“Educate a child according to his way; even when he grows old, he will not turn away from it.”

Proverbs 22:6

Cantor Joseph Malovany has dazzled audiences with his musical talents for almost his entire life.

As a young boy growing up in Tel Aviv, his parents notice his gifts and bring him to the Israel Conservatory of Music for an assessment. “You must give him a strong musical education,” the heads of the Conservatory tell his parents. “It would be a sin not to.”

So they do.

The Malovanys are poor. The family of five lives in a cramped, one-and-a-half bedroom apartment. There is no extra money, certainly not to purchase a piano. So Joseph’s mother sells her wedding ring and uses that money to purchase a piano. Then they make space in their tiny home for the piano.

These are the humble beginnings of Cantor Malovany’s illustrious musical career.

He studies under skilled musical instructors, practices piano religiously, and receives liturgic training from some of the great cantors in Tel Aviv.

By the age of nine he is leading a portion of the Friday night services in Tel Aviv’s beautiful Bilu Synagogue. At twelve, he is conducting the High Holiday choir.

At nineteen, while still serving in the Israeli army, he is offered his first position outside of Israel: to be lead cantor at Yeoville Synagogue in Johannesburg, South Africa. When his army service is complete, he accepts the offer.

Cantor Malovany and his wife Beatrice have their first son, Zevi.

Zevi, they soon discover, is severely autistic.

Cantor Malovany is a dynamic and inspiring cantor, a generational talent, and soon he is offered the position of cantor at the prestigious Edgeware Synagogue in London, the largest synagogue in the British Isles. The Malovanys move to London in 1968.

In 1973, New York’s famed Fifth Avenue Synagogue comes knocking. Enthralled by his beautiful spinto tenor voice, they want him to be their chief cantor. He accepts their offer, and the Malovanys move to New York City.

But Zevi remains in London.

Zevi is receiving specialized care in a Jewish institution geared for people with developmental disabilities. His parents feel that it will be best for him if he stays in London. With a heavy heart, they keep him there.

The years go by. Cantor Malovany’s fame and reputation grows. As one of the top cantors in the world, he is much sought-after, performing internationally in concerts and inspiring many tens of thousands of people with traditional Jewish song and liturgy.

Despite all of his professional success, Cantor Malovany’s heart aches for Zevi. He and his wife visit Zevi regularly in London, and they are keenly aware of his condition. They seek a blessing for him.

In 1989, they get an opportunity to receive a blessing from the Rebbe.

Starting three years earlier, the Rebbe has opened a weekly receiving line to the public, known in Chabad circles simply as “Sunday Dollars.” It is no longer feasible for the Rebbe to conduct sit-down sessions with everyone who would like to meet with him. So now, each Sunday, the Rebbe stands near his office and personally greets thousands of people from all walks of life—young and old, men, women, and children, Jew and gentile alike—and gives them a blessing and a dollar bill to give to charity.

At “Sunday Dollars” people have the opportunity to make a request from the Rebbe and receive a specialized blessing. Given the sheer size of the line and the number of people waiting to see the Rebbe, requests, understandably, must be brief.

On Sunday, December 10, 1989, Cantor Malovany, his wife Beatrice, and their younger son Ellis wait in line to spend a moment with the Rebbe.

The moment arrives.

The Rebbe begins by praising Cantor Malovany for using his gifted voice in the service of G‑d, and in inspiring the hearts of the congregation. The conversation then turns to a more personal nature, with the Rebbe inquiring about Cantor Malovany’s family.

After introducing his wife and younger son and receiving the Rebbe’s blessings for them, Cantor Malovany asks for a blessing for his older son Zevi.

“We have another son, who, unfortunately, is not well. He is autistic. He needs a blessing.”

The Rebbe responds by lovingly offering that although autistic people might experience challenges in interpersonal relationships, they can relate very closely to G‑d.

“While they’re not busy with people, they’re busy with G‑d.”

The Rebbe suggests that Zevi has a deep spiritual and Jewish connection. A connection that ought to be nurtured.

This rings true. Zevi has, after all, responded well to Jewish practices in the past. Cantor Malovany tells the Rebbe that Zevi has expressed excitement when being taught to recite a blessing over food, and he treasures his tzitzit.

“Does he have a tzedakah box in his room?” the Rebbe asks.


“You can put one in there. The facility won’t mind—charity is something everyone allows. It will benefit him, and when people visit him, he’ll remind them that they must give charity.”

Cantor Malovany nods in agreement. He tells the Rebbe that he and his wife will be visiting Zevi in London soon. They will see to it that this happens.

Looking back, this would prove to be a transformational moment.

Two and a half years later, in June of 1991, Cantor Malovany and his wife are once again standing before the Rebbe at “Sunday Dollars.” This time, they wish to share some good news.

Cantor Malovany recalls their previous conversation and tells the Rebbe that he has seen to it that Zevi has a tzedakah box in his room.

Zevi has responded positively to this and has experienced intellectual and developmental improvements. “He understands what he’s told, he moves around more. He’s a bit more responsive.”

The Rebbe gives a dollar bill to Cantor Malovany. “Send this dollar to the administration and ask them to place it in the tzedakah box in his room.” Then he hands another dollar bill to Beatrice.

“This is for your son.”

There are some who perceive Judaism to be exclusive and exclusionary. They see a divide between scholar and layman, between so-called “religious” and “secular.” From this way of looking at things, fragmentation within the Jewish community is an inevitability.

But the Rebbe saw a different reality.

