The Rebbe’s predisposition of positivity was especially present in relation to people who were perceived to be lacking in some way. He would address individuals in challenging situations in a way that, rather than reinforcing their perceived limitations, illuminated their inherent positive potential.

In this chapter, we will explore the Rebbe’s interactions with, and correspondences concerning, people with mental or physical disabilities, including soldiers injured in the course of duty.

Special Children

In 1979, there was a heated debate among public health professionals and politicians regarding the housing and handling of children and adults diagnosed with various mental disabilities. Whereas previously such people had been essentially removed from the public sphere and placed in large, state-run institutions, often functioning in reportedly negligent conditions, a new proposal was being circulated to reintegrate these individuals into their family’s and community’s neighborhoods in a new type of group-home environment.

As a result of this new proposal, there was a large amount of public dialogue surrounding this issue. In the midst of this debate, Robert Wilkes, the director of the Child Development Center at the Coney Island Hospital, wrote to the Rebbe:1 “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.” Specifically, Wilkes wanted to know how he (and we) might “view this issue—that is, caring for individuals who have a disability that requires lifelong care and supervision—from a Jewish perspective.”

This initial query led to a fascinating exchange between Wilkes and the Rebbe. Impressed and inspired by the depth of the Rebbe’s responses to him, Wilkes received approval to invite the Rebbe to address a conference of Jewish health-care, social work, and communal professionals focused specifically on the issues and needs of Jewish children with disabilities. This was possibly, at this point in time according to Wilkes, the first conference of its kind.

The Rebbe was moved by the invitation, and supportive of the goals of the conference. Although he was unable to attend due to the demands of his schedule, he took the time to write an official statement to be shared with the conference.

In this statement, the Rebbe thoughtfully reveals his positive view and approach to the lives and education of people with disabilities. As we will see, these ideas were revolutionary in their time, and despite the advances that have been made in society’s relationship to people with different abilities, they still retain an edge and urgency.

In the late 1970s and into the 80s it was standard to refer to people with disabilities as handicapped or retarded. In fact, the conference itself, organized by leaders in various fields, was officially called, Conference for the Jewish Community on Issues and Needs of Jewish Retarded. Within this context, we must view a tangential sentence in the Rebbe’s letter in order to grasp its paradigm-shifting sensitivity and importance.

After a few introductory remarks, the Rebbe writes:

With regard to “Jewish retarded”—parenthetically, I prefer some such term as “special” people, not simply as a euphemism, but because it would more accurately reflect their situation, especially in view of the fact that in many cases the retardation is limited to the capacity to absorb and assimilate knowledge, while in other areas they may be quite normal or even above average….

Many years later, Wilkes recalled: “It was a fantastic letter. And astoundingly forward thinking. Today we use the terms ‘special education,’ ‘special needs,’ and so forth, but back then the terminology was unheard of…. To the best of my knowledge, ‘special’ was a term the Rebbe coined. I certainly hadn’t heard it before.” Whether the Rebbe actually coined the term “special” or was an exceptionally early adopter is beside the point. This comment, when understood within its historical context, gives us a glimpse into the Rebbe’s ultimate concern and care for the human condition.2

This, in fact, is a direct subversion of the common definition of a disability—a lack. In this single aside, the Rebbe flips this popular misconception on its head: A perceived lack in one capacity suggests a higher capacity in another. A seeming lack in mental acuity or social sensitivity, for example, may imply a heightened spiritual or imaginative capacity.

In another letter, the Rebbe addresses this very point:

To return to the subject of the correspondence, namely, the needs of the special children (or the so-called retarded or developmentally limited, as often spoken of), they are, to be sure, limited in certain areas (and who is not?), but…human experience is replete with examples of individuals who have been severely limited in some aspects, yet they subsequently excelled…in other aspects.

This was the Rebbe’s underlying logic in his viewpoint as revealed in this correspondence—everyone has a unique gift. We should be defined by our personal strengths. It is up to us to recognize and help reveal each individual’s dormant blessings and potential for the good of the world. This applies to everyone.

