On Judaism and People With Disabilities

The following is a correspondence of the Rebbe, and Dr. Robert Wilkes, at the time director of the Child Development Center at the Coney Island Hospital, on the subject of assisting people with special needs.

In the initial stages of the correspondence, the term “retarded” is often used. However, in a letter to participants in a conference on the “Issues and Needs of Jewish Retarded,” (brought below), the Rebbe expressed his view that this was an improper characterization, and that he much preferred the term “special.”

First Letter From Dr. Robert Wilkes to the Rebbe

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.

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

First Letter From The Rebbe to Dr. Robert Wilkes
Jewish Education for Kids with Special Needs

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.

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 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 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,


Second Letter From Dr. Robert Wilkes to the Rebbe

There was a second letter from Dr. Robert Wilkes to the Rebbe dated September 19, 1979 as referenced in this letter from the Rebbe to Dr. Wilkes.

At the time of publication, this letter was missing and was therefore not available for publication.

Second Letter From The Rebbe to Dr. Robert Wilkes
Special Children and Shabbat

By the Grace of G‑d
13 Tishrei, 5740
Brooklyn, N. Y.

Dr. R. Wilkes, DSW
Chairman, Region-II Council for Mental Retardation
Coney Island Hospital
Brooklyn, N. Y.

Greeting and Blessing:

Because of the intervening High Holidays, my acknowledgment of your letter of Sept. 19th has been somewhat delayed.

Of course you have my permission to disseminate my letter, if it can serve a purpose in promoting the cause of education in general, and of the “special children” in particular. Indeed, since every child is special and deserves special attention, how much more so those who are “slower” than others.

However, if the letter is to be disseminated, an important reservation must be added, which though self evident to a person like yourself, may not be self evident to others, and therefore must be clearly stated to them. hence was not mentioned ·in my letter to you.

It is that in all that has been said in regard to Jewish children - it is first necessary the requirement of the Halacha in regards to these children - depending on their age and ‘their level of’ comprehension to make sure that the facilities meet these requirements in terms of Kashrus, Shabbos, Tefillin. etc.

To add a timely note appropos of the New Year, which is a “Seventh Year, a Year of Shemittah” (Sabbatical Year), and also began on the day of the holy Sabbath, the main characteristic of the Sabbath day is that it is a day of “delight” (Oneg) for young and old, as it is written, “You shall call the Sabbath a delight,” which, by extension, also characterizes the entire New Year.

Hence, if there are children and adults who, for whatever reason, are in a situation which precludes them from enjoying the “Sabbath” delight, it behooves anyone who becomes aware of this to do everything possible to enable them to participate in this delightful experience. The fact that the knowledge of the existing situation has reached certain organizations and individuals - and everything is by Divine Providence, is a further indication that they are in a position to act on this knowledge. Should there be any difficulties, even real ones and not exaggerated or imagined, it only means that they have commensurate capacities to overcome them, For as with all Divine commandments, the obligation is given together with the capacity to carry it out,

Thus, in the final analysis, it is largely a matter of persona, will and determination. With esteem and blessing of Chag Someiach,

P.S. I take the liberty of enclosing a copy of my New Year message, in which the significance of the New Year, 5740 as a “Year of Sabbath” is more fully discussed.

P.P.S. I note in the zerox copy of my letter, which you enclosed with yours, that the word “yet” - added by hand (P, 2, 8 line from bottom), as well as the line underscoring the word “tangible” (Beg . P. 3) does not appear clear, No doubt this will be rectified in the other copies.

Third Letter From The Rebbe to Dr. Robert Wilkes
Request for Update

By the Grace of G‑d
2nd of Shevat, 5740
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Dr. R. Wilkens, DSW
Chairman, Region II Council for Mental Retardation
Coney Island Hospital
2601 Ocean Pkway.
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11235

Greetings and Blessings

Since our exchange of correspondence some months ago, I have not heard from you.

I am interested to know if there have been any developments in regard to the subject matter of our correspondence, and, if so, would appreciate your letting me know about it.

