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