| Magazine Feature |

Just Say the Word    

Father and son team Phil and Uri Schneider help stutterers find a voice 

Photos: Yosef Itzkowitz, Chayim Tzvi Schneider

Phil Schneider’s passion to help others find their voice has taken him from the inner-city classrooms of the 1970s all the way to Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn. Determined to help stutterers conquer their shame instead of remaining locked in their silent world, Phil, with his son Uri at his side, have made a family business of helping others find their strengths and move forward from there


Phil Schneider was just beginning to take an interest in Yiddishkeit when he decided to poke his head inside a local shul, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, one evening. Confronted by the sight of men speaking in Hebrew, bent over huge, impenetrable tomes, he began softly backing out.

Rabbi Murray Schaum, who was in the beis medrash, was having none of it. “Come in!” he sang out across the room. Too embarrassed to turn tail and run, Phil came closer. “What’s your name?” the rabbi asked.

“Phil,” he answered.

“No,” Rabbi Schaum persisted. “What’s your real name?”

Phil thought back to his bar mitzvah and dredged up an old memory. “Pesach,” he replied.

The rabbi was delighted. “Do you know what it means?” he said.

“Um — it’s a holiday?” Phil said.

“More than that,” the rabbi said. “It means peh-sach, the mouth speaks. The holiday of Pesach is about transmission, about connecting through the mouth.”

Little did Rabbi Schaum know whom he was addressing, or that he had stumbled upon a perfect illustration of the principle that the choice of a child’s name involves ruach hakodesh. His new recruit, Dr. Pesach-Phil Schneider, has devoted his entire professional life to helping people with speech difficulties. He’s become a legend in his time, serving as the speech therapist for scores of people, from inner city children to the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztz”l.

Today, together with his son Uri, he directs Schneider Speech, a practice with offices in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Englewood, Lakewood, and Beit Shemesh. The lion’s share of their practice involves people who stutter, but they address other speech issues as well. But what most distinguishes their practice is their humanistic, holistic outlook. Both father and son share a warm, compassionate, non-judgmental personality that invites clients to open up and feel at ease.

“We treat people, not problems,” Uri maintains. For the Schneiders, treating a speech impediment is simply one piece of helping individuals become their most authentic selves and achieve their personal goals and dreams.

Segue into Speech

Phil Schneider was raised in the 1950s in Parkchester, a by-design multicultural development in the Bronx. He loved architecture as a young person and was determined to become an architect. He enrolled in City College and took engineering classes, pushing off an unappealing speech class he needed to round out his curriculum. But once he got there and started learning about speech therapy, debate, media, and helping clients of all ages, something clicked.

That’s what I’m supposed to do,” he realized, and took himself to the registrar to change his major.

By the time he finished college in 1971, he had married his wife Jean and needed to find a job. He was offered a position as the speech therapist for five junior high schools in the Bronx, in some of the toughest neighborhoods. But Phil wasn’t fazed; he’d grown up there and was renting a one-bedroom apartment in the same complex as his parents’ for the princely sum of $95 a month.

His first student became his first teacher. “My schooling had been purely academic,” he says. “I was given no clue how to work with people. I walked into a classroom, and the teacher called out, ‘Speech!’ to one of the kids.

“He was a short, white, Jewish kid in a black school. He walked up to me, stuck a finger in my face, and said, ‘I-I-I don’t n-n-need you! G-g-get out of here!’”

Phil figured that when all else fails, maybe honesty would work. He wrote the boy a note that said, “I don’t know about stuttering. If you teach me, I’ll pay you.”

The boy wasn’t sure if this was a prank or not. But the next time Phil came to the class he said, “H-h-how much?”

They agreed on a price, and the boy told him, “This is how I talk. My parents, my friends, my doctor are all okay with it, so I’m okay with it.”

“I learned a great lesson with him,” Phil says today. “He was a kid who was broken on the outside but whole on the inside. He went on to become the class president and a courtroom attorney. I realized that you just don’t know what a person is feeling inside, or what he’s capable of.”