With all good wishes, and

With blessing,

Third Letter From Dr. Robert Wilkes to the Rebbe

February 19, 1980

Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
770 Eastern Parkway N.Y. 11213

Dear Rabbi Schneerson:

In a rather short period of time (since we last exchanged letters) there have been a number of exciting developments such as additional services being created for the Jewish retarded individual but-at the same time - some new developments which may in the long run prove detrimental to our objective of giving “special” care to the needs of the Jewish retardate and his/her family. Before I list and explain some of these exciting and positive developments as well as some of the more ominous concerns, I want to let you know that I did make the effort to write you again but my letter probably never reached you (attached is a copy of my letter dated 9/19/79). Although I have shown your statement to many different people (Jewish as well as non-Jewish), I have not sent it to any publications because I wanted to first get your written authorization.

A few weeks ago I received a call from a columnist from the Jewish Press - who I believe writes a weekly column called “Challenge” - who wanted to publish your letter (I forgot to ask him how he got hold of it). I informed him that, since I hadn’t received your permission, he should first get in touch with you. Let me say this: by your letter appearing in the Jewish Press, which has a rather larger readership, it would give many families with handicapped children a tremendous feeling of comfort and support. And families with retarded children need all the support they can get just to “keep going” from day to day!

What are some of the exciting new developments? Federation of Jewish Philanthropies has decided to expand, on a full-time basis, their religious/cultural program started by a young, dynamic, and very competent orthodox Rabbi (Martin Schloss). Rabbi Schloss and his dedicated staff assist Jewish men and women, many of whom are severely retarded, in Jewish living - e.g. celebrating Chanukah by lighting the menorah, singing Chanukah songs, learning how to cook special holiday dishes. To Rabbi Schloss’ credit he includes in his activities not only the retarded individual but their families. His program was only a few weeks in existence when it spread like wild fire throughout the city that ‘finally’ there is a Rabbi who loves the retarded and who wants to give them an opportunity to experience Yiddishkeit.

At about the same time Rabbi Schloss was demonstrating the need for a religious program, three Jewish orthodox mothers of retarded children (Mrs. R. Feinerman, Mrs. P, Gaffney, Mrs. T. Stone) began to organize other orthodox mothers with retarded children. The response to their request for a meeting was overwhelming. They received hundreds of phone calls from Jewish mothers throughout the city and even from other states: all of whom had one thing in common: the desire to see our Jewish community to do more for its developmentally handicapped children (retarded, epileptic, cerebral palsy, brain injured, autistic). They have had two or three meetings. I have sent them some material including your letter. What these mothers find most frustrating and anguishing is that they would like to see their children in a “Yeshiva” learning Chanukah songs rather than Christmas carols. Even more heartbreaking is the fact that some prominent orthodox Rabbis have publicly made extremely insensitive remarks about the retarded.

Another positive development is that Federation of Jewish Philanthropies (I have had meetings with Rabbi I. Trainin and Rabbi S. Sharfman) will soon distribute a new brochure that lists all of its services for the Jewish retarded individual and his family. For some time many Jewish families were under the impression that Federation had nothing to offer their developmentally handicapped children. In addition, Rabbis Sharfman and Trainin expressed interest in sponsoring a major conference on the Jewish retarded child so that perhaps for the first time we can publicly acknowledge that our Jewish community has retarded children who need all of our help.

What are some of the more ominous developments? Throughout the city there will be an increasing push to create small community group homes for the retarded. There is a legal document referred to as the “Willowbrook Consent Decree” which stipulates that by 1981 a certain number (in the thousands) of retarded individuals must be living in these community residences throughout New York City. It is a good decree because it will give many retarded people a chance to live, hopefully, like a human being.

In Brooklyn, where there are already about 35-40 group homes in operation, 47 more such residences (under the sponsorship of private, voluntary agencies) will be opening within a year. About 20 additional homes will be sponsored by the state — in all likelihood, the state will care for nonambulatory, multihandicapped individual. From what I have recently learned, neighborhoods such a.s Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay which have either none or very few community residences for the retarded will begin to feel rather heavy pressure to open community homes (usually from 8 - 10 residents per/home) in their respective areas.

