The yahrtzeit of Moshe Rabbeinu, the world’s most famous stutterer, is 7 Adar. The name Mercaz Kvad Peh (JSA) reminds us of Moshe Rabbeinu’s attempts to avoid the mission Hashem assigned him to take the Jews out of Mitzrayim. Hashem replied, “Who gave man a mouth … Was it not I…? Just go and I will be with you and show you what to say” (Shemos 4:11-12). Hashem gives us each the tools we need to accomplish our task in life. JSA’s mission is to give stutterers access to the tools and the support they need to reach their full potential.
Perel Spira has struggled her whole life with the challenges of stuttering. She has tried many types of therapy, with varying degrees of success. She was already married when she finally heard the message that you don’t have to be ashamed about stuttering or hide it. You can accept it, learn to control it as best you can, and move on with your life. The intensive three-week course she took totally changed her perspective, but as helpful as it was, it was uncomfortable for her to attend the meetings of a non-Jewish organization.
Enter JSA — the Jewish Stuttering Association, Mercaz Kvad Peh. It was started only a year ago by Moshe Rosenberg, a married man with two children who is in the insurance business — and who is a stutterer. He consulted with many of today’s leading speech-language pathologists who specialize in stuttering and who are now on the board of JSA. He has obtained rabbinic guidance from Rabbi and Rebbetzin Shalom Noach Landau, and Rabbi Yaakov Bender.
Stutterers often find themselves getting stuck not only in speaking but in everyday living. Mr. Rosenberg strongly believed that in addition to traditional therapy, there was a need for support groups specifically geared to the frum community, as well as a resource center with therapists and therapies for parents, teachers and others. The JSA mission is “to increase stuttering awareness within the Jewish community.”
Over three million Americans stutter, among them approximately 500,000 Jews. In general, stuttering affects four times as many men as women. In most cases, the cause of stuttering is neurophysiological, meaning the brain is structurally predisposed toward it; it is in no way an indication of a lack of intelligence.
According to the JSA Resource Guide for Parents, 3 percent of children begin to stutter in their preschool years as they learn to speak; of these, up to 80 percent undergo “spontaneous recovery” without formal intervention. The guide explains what signs to look for to determine if your child requires therapy and what parents can do to help their child. The JSA is trying to raise the funds to publish this guide and make it available in pediatricians’ offices.
Mrs. Spira runs the JSA group for women in Monsey. “One night a month we meet, share stories and give support, have some good food and laugh together,” she says. “We speak about acceptance.”
Mr. Rosenberg prepares questions or topics as a starting point for discussion, and group members share triumphs and disappointments. Participation in the group also leads to friendships with others who really understand the stuttering experience and are there for each other. On a practical level, for example, one woman had to give a presentation at work and called Mrs. Spira up so she could practice her delivery. That gave her the confidence she needed to proceed.
“I see stuttering as a lifelong struggle, as are so many other issues that people deal with. If you follow the prescribed regimen and do the recommended exercises, you can achieve the control you want. We remind each other to do the exercises and practice them together. Even once you have the tools down pat, you still have to exercise constantly, like the dieter who has to keep getting on the treadmill.”
Mrs. Spira is working on becoming a speech therapist herself. “People might wonder how I can help someone else when I also stutter, but I can really understand that person’s challenges more than a therapist who doesn’t stutter.”
I asked her how people should react when they are in a conversation with a stutterer. She responded, “Just act normally. Maintain eye contact and just wait for the other person to finish.” Jumping in and finishing someone’s sentence is demeaning and can fluster the speaker even more.
The Challenges In the Frum Community
Professor Chuck Goldman teaches speech therapy at Brooklyn College, has been in private practice for over thirty years, and is on the JSA board. He sees a great need in the frum community for JSA.
“There are several factors that contribute to the difficulties frum stutterers face,” he said. So much of our rich tradition is based on the oral transmission in learning — from oral farhers and chavrusa learning to sharing a vort and davening for the amud. For women, too, of course, most of our socializing and interaction with our children is verbal. At a Shabbos table or in the classroom, when many children are competing for attention, the stutterer may be left out. In general, in our fast-paced, on-the-move society, one who takes more time to convey his message often meets with impatience. And of course, on the shidduch scene, a time already fraught with anxiety, stuttering only compounds it.
Support groups don’t replace therapy, the need for which is often ongoing. There is no cure for stuttering, but some people are able to manage without continual practice after several months of therapy. Professor Goldman explained that therapy should address the mechanics of speech as well as the underlying psychological issues — born of years of frustration, being misunderstood, and expending effort on techniques that prove to be less helpful than anticipated. Negative experiences with teachers or classmates, as well as bullying, can lead to a damaged self-image.
Professor Hindy Lubinsky is the director and department chair of the graduate program in speech-language pathology at Touro College and has a private practice. She has been a speech pathologist with a focus on stuttering for over thirty-three years and is also on the board of JSA. She explains that each person’s stuttering takes a different form and that a given technique will work for some but not for others, making stuttering the enigma that it is. On a positive note, she adds, even though some have a complicated journey in their struggle with stuttering, she has seen many people who have completed therapy and report that they have not had any difficulties since.
“The support groups are wonderful,” she says, “because participants are encouraged by seeing what other members in the group have accomplished despite their challenges.”
Some clients have had a total turnaround in personality after participating in a support group; they go from being afraid to go to a friend’s house for Shabbos to becoming quite comfortable socially.
For parents of a stutterer, it’s helpful to have a group of people with whom to share information, experiences and strategies for helping and advocating for your child.
“Mr. Rosenberg has put together a very solid board [of directors], and everyone recognized the need,” Professor Lubinsky said.
She adds that she is very excited about Mr. Rosenberg’s plans for the future. The JSA would like to provide educational workshops for parents of children ages two to six; operate a phone line for people who want to rehearse a presentation; start groups to help bar mitzvah boys practice their leining and pshetlach; and provide training to rebbeim, teachers and principals in how to deal with stutterers. They have plans as well to organize a weekend retreat for stutterers and their families, with informative seminars and workshops. They would also like to provide financial assistance for therapy and a job-search bank to help stutterers find jobs — wonderful ideas that need funding to become reality.
The JSA, which caters to Jews from every community, currently has monthly support groups for men, women and teens in Brooklyn, the Five Towns, Lakewood and Monsey. It also has an internet group on Yahoo and a database of speech therapists, and provides referrals. Any speech therapists who treat stuttering can contact the JSA to be added to their referral list.
Mr. Rosenberg says JSA receives many calls from parents who are extraordinarily relieved to discover that there is a place to go for advice and help.
For more information, call or text (347) 855-7520 or see www.Jstutter.org. Donations can be sent to Mercaz Kvad Peh, P.O. Box 301072, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11230.
(YWN Desk – NYC)