Yet Phil soon discovered that many other people feel tremendous shame because of their stuttering, and as a result find their lives circumscribed. A young man who was a client of Uri Schneider shares his experience:

For every one time I got “stuck” or repeated a word, there were many more times that I avoided a situation. People generally think that the challenge of a stutterer is in the embarrassment of stuttering, but for most, that is only the tip of the iceberg. He has so much he wants to say, but it’s all locked inside him. He feels weak and not in control. He often will avoid a situation and then feel bad for “bailing out” and not manning up. There is so much more a stutterer wants to accomplish, but he’s held back by his stutter. Not being one’s real self is very painful.

There were many times when I spoke to my rosh yeshivah in learning and did not present my question clearly. I cut it short, switched words, or shied away from the back and forth. I felt so frustrated when I knew I was saying something he would appreciate, but just couldn’t say it clearly. If only he had known how much he could have helped me….

Some young people simply shut down when they can’t make themselves understood. During his years in the public schools, Phil met another “teacher” in the form of a 12-year-old black girl named Gladys, who had cerebral palsy and had never been heard to make a sound. Unable to make headway, Phil brought her to specialists at Columbia University, who tested her gag reflex to determine that all the parts of her speech apparatus were working. All was in order, but Gladys still wouldn’t speak.

Phil’s superiors told him to stop trying, but he refused to give up. Slowly he was able to coax her to sing, then speak. By the end of the year, Gladys sang in the school show.

“She changed my life, because by bringing her to Columbia, I developed relationships with the professors there,” Phil recounts. “They proposed that I become a doctoral student.” He enrolled in the program, and credits Professors Ron Bacon and Ed Mysak with providing valuable training and guidance. After earning his Ph.D., he became a professor at Queens College. He would teach there for 30 years while simultaneously seeing private patients.

Uri Schneider grew up observing the immense gratification his father derived from his profession and fascinated by his stories of his patients’ triumphs. By age six he was telling people he wanted to be a speech pathologist, even though he couldn’t quite pronounce it yet.

“Then, like most teens, I reached a phase where all I wanted was to find my own path, different from my father’s,” he says. “But I had borderline dyslexia and ADHD, and professions like accounting or medicine seemed too dry or required too much school, and I chose speech after all.” Speech allowed him to play to his aptitude for human interaction and problem solving.

His first job was at the Summit School in Queens, where his speech training intersected with dealing with learning differences. With his strong limudei kodesh background (he earned a semichah from Beis Medrash L’Talmud in Queens) he was able to help children with kriah and other limudei kodesh challenges and eventually made this his niche in the field. He opened private practices in Queens and the Five Towns before making aliyah and adding Jerusalem to his growing New York practice, continuing to travel back and forth, meeting clients in person and remotely.

Speech therapy as a profession began in the conformist 1950s, as a way of helping people “fit in,” rather akin to Henry Higgins’s attempts to teach Eliza Doolittle to speak like a society dame. In the 1970s, however, it evolved into a subcategory of “speech science,” taking a scientific approach to understand the causes that prevent proper speech.

Uri describes how he explains therapy to children who come to his practice. He’ll make his voice scratchy and croak, “Some people have a scraaatchy voice.” Then he’ll continue, “O-o-other p-p-people s-s-s-stutter.

“And thome people thpeak with a lithp.

“Other people can’t — whatamacallit — they just have this, uh, thingamajig — they can’t retrieve the words they want.”

After destigmatizing the different issues, Uri then asks the client what he’d like to get better at.

Father and son are renowned for their success helping stutterers, and about 80 percent of their clients present with stuttering, with young children their largest group. Working with preschoolers is very different from working with older children, Phil explains. In their case, the therapy heavily involves the parents, who are encouraged to reinforce their children’s communication efforts and give them praise regardless of the smoothness of the delivery.

“With young children, you get them early and the condition is pure,” Uri says. “Older children have already developed coping devices. The risk is that they simply fall silent. But they want to talk.”