What is ominous is the fact that whereas previously Jewish agencies could recruit Jewish clients, the pressure to create more and more community residences within a fixed time period has allowed state officials to “pre-select” which clients are to be chosen for any given residence. In other words, private, voluntary agencies are finding that, if they want to obtain funds to operate a community residence for the retarded, they must “accept” the clients chosen by the state authorities. I have attempted without success to call Sanford Solender, Executive Vice-President of Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, to alert him to this new development so that he can use whatever political connections he has available to him to express his Jewish agencies not be prevented from serving primarily Jewish retarded individuals. Only Jewish agencies have Kosher Kitchens in their community residences.

There are so many things I want to write about - I am afraid of turning this letter into a lengthy essay. Another development which is ominous but regretfully not new is the fact that many Hebrew Day Schools “test” children with I.Q. tests to determine if this or that child has the intellectual ability to be enrolled in their school. If the answer is “no”, then the parents have to “shop” around for another Yeshiva - which may also have a policy of testing children prior to enrollment. Although I am not against psychological tests if and only if they are utilized to help a teacher or a parent on how to best approach a particular child who may be experiencing difficulty in a subject, I find it almost impossible to believe that our Jewish community has adopted this practice of selecting “who” will be exposed to Torah and who will not. Perhaps the best word I can find to describe my feelings about this practice is “appalled.” To my dismay, this practice is widespread and not easily changed. But I am determined to do what I can to change it no matter how long it takes.

Let me conclude this letter by informing you that in the weeks ahead a number of people such as Rabbi Schloss, orthodox Jewish mothers, and other concerned individuals are planning to get together to begin to coordinate our efforts so that whatever we do will have the maximum impact. I have been very fortunate to have two very good friends (who also happen to be my colleagues at Coney Hospital), Dr. {Rabbi) Benjamin Sharfman and his son-in-law Dr. (Rabbi) Gerald Schwartz, both psychologists, who have inspired me to “move the Jewish community always another step higher on the rungs of charity.

Your correspondence has been for me a great source of pride and honor which has given me a greater sense of hope that one day all Jews will treat each other with respect and compassion. Please feel free to call me should you need additional information. If you would like to discuss anything in this letter in more detail, I would be available to meet with you or your representatives. Let me take this opportunity to wish you and your family a very happy and healthy Purim.

Respectfully yours,

Robert Wilkes,

DSW Chairman,

Region II Council For Mental Retardation

Letter From Dr. Wilkes to Rabbi Butman

Region II Council For Mental Retardation
April 3, 1980

Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
Jewish Press
338 - 3rd Avenue
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11215

Dear Rabbi Butman:

The reason I’ve waited this long to send you the enclosed material including the exchange of letters between Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and myself is twofold: (a) only recently received Rabbi Schneerson’s letter - dated 13 Tishrei - which gives me permission to disseminate his correspondence; and, (b). just received the minutes from Rabbi Isaac N. Trainin (Federation of Jewish Philanthropies) which documents Federation’s decision to sponsor a major conference vis vis the needs of the Jewish retarded and his/her family in October/November 1980.

In some of the letters that I wrote I have underlined these sentences which reflect the essence of my thinking - my way of letting you know what I would like you to emphasize. On the other hand, where I prefer you not to quote me I have put sentences in brackets.

Since Rabbi Schneerson’s letter (dated 22 Av, 5739) is, to my knowledge, the only “statement” issued on the subject of retardation by an “outstanding Torah authority,” I would hope that the Jewish Press would give his words prominence the week your column gets published. Perhaps that week the Jewish Press can have an editorial which challenges the practice of testing preschool children for enrollment in Hebrew Day Schools. The paper can also list services (with telephone numbers and names of contact persons)available to families of retarded and developmentally disabled individuals.

In other words, I think our Jewish community has to recognize yes - we want and need Jewish scholars - but, in the final analyses, what counts is that our people care about each other, respect each other, and appreciate each other’s contribution irrespective of one’s ‘intelligence quotient.

This is one issue - the love and care of Jewish handicapped - that can bring all Jews together. I felt very reassured when Rabbi Schneerson in one of his letters explained that with every Divine obligation (mitzvah) there is the capacity to fulfill that obligation. There is no question that we will need not only “funds” but the energy and the will to modify our opinions, to think about issues which we may prefer not to deal with, and to tolerate honest differences of opinion.

I am convinced that if our Jewish community can provide for the education and the well-being of all of our children, we will merit the coming of the Moshiach. Thank you for your cooperation.

