The release this week of a series of letters penned by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, has shed new light on the Rebbe's focus on the special qualities of each and every individual.

In the letters – which were published on and deal with how society in general and the Jewish community in particular should approach people with developmental problems – the Rebbe urged health care professionals and families to recognize that, far from suffering from a disability, such individuals possessed unique abilities to grow and affect the world around them.

"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," the Rebbe wrote to Robert Wilkes, assistant program director and chairman for the Region II Council for Mental Retardation in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1979.

Using the common term of the era, Wilkes had inquired about the advisability of establishing group homes for "retarded Jewish children." The Rebbe responded that above all, care must be provided with the knowledge that all individuals were different. Just as important, asserted the Rebbe, was the necessity of recognizing that children with special needs could learn and grow.

"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," the Rebbe wrote in his letter to Wilkes. "This approach should be taken regardless of the pronouncements or prognosis of specialists in the field. … The very confidence that such progress is in the realm of possibility will inspire greater enthusiasm in this work.

"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," the Rebbe continued. "A way can surely be found to avoid raising false hopes, yet giving guarded encouragement."

Although in his letter to Wilkes, the Rebbe employed Wilkes' same terminology in referring to those with developmental disorders, in a letter addressed to a Jewish community conference on the subject, the Rebbe opted for a more positive label.

"I prefer such term as 'special' people, not simply as a euphemism, but because it would more accurately reflect their situation," the Rebbe wrote, "especially in view of the fact that in many cases retardation is limited to the capacity to absorb and assimilate knowledge, while in other areas they may be quite normal or even above average."

Until this week, the existence of the letters was known only to those dealing with the developmentally disabled. Amounting to just five pages of text, copies of the correspondence were passed around Jewish social workers and activists.

Bassie Shemtov, co-director with husband Rabbi Levi Shemtov, of the Friendship Circle – a Chabad-Lubavitch initiative based in suburban Detroit that pairs teenage volunteers with children with special needs – said that the Rebbe's views on the subject was a major factor in the establishment of her organization.

"We saw that there were thousands of families," said Shemtov, "who were feeling isolated from the community because they had a child with special needs."

Today, the Friendship Circle manages a network of nearly 100 programs based in Jewish communities throughout the world. Its flagship facility boasts a life-size mockup of a town square that assists children with special needs learn how to function independently in society.

"The Rebbe's approach," said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, co-director of the Friendship Circle of Metro West in New Jersey, "is all about inclusion: giving these children the same opportunities, both physically and spirituality, as other children."

A Part of the Jewish Community

Wesley Baer, left, who despite having Down syndrome completed a year of studying Hebrew, Jewish history and Judaism with Rabbi Yitzchok Magalnic , co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Palos Verdes, Calif., recites the blessings over the Torah at his bar mitzvah.
Wesley Baer, left, who despite having Down syndrome completed a year of studying Hebrew, Jewish history and Judaism with Rabbi Yitzchok Magalnic , co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Palos Verdes, Calif., recites the blessings over the Torah at his bar mitzvah.

In his letters, the Rebbe was adamant that special education curriculums for Jewish students include Jewish instruction. In 1989, when the family of an autistic child came to see him during his Sunday distribution of dollar bills to be given to charity, the Rebbe emphasized that strengthening the child's Jewish identity be a top priority.

"Does he have a charity box in his room?" the Rebbe asked the parents, before suggesting to them that its presence would be to their son's advantage.

In the encounter, a transcript of which was provided by Jewish Educational Media (JEM), the Rebbe explained to the parents that when one is handicapped in one area, he or she excels in another area. While their son may not communicate well with human beings, the Rebbe told the parents, his connection to G‑d was like that of everyone else, maybe to an even greater degree.

In his correspondence with Wilkes, he expanded on the idea even more.

"If the child is involved in Jewish education and activities," he wrote, "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 anchor to hold on to, whether consciously or subconsciously."

Dr. Reuven Feuerstein, a psychiatrist who developed the theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability – which holds that every individual holds an innate capacity to adapt to their surroundings through cognitive mediation – said that the Rebbe's views greatly influenced his approach.

"The Rebbe ingrained in me the belief in the power of a human being to encompass a world of possibilities," Feuerstein said in Hebrew. "Throughout the years, the Rebbe would send me patients that I thought of as incurable. The Rebbe encouraged me to take them on and constantly reminded me that every individual should be given the opportunity to be cured."