At the end of this letter, the Rebbe, in characteristic fashion, made one last suggestion to further evolve the overall situation toward the most positive outcome:

I am quite convinced that if a proper system of aptitude tests were instituted to determine the particular skills of our special children at an early age, and if appropriate classes were established to enable them to develop these skills, the results would be enormously gratifying, if not astounding. Needless to say, such an educational method would greatly enhance their self-confidence and general development, not to mention also the fact that it would enable them to make an important contribution to society.

In this last directive, the Rebbe reveals an even deeper level of his vision: We (society) need them (people with disabilities) as much as, if not more, than they need us.

This reversal of social roles and perceived values regarding people with mental disabilities is also echoed in the Rebbe’s interactions with Israeli soldiers who were injured in the line of duty.

Special Forces

In 1976, Joseph Cabiliv joined a group of disabled soldiers on their IDF sponsored tour to America. Since being confined to a wheelchair as a result of the injuries he sustained in the Golan Heights, Joseph had a very difficult time adjusting and reintegrating into society, including in his own community and family.

Whether it was in the awkward or painful visits from friends and family in the hospital following surgery or the uncomfortable avoidance by random people on the street, Joseph was constantly being confronted with society’s inability to deal with the handicapped, even when they were national heroes. In fact, when Joseph encountered other disabled veterans, he found that they shared his experience of alienation and shame as a result of the way people treated them after their disabling injuries. They were viewed as less-than, in constant need of assistance, as no longer useful or capable. The abyss that opened up between them and the rest of society only added insult to their injuries.

Now here they were in New York City, alone together. Upon hearing of their arrival, a Lubavitcher promptly made his way to their hotel to invite them to meet with the Rebbe. The group accepted the invitation, and arrangements were quickly made to transport them to the Rebbe’s headquarters. Soon they found themselves in the large synagogue in the basement of 770 Eastern Parkway.

After they were all seated, the Rebbe entered and greeted them one by one, looking each of them in the eye. According to Joseph,3 “From that terrible day on which I had woken without my legs, I have seen all sorts of things in the eyes of those who looked at me: pain, pity, revulsion, anger. But this was the first time in all those years that I encountered true empathy.” After apologizing to the Israeli group for his Ashkenazic-accented Hebrew, the Rebbe proceeded to deliver a short address, in which he said:4 “If a person has been deprived of a limb or a faculty, this itself indicates that G‑d has given him special powers to overcome the limitations this entails and to surpass the achievements of ordinary people.” He then emphatically added: “You are not ‘disabled’ or ‘handicapped;’ rather, you are special and unique, as you have potential that the rest of us do not possess.”

As the Rebbe made clear on numerous occasions, the idea that G‑d does not give human beings greater challenges than they can handle applies to all of life’s challenges, not just moral and religious ones. Therefore, the greater the challenge one is faced with, the more confidence and support G‑d offers them.

In this case, the Rebbe again turns society’s perceptions upside-down, insisting that far from being “disabled,” these soldiers, as a result of their injuries, were blessed with near super-powers to overcome their obstacles and rise above their seeming limitations. Of course, ultimately, it was up to them to access and activate these energies.

Like Jacob who, after wrestling with the angel, walked away with an injury as well as a new name and mission, these soldiers, according to the Rebbe, were now being called upon—and were given the requisite inner resources—to not just survive their injuries, but to thrive, inspire, and contribute to life in their own way.

“I therefore suggest,” the Rebbe continued, adding with a smile, “—of course it is none of my business, but Jews are famous for voicing opinions on matters that do not concern them—that you should no longer be called Nechei Yisrael (‘the disabled of Israel,’ their official designation by the IDF) but Metzuyanei Yisrael, ‘the Exceptional of Israel.’”

We see here yet again the Rebbe finding in someone’s apparent lack or challenge a unique ability, gift, and opportunity to grow and become more than they, or anyone else, ever thought possible.

This is a clear and moving lesson for each of us, whether we are struggling with disabilities or relating to someone with disabilities. The way you view yourself and others can either reinforce a fixed set of limitations or open up new vistas of limitless potential. Therefore, do not define yourself or others based on your or their lacks or challenges. Each of us is so much more powerful and capable than we could ever imagine. Always choose to see the good and unique potential in everyone, no matter their situation or condition.