Sincerely yours,

Robert Wilkes, DSW

Chairman, Region I I

Council for Mental Retardation

“‘I could not think of any other phrase which could adequately describe or characterize the Lubuvitche Rebbe. Although I am not an orthodox Jew, I still feel a close and warm attachment to Rabbi Schneerson. Perhaps it is his deep and abiding caring for all Jews that has given me (and I’m sure to many others!) the inspiration and vigor to do what I’m doing.


Fourth Letter From Dr. Robert Wilkes to the Rebbe

August 12,1980

Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson Lubavitch
770 Eastern Parkway,
Brooklyn, New York 11213

Dear Rabbi Schneerson:

Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Sharfman, chairman of Federation’s prospective conference on issues and needs of the Jewish retarded, has given me the honor and privilege to invite you (and/or your representatives) to address this conference. [ . . . ]

What should be remarkable about this conference is that not only will the participants be discussing how to make all aspects of Jewish living (e.g., education, community living, recreation, worship) available to the developmentally disabled individual and his/her family but also the participants, perhaps for the first time for a “Jewish” conference. [ . . . ]

It is no secret that the Lubavitch movement—perhaps more than any other Jewish group—has emphasized the critical significance of Jewish education for all Jewish boys and girls as well as the overall need of Yiddishkeit for all Jews. We would welcome a statement from you prepared for this occasion: to be read at the conference by either yourself or by a representative. You may also consider the possibility of sending a specially prepared taped message. Please feel free to consider any form of communication which you think would be most meaningful. [ . . . ]

May I take this opportunity to once again thank you for your continued interest and support. [ . . . ]

Wishing you and your entire family a very happy and healthy New Year.

Respectfully yours,

Robert Wilkes, DSW
Chairman, Brooklyn
Region 11 Council For The Retarded

Fourth Letter From The Rebbe to Dr. Robert Wilkes and Participants in the Conference On the Use of the Term “Retarded”

Cover Letter

By the Grace of G‑d
9th of Kislev, 5741
[November 17, 1980]
Brooklyn, N. Y.

Dr. R. Wilkes, DSW
Chairman, Brooklyn
Region 11 Council for The Retarded
c/o Coney Island Hospital
2601 Ocean Parkway
Brooklyn, N. Y. 11235

Greeting and Blessing:

This is to acknowledge receipt of your letter of Nov. 13th, with the enclosures in connection with the forthcoming Conference.

Since the matter is of the greatest importance, I have taken time out, despite the pressure of duties, to respond with the enclosed message. You can also supplement it with my past correspondence with you on this subject.

May G‑d grant that every one of us should do the utmost along the lines suggested in my message, especially since we have the promise of Divine aid in all such good efforts.

With esteem and blessing


By the Grace of G‑d
9 Kislev, 5741
Brooklyn, N.Y.

To All Participants in the
Major Conference for the Jewish Community
On Issues and Needs of Jewish Retarded
New York City.

Greeting and Blessing:

I was pleased to be informed of the forthcoming Conference. I trust it will mark a turning point in the attitude of community leaders to Jewish education in general, and to so-called Special Education in particular.

In any discussion relating to the wellbeing of the Jewish community, the primary, indeed pivotal, issue should surely be Jewish Identity—that which truly unites our Jewish people and gives us the strength to survive and thrive in a most unnatural, alien, and all too often hostile environment.

Historically—from the birth of our nation to this day—Jewish identity, in the fullest sense of this term, has been synonymous with traditional Torah-Judaism as our way of life in everyday living. Other factors commonly associated with a national identity, such as language, territory, dress, etc., could not have played a decisive role in Jewish survival, since these changed from time to time and from place to place. The only factor that has not changed throughout our long history has been the Torah and Mitzvos which are “our life and the length of our days.” The same Tefillin, Tzitzis, Shabbos and Yom-Tov have been observed by Jews everywhere in all generations. Clearly there is no substitute for the Torah-way as the source and essence of our Jewish people.

Recognizing this prima facie fact, means recognizing that 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—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—the Jewish identity factor is even more important, not only per se but also for its therapeutic value. The actual practice of Mitzvos 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 Mitzvos 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.