He and his father work with them using a four-point framework: self-knowledge (including setting goals), self-adjustment (tailoring tools to speak with more flow and ease), self-acceptance (learning self-compassion and building confidence), and self-advocacy (engaging more fully and enjoying social conversations). Clients are taught exercises to enhance the ease of speech and techniques like speaking in short sentences, learning to be self-aware, and speaking up for themselves.

What is unique about the Schneider approach is that the therapy is seen as having both a “body” and a “soul.” The “body” part focuses on the physical training.

“The speech and motor system is similar to the clutch in a car,” Uri explains. “If transitions get stuck, you may tighten or loosen some gears, or find tools to finesse through it. With supra-linguistic tools of phrasing, of cadence, people can influence the pressure demands at the glottis, the delicate juncture where the flow of air from the lungs sets the vocal folds into motion.”

Addressing the “soul” has to do with helping the client feel like a worthwhile person, gain the courage to own his challenge, and focus on his larger goals.

Unfortunately, too often speech therapy is one-size-fits-all, Uri says. Such was the experience of Moe Mernick, author of The Gift of Stuttering, who started therapy at ten years of age.

“It’s often a very mechanical process with defined targets,” Moe says. “There are approaches that promise great results and are very expensive. They work for some people, but for many they don’t, and those who don’t benefit are just set up for failure. Then their parents are upset and accuse them of not practicing enough.”

Phil says that if speech therapy isn’t working, a person should consider taking a break or changing therapists. “When it doesn’t work, it leads to defeatism,” he says. “The child and the parents conclude therapy is just a waste of their time and money.”

The Schneiders don’t believe in having a preconceived idea of the outcome of therapy. “We see ourselves not in a hierarchical relationship, but a partnership with our clients,” Uri says. “We check in from time to time to see if the client feels he’s moving in the direction he wants.”

Too often, therapists try to force people to become something they’re not; for example, they’ll work with a client to be able to deliver a smooth bar mitzvah speech, creating a limited, superficial success. But Phil likens that to dressing up in wedding clothing and being expected to dress like that all the time, which is neither comfortable nor natural.

“It just draws out the issue, and where does it leave the stutterer?” Uri says. “He ends up living a life that’s a shell, faking it until he makes it. Some of these people give up and say, ‘I’ve had it with you and your standards, your community.’ Therapy isn’t about fixing a stutter. It’s about becoming a successful adult. Parents and teachers need to have flexible standards and meet people where they’re at.”

A big piece of the “soul” part of therapy is gaining the courage to accept one’s stuttering and be up-front about it. “A child with a stutter has to let his rebbi know that he doesn’t want to read in front of the class,” Phil says. “Or maybe that he actually does want to read in front of the class despite the stutter.”

In one of Uri’s cases, a 30-year-old avreich was so embarrassed by his stutter that he would always hold his phone to his ear as he walked to his car, or look at the ground, to avoid giving others the opportunity to start a conversation with him. Uri showed him a clip from a documentary film his father had made (Transcending Stuttering: The Inside Story), in which a stutterer spoke frankly about his challenges.

“What do you see when you watch the video?” Uri asked.

The avreich answered, “I see someone who is strong and open, who is content, who applies himself.”

When asked what his own goals were, he said he aspires to be the same way and to have a closer connection to people. As things stood, he said, he was so people-shy that he would only be open with “the most nebach of the nebachs.”

“Take it up a notch, and try to be friendly with the people who are just ‘regular nebachs,’” Uri advised him. The client left with a choice and a small challenge.

“Speech progress is always a dance between accepting one’s limits and pushing them,” Phil says.

Nervousness can magnify a stutter, but it doesn’t cause stuttering. The Schneiders maintain the best path forward is to acknowledge the issue, own it, and move forward from there. One of Phil’s clients was Moshe, a young chassidic talmid chacham with a stutter. His parents had found a great shidduch for him but were worried because the young woman had a reputation for being extremely picky. “She’s looking for Moshe Rabbeinu,” they said, forgetting that Moshe Rabbeinu, like their son, had a speech impediment.

