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First Letter From Dr. Robert Wilkes

First Letter From Dr. Robert Wilkes

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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.”

Coney Island Hospital
2601 Ocean Parkway • Brooklyn, New York 11235 • 212-743-4100
Child Development Center
August 9, 1979

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Lubovitcher Rebbe
770 Eastern Parkway
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11213

Dear Rabbi Schneerson:

As a Jewish social worker and the chairman of Region II Council For Mental Retardation in Brooklyn, I would be most interested in learning what your views are regarding “the care and education of Jewish retarded individuals”—those persons who, from birth, are slow in thinking, speaking and learning.

The question is: how do we protect and safeguard all of our Jewish children—the retarded and the non-retarded—so that they can have the opportunity to grow, to develop, and to live “Jewishly”?

For many years, the retarded individual, especially the severely retarded, was placed in a large, state-operated institution, often quite a distance from the individual’s home and community. During the past few years, efforts have been made to create “group homes” in all our neighborhoods throughout the city so that parents who cannot continue to care for their retarded sons or daughters have the choice of placing their child in a small, home-like setting: situated either within or nearby the individual’s community.

This policy of creating “group homes” for the retarded—Jewish as well as non-Jewish—has been a source of controversy and often bitter opposition pitting parent against parent, neighbor against neighbor, and political leaders against one another. The basis for these heated discussions include predictions about lowering the economic value of homes in a community; fear that retarded individuals will commit vandalism or, even worse, commit crimes; and that the retarded themselves will feel uncomfortable surrounded by normal people. On the other hand, parents of the retarded want their children to live in a safe and healthy environment.

How may we view this issue—that is, caring for individuals who have a disability which requires life-long care and supervision—from a Jewish perspective? As a concerned Jew, I care very much about our Jewish community: how we treat one another and how we conduct ourselves as human beings. I am particularly interested in your comments and opinions, because the Lubavitcher movement, with its deep concern for every Jewish individual’s welfare, has added a spiritual dimension—a spark—to all our lives!

As a married man with—thank G‑d—two beautiful, healthy children (ages 2 and 5), I am also aware that there has to be an equal concern for both the individual as well as for one’s total community. The question is: how do we protect and safeguard all of our Jewish children—the retarded and the non-retarded—so that they can have the opportunity to grow, to develop, and to live “Jewishly”?

I would also welcome the opportunity to discuss any of the above with you or your representatives. Thank you for your cooperation.

Respectfully yours,

Robert Wilkes,
Assistant Program Director/
Chairman, Region 11 Council For Mental Retardation

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