With prayerful wishes for Hatzlocho, and with esteem and blessing,


Fifth Letter From Dr. Wilkes to the Rebbe

Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
770 Eastern Parkway
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11213

Dear Rabbi Schneerson:

The conference (attended by about 250 persons) on “Serving The Jewish Retarded Issues and Needs,” sponsored by Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, is over but our work has really just begun. We will again meet on January 15, 1981 to review what has been accomplished and what we must do in the days ahead. At the conclusion of our conference, we made a number of recommendations - a few of them are:

1. Federation has to sponsor more group homes (with Kosher Kitchens) for the retarded;

2. Federation has to allocate more funds to all aspects of Jewish education including special education;

3. We have to influence Hebrew Day Schools not to utilize I.Q. tests to disqualify children and thereby deprive them of a Jewish education;

4. We have to support the UJA - Federation campaign since we cannot expect ‘to take’ without also ‘giving’.

5. We must continue to request the various Boards of Rabbis throughout the city to issue proclamations on behalf of our Jewish retarded and developmentally handicapped.

It was a remarkable conference! I have not had the opportunity to attend many Federation conferences but I can say with pride that for two days (Dec. 10th and 11th) all the participants - Jews from all walks of life - spoke about the very same things you had noted in your message: Torah, Mitzvahs and Yiddeshkeit.

Let me be candid. A few weeks prior to the conference (I had informed Rabbi Groner) I was greatly discouraged by the fact that some orthodox groups, rather abruptly, withdrew their support due to sharp differences in religious perspectives (or principles). I had no idea that our community was so polarized: that various parties have such little respect for each other’s viewpoints. Why is it so difficult for our religious groups to accept their own philosophy and practice while at the same time accept (and respect) the contribution that another group can make to Judaism? (I secretly thought that this conference - at which time we all would sit down together as a unified community - would increase the sense of unity within our community and thereby speed the arrival of the Meshiach.) Nevertheless, I left the conference with a feeling of hope and verve.

There was one question, however, raised by a mother that made us pause and reflect as to the nature of our existence: If the primary purpose of existence is to fulfill G‑d’s commandments; and if a Jew is unable, from childhood, to carry out any of these commandments because of severe physical and mental limitations; what then is the purpose (or meaning) of his/her existence? I would be most appreciative if you would respond to this question.

All our children are entitled to be educated Jewishly. With G‑d’s help all our goals and dreams for our children will become a reality in our generation.

Once again, thank you for your concern and understanding.

Sincerely Yours,

Robert Wilkes, DSW Member of Federation’s
Planning Committee For The Retarded

P.S. Copies of your first letter written to me on 22 Av, 5739 as well as your message and greetings to the conference participants were included in a kit distributed to each participant. Enclosed is a conference kit. Your message was read by myself immediately after our dinner on Wednesday, December 10th. We also learned that you had just a few days previously endorsed the UJA-Federation campaign. Both your endorsement and message generated a sense of excitement and challenge that enhanced our deliberations. cc: Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Sharfman, Chairman Rabbi Isaac Trainin, Director Religious Affairs Committee

Fifth Letter From The Rebbe to Dr. Robert Wilkes
No One Cannot Achieve

By the Grace of G‑d
25th of Teves, 5741
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Dr. Robert Wilkes,
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Greeting and Blessing:

Thank you very much for your letter and for the Conference kit received separately. I appreciate the trouble you have taken to report to me on the Conference and its recommendations. May G‑d grant that the Conference will produce the desired fruits, even in excess of expectations. Especially as the Zechus Horabim helps, particularly when the Rabim are, in this case, our Jewish youngsters.

With reference to the question at the conclusion of your letter, raised by a mother, to the effect that if the primary purpose of existence is to fulfill G‑d’s commandments; and if a Jew is unable from childhood to carry out any of these commandments because of physical or mental limitations; what then is the purpose or meaning of his/her existence?

The answer to this question must be sought in the context of a more embracing general problem, of which the above is but one of many possible facets.

It should be remembered that according to the Torah itself, it is impossible for every Jew, as an individual, to fulfill all the 613 Mitzvos. Apart from mitzvos which are applicable only in Eretz Yisroel and during the time that the Beis Hamikdash is in existence, there are mitzvos which are obligatory only to Kohanim for example, while there are mitzvos which a Kohen is precluded from fulfilling. But by virtue of the fact that all Jewish people are one entity, like one organism, every individual who fulfills his or her obligations to the extent of their G‑d-given capacities, share in the totality of the effort and accomplishment.

