant from the individual’s home and community, to paraphrase your statement.

Finally a concluding remark relating to your laudatory reference to the Lubavitch movement, “with its deep concern for every Jewish individual’s welfare,” etc.

Needless to say, such appreciation is very gratifying, but I must confess and emphasize that this is not an original Lubavitch idea, for it is basic to Torah Judaism. Thus, our Sages of old declared that ve’ohavto lere’acho ko’mocho (“Love your fellow as yourself”) is the Great Principle of our Torah, with the accent on “as yourself,” since every person surely has a very special, personal approach to himself. To the credit of the Lubavitch emissaries it may be said, however, that they are doing all they can to implement and live by this Golden Rule of the Torah, and doing it untiringly and enthusiastically.

May the Zechus Horabbim, the merit of the many who benefit from your sincere efforts to help them in their need, especially in your capacity as Regional Chairman of the Council For Mental Retardation, stand you in good stead to succeed in the fullest measure and stimulate your dedication for even greater achievements.

With esteem and blessing,

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Jeremy McCandlish Pittsburgh, PA April 10, 2016

Very good, Eric. I felt the need to share it elsewhere...I hope that's OK. Reply

Eric Sander Kingston CA January 30, 2013

A Life of Love - we see people by the way WE ARE, not the way THEY ARE. For Lucy May

There is no handicap in anything that loves
they say what we do below, effects stars above
sometimes life's a test, sometimes it's gentle as a dove
but there is no handicap within our acts of love

What see WITHIN, is the way things truly are
we see the light above, but it's the fire of the stars
when we hold another's hand it's the touching of the heart
there is no handicap when love holds all parts

Yes we can learn to love from those needing us here
because maybe we need them to keep our life's perspective clear
and only by giving of ourselves do we understand the lights above
handicap is an illusion within the perfect heart that loves

We can't know the reason for all of this life's pain
or why we are the ones to hold the burden of hardships reign
but we must remember, on earth, as up above
there is no handicap when your life's filled with love
within our every action we create worlds dreamed of
because there is no handicap in a life that has love

Eric Sander Kingston Reply

Anonymous January 29, 2013

In response to James. Your comment to mr. Wilkes was beautifully written and interpreted from your heart. I had hoped by 2013 that the R word would be extinct but you and I know sadly that it will never go away any further than the N word. We can only hope for continued enlightenment and education for those who do not live daily with either label.
I agree that ever Jewish child can in someway be exposed to their spiritual birth right. And believe the Chabad community is involved with a strong sense of commitment and evolution to that end.
Special people are those who advocate, train, mobolize, participate, etc in the fight for the rights of others who's voices can not be heard. You are a special person, helping special people. THANK YOU. Reply

Anonymous January 29, 2013

Handicap children in Israel Thank you for this article. Sara Yoheved Rigler wrote a very good book entitled "Holy Woman" that speaks of a woman who gave her life selflessly to caring for these kinds of children most of her life... She elevated them ... and helped others to see how to do it also... Very good book... The lady she speaks of in the book is such a good example to all of us...

It takes a person who is committed to do HaShem's Work with these very special needs children. THEY need people who will care for them physically and emotionally... elevating them to HaShem.

Thank you for this article...very inspiring... Maybe this type of care and homes have already come to Israel for these special people, but if not... may they come soon!! Reply

Harleen January 18, 2013

Your words are very useful and hit the spot, even if I'm not Jewish. May I use your words and format and adjust it to fit my sibling and distribute it to those who work with her? I would be most grateful. Reply

James January 18, 2013

Special Needs Children Mr R. Wilkes,
On reading this statement I must admit that your descriptive pronunciation of these special children i.e.; retarded cuts deep into my heart due to the fact that I am a carer for such children. Whilst it is easy for us to be so descriptive and categorise such diverse needs I feel that people must realise that deep in the hearts of all these children there is a character which is unique to them as much as your character is unique to you.
Their condition to them is as normal as your condition is to you, the fact that their need is greater should not be categorised as retarded in anyway whatsoever.
You know when you work with them and understand them as much as I do, they become normal, I don’t see them as any different as I would see you, I speak to them just as I would speak to any other person, that’s what makes them feel appreciated, loved.
I agree with the statement that Jewish children must not lose the cultural aspect of Jewish life which has been passed down for generations and that all mitzvos should be a high priority.
Well done these topics are not usually spoken of, it’s good to hear.
May Hashem bring you great blessing for all your work. Reply