The Rebbe fiercely endeavored throughout his four decades of leadership to erase this perceived divide and to heal and unify communities.

In essence, the Rebbe sought to realize the democratization of Judaism.

Jewish study and practice, the Rebbe taught, are not the exclusive domain of Torah scholars or the self-proclaimed “religious.” Rather, they are the eternal birthright of every single Jew.

Without exception.

This radical approach to Judaism applies equally to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Rebbe advocated that Jewish study and practice opportunities be afforded to all, irrespective of perceived ability.

Inclusion means not just that everyone has a place within the community, but that everyone has a place Jewishly.

In the Rebbe’s conception, disability inclusion is not distinct and separate from Jewish inclusion. The two must go hand in hand.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Rebbe’s message to Cantor Malovany was that he should nurture his son’s Jewish connection and teach him to be a Jewish ambassador, sharing his love and value of mitzvot with others.

This would not only positively affect Zevi’s spiritual health, it would also improve his physical health.

Indeed, Zevi’s overall situation improved as his Jewish connection became nurtured.

Just as the Rebbe had foretold to Dr. Wilkes ten years earlier.

Ten years prior to his first encounter with the Malovanys, in his August 1979 letter to Dr. Wilkes, the Rebbe articulated his position that the Jewish needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities must be tended to, through Jewish education and encouragement of mitzvah observance.

Doing so is not only consistent with the goal of Jewish inclusion, explained the Rebbe. It also greatly benefits the recipient, in real and tangible ways.

“There is surely no need to emphasize at length that, as in all cases involving Jews, their specific Jewish needs must be taken 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.

“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 mitzvot, 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.”

In his November 1980 letter written in conjunction with the Conference for the Jewish Community on Issues and Needs of Jewish Retarded, the Rebbe once again called for Jewish inclusion, and spelled out the practical benefits of such an approach.

“Jewish survival depends on the kind of education that develops and nourishes Jewish identity in the fullest measure. And this must surely be the highest priority of all communal services.

“With regard to Jewish retarded… the Jewish identity factor is even more important, not only per se but also for its therapeutic value. The actual practice of mitzvot in the everyday life provides a tangible way by which these special people of all ages can, despite their handicap, identify with their families and with other fellow Jews in their surroundings, and generally keep in touch with reality. Even if mentally they may not fully grasp the meaning of these rituals, subconsciously they are bound to feel at home in such an environment, and in many cases could participate in such activities also on the conscious level.

“To cite one striking example from actual experience during the Festival of Succos this year. As is well known, Lubavitch activists on this occasion reach out to many Jews with Lulov and Esrog, bringing to them the spirit of the Season of Our Rejoicing. This year being a year of Hakhel, I urged my followers to extend this activity as much as possible, to include also Nursing Homes and Senior Citizens’ Hotels, as well as other institutions. I was asked, what should be the attitude and approach to persons who are senile or confused, etc. I replied—all the more reason to reach out to them in this tangible way. Well, the reports were profoundly gratifying. Doctors and nurses were astonished to see such a transformation: Persons who had spent countless days in silent immobility, deeply depressed and oblivious to everything around them, the moment they saw a young man walk in with a Lulav and Esrog in his hand suddenly displayed a lively interest, eagerly, grasped the proffered Mitzvah-objects, some of them reciting the blessings from memory, without prompting. The joy in their hearts shone through their faces, which had not known a smile all too long.

“One need not look for a mystical explanation of this reaction. Understandably, the sight of something so tangible and clearly associated with the joy of Succos evidently touched and unlocked vivid recollections of experiences that had permeated them in earlier years.

“If there is much that can be done along these lines for adult and senior Jews in special situations, how much more so in regard to special children, when every additional benefit, however seemingly small, in their formative years will be compounded many times over as they grow older. In their case it is even more important to bear in mind that while they may be handicapped in their mental and intellectual capacity, and indeed because of it, every possible emphasis should be placed on the tangible and audio-visual aspects of Jewish education in terms of the actual practice of mitzvot and religious observances—as I have discussed this and related aspects at greater length in my correspondence with Dr. R. Wilkes of the Coney Island Hospital.

“There is surely no need to elaborate on all above to the participants in the Conference, whose Rabbinic, academic, and professional qualifications in the field of Jewish Education and social services makes them highly sensitive to the problems at hand. I hope and pray that the basic points herein made will serve as guidelines to focus attention on the cardinal issues, and that this Conference will, as mentioned earlier, mark a turning point in attitude, and even more importantly in action vis-a-vis Jewish Education, long overdue.”

The implications of the Rebbe’s call for Jewish inclusion are staggering and inspiring.

Jewish schools are to provide education to all Jewish children.

Synagogues are to accommodate all Jews.

Jewish community events and celebrations are to be open and accessible to every Jew in the community.

This, of course, raises all sorts of pragmatic concerns.

For a Jewish school to adequately educate all children, including those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the school will require additional staffing, additional training, and modified facilities—all of which require additional funding.

The Rebbe anticipated these challenges and preempted them in his 1979 letter to Dr. Wilkes:

“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.”

In his public letters and in private correspondence, the Rebbe emphasized time and again that we must see to it that we tend to the Jewish needs of every single Jew, without exception. That we implement inclusive solutions that speak to the entire Jewish community.

Judaism must be made accessible for all Jews. Jewish inclusion is our most basic mandate as a people.

An excerpt from “Inclusion and the Power of the Individual in the Teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” published by Ezra Press in cooperation with the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative, a project of Machne Israel.