A similar principle prevails also in every human society in general, where everyone has to contribute to the common wealth, though each one is necessarily limited in one’s capacities, be one a plain farmer, producing food or a scientist or inventor of farm machinery and the like. One who excels in one’s particular field of endeavor may be limited or useless in another area. Who is to say which one is more important, which one makes a greater contribution? Only harmonious collaboration and utilization of all human resources make for the utmost completeness and perfection of the society. As for the individual, all that need be said–as indeed our Rabbis have emphasized, is that G‑d does not demand of an individual anything that is beyond the individual’s natural capacities. It is not for a human being to question why G‑d has endowed one individual with greater capacities than another individual.

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 there is no reason nor justification, to generalize all into one and the same category of “limited” or “retarded.” Human experience is replete with examples of individuals who have been severely limited in some aspects, yet they subsequently excelled and made great extraordinary contributions to society in other aspects.

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 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.

With esteem and blessing,

Invitation to Attend Melava Malka

Rabbi Groner
770 Eastern Parkway
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11213

Dear Rabbi Groner,

On behalf of the parents OTSAR (“Jewish Advocacy for the Retarded”) and myself we would like to extend a personal invitation to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shlita to attend our first Milava Malke, 12 Adar, 5742. Our guest speaker will be Rabbi Dr. Immanuel Jakobovitz, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom.

Our friend and colleague, Dr. Robert Wilkes, has informed us that only recently one of his parents, Mrs. P. Gaffney together with Dr. G. Schwartz and Dr. Wilkes spoke at a Beth Rivka Parents association meeting in Crown Heights on December 8, 1981; and that the Lubavitch school principals from Brooklyn have been working closely with Rabbi Martin Schloss regarding workshops on ‘learning disabilities’ and ‘resource rooms’ for either Jewish or English studies or both.

It was on 22 Av, 5739 that Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, Shlita sent Dr. Wilkes a comprehensive and some prophetic statement that encourage all of us to increase our special sons and daughters in all aspects of Yiddishkeit. That letter was the beginning — the catalyst — which induced other Rabbis and communal leaders to take a public stand; and it was again the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shlita, who sent us words of support and blessing when together with the Federation of Jewish philanthropies we conducted a historic major citywide conference on the needs of our Jewish developmentally handicapped. Once again we come to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shlita, and the Lubavitch community to ask for your prayers, your concern, and your active participation.

Please feel free to contact Dr. Wilkes, who will, I’m certain, be ready and prepared to do whatever he can to facilitate your efforts. We hope and pray that our work on behalf of our special children willmerit the coming of Moshiach.

Respectfully yours,

Here ends the correspondence of the Rebbe and Dr. Wilkes.

Assisting the Senile and Mentally Confused By Evoking Fond Memories Through Tangible Objects

…I offer you the following salient example of an actual experience that occurred during this year’s festival of Sukkos:

As known, Lubavitcher chassidim utilize this occasion to reach many Jews in order to provide them with both the opportunity to perform the commandment of “lulav and esrog” as well as help them experience the joy of this festival, the “Festival of Our Rejoicing.”

Since this is a year of Hakhel, I asked my chassidim to expand these activities to the greatest extent possible and to include in their activities visits to nursing and retirement homes, as well as other institutions. I was asked about what position should be taken regarding the senile and the mentally confused, etc., and I responded that surely these individuals should be approached — even more so than others — as this is an opportunity to reach them through something tangible and concrete.

The results were most gratifying. Doctors and nurses were astounded to observe such a turnabout — people who had spent countless days immobile and mute, utterly despondent and depressed and unaware of their surroundings, suddenly became alert and showed interest upon beholding a young person entering with a lulav and esrog in hand.

They eagerly grasped these objects, many of them reciting the blessings from memory, without having to be told at all the text of the blessings. Their joy was clearly visible on their faces, faces that had not seen a smile on them for such a long time.

There is no need to find a mystical explanation for their response. As is readily understandable, the sight of something so tangible and that was so obviously connected to the joy of Sukkos evidently evoked and revealed fond memories and experiences of years past....

(From a letter of the Rebbe, dated 9 Kislev, 5741)