In 1971, Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld came to Baltimore to learn at Yeshivas Ner Yisrael. It is difficult enough for the average 15-year-old to adjust to an out-of-town yeshiva. As a stutterer, young Mayer faced even more challenges. His stutter was so bad he could not say a simple “hello”; he even had trouble getting out the words when speaking to his parents. As is typical of stutterers, he was self-conscious. People’s negative reactions to his speech impediment only exacerbated the sense of shame and embarrassment he felt when he tripped over words. It was all the more frustrating when they would try to finish his sentences, not allowing him to speak. He found himself limiting his interactions with people and shying away from situations he wanted to avoid. It was affecting every aspect of his life.
About a month after he arrived in his new yeshiva, the menahel, Rabbi Yosef Tendler, called Mayer into his office. He told him that he noticed his bad stutter, and suggested that he contact Michael Katz, a South African talmid at Ner Yisrael who was simultaneously studying to be a speech therapist. Michael told Mayer that the reason for his stutter was either psychological (in which case, therapy would be in order), or it came from simple nervousness and lack of confidence.
Working off the second premise, Michael asked Mayer to name his most challenging situation, when his stutter was at its worst. If he could conquer that, he would have it beat. Mayer admitted that when he got up in front of people, such as when he attempted to daven before the amud, he felt a paralyzing tightening in his chest, and nothing came out.
After reporting back to Rabbi Tendler, Mayer was shocked when the menahel told him, “You are davening before the amud this Shabbos!” The entire mechina, about 175 boys, besides the rebbeim, would hear him stutter. How would he ever survive? But Rabbi Tendler stood by Mayer throughout the entire davening, as he stuttered over every word. He helped him overcome his nervousness, calmed him down, and was his breathing technique coach. Soaked with perspiration, Mayer breathed a sigh of relief when it was over.
Well, it was over for then, but Rabbi Tendler told him that he would be davening again on the following Shabbos, as he would again and again for the next few months, until he became a regular. Although Mayer felt bad at first for the students who had to sit through the unusually lengthy davening, he got a tremendous amount of chizuk from it. He became much more outgoing, and became increasingly involved in school and extracurricular activities. As a Prichei leader, he was known as an expert storyteller; he became the head of the band, started speaking out in class more, and even said divrei Torah. Although he still stumbled on his words, he was not embarrassed by his stutter any more. Overcoming his stutter affected his whole being and life; things just grew from there.
Today, Rabbi Kurcfeld is a prominent kashrus administrator who works for the Star-K and people are astonished when he shares his story. He is as suave and polished as people come; people have never once heard him stutter. He routinely speaks to everyone, from food establishment personnel to CEOs of companies. He lectures at kashrus training seminars and trains mashgichim. He was even the narrator of my weekly Nachum Segal Radio Show scripts. And, not only does he continue to daven before the amud, he is one of the baalei tefila for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur at his shul in Olney, Maryland.
“Rabbi Tendler’s sensitivity towards my stuttering and his interest in helping me conquer it has affected every aspect of my life, until this day,” says Rabbi Kurcfeld. “This is even more significant, as I realized later, because this action was done with only one student in mind, myself. No one else was benefiting from this, not the 175 talmidim nor the rebbeim. I have often wondered how many mechanchim today would take such a bold action that benefitted only one student. About three years ago, I met Rabbi Tendler at a chasana (wedding) in Baltimore. I don’t know why it took me almost 35 years to go up to him and thank him properly. I reminded him of my story, and proceeded to thank him profusely for all he did for me. To him, it was an apparently insignificant incident; he admitted that he did not even remember it. To me, it just boggles my mind to think of the tremendous ripple effect it has had on the successes in my life.
“Before we parted, I said, “Rebbe, there is only one negative outcome from all that you have done for me…I have not stopped talking since!'”