The parents asked Phil if he thought their son was ready for shidduchim. Instead of making that decision for them, Phil turned to Moshe, asking, “Do you feel ready?”

Characteristically Phil, he didn’t want to make a decision for his client. He was interested in understanding his thoughts and feelings, and valued his input.

Moshe nodded. “I’m like all my friends. We’re all ready for the next chapter,” he said.

“If you want a wife who accepts you for who you are, then you have to come clean and tell her about your challenge,” Phil said. “Go to the beshow and tell her how your stutter affects you — that it happens some of the time but not all of the time, and that you’re ready to be a husband.”

Moshe followed this advice and was engaged in short order. The kallah said, “The other boys I met were so slick, so geshikt, that they made me nervous. Moshe was so open, honest, and courageous that I knew I had the genuine article.”


A Special Client

Early in Phil’s career, he spent a few years working in the Veterans Administration with stroke victims before moving on. “I saw it was not my niche,” he avows.

Still, other people remembered his time at the VA, and in late 1991, when Uri was studying for his bar mitzvah and Phil was taking his own baby steps to tradition, trying to learn how to teach him to put on tefillin, he received a call from Chabad headquarters at his home number. “The Rebbe has had a stroke, and you need to come see him,” he was told.

Phil protested that this wasn’t his area of expertise and offered the names of stroke specialists. But the chassidim were undeterred. “We’ll send a car,” they said.

Phil’s wife Jean chimed in. “I think you’re supposed to go,” she said.

Phil asked when the Rebbe was most alert, and was told around 4:00 a.m. “We’ll send a car at 3:00,” they said.

When he arrived in Crown Heights, the Rebbe was in a hospital bed in his study. Phil was immediately struck by his regal appearance. “He was perfectly groomed. His skin was shining, and his eyes were sparkling,” he says.

There were four male nurses in the room, and two chassidim flanked Phil on either side like guards. The Rebbe’s gabbaim wanted to know if Phil could get reliable answers to the many sh’eilos that were coming in.

“I thought, how can I figure this out?” Phil says. “The Rebbe couldn’t move or make any sounds. But I kept my eyes on him, asking the first question, and I discovered I could feel his response. I could listen to his eyes, as if he brought his heart and soul into them. I had ‘heard’ the answer yes, but to confirm, I rephrased the question so that the answer should be no. Then I ‘heard’ the word no.”

He saw the Rebbe a few times after that, but realized there was only so much he could do to help. At one point one of the chassidim asked him, “Will the Rebbe be able to do a farbrengen next week?”

At that point, Phil didn’t have any idea what a farbrengen was. When he was told it meant that the Rebbe would speak extemporaneously for about an hour and half, he shook his head. “How could I answer in a sensitive way?” he says.

“Finally I said, ‘Listen, if the Rebbe lives long enough, anything is possible. But for now, you should postpone it.’”

In the meantime, as Phil was with the Rebbe in his study, Chabad chassidim took care to help Uri learn how to put on tefillin.

Phil had been raised in a home that was proudly Jewish, where they’d have festive meals for holidays but didn’t observe kashrus or Shabbos. His wife, though, had always dreamed of having a more observant family.

Uri was born in the Bronx, but as the neighborhood changed, Jean expressed the desire to move to a better environment for raising Jewish children. They relocated to Pelham Parkway, a stronger Jewish community in the Bronx. In Pelham Parkway, Phil reconnected with childhood friends who had embraced a more observant lifestyle. These friends invited Phil and Jean for Shabbos meals, sparking a spiritual journey for the family.

Uri and Elan began their Jewish education at the “Bronx House” preschool and later attended SAR (Salanter Akiba Riverdale), deepening their connection to Jewish life. When it came time to choose a high school, both Uri and his brother Elan opted for Orthodox high schools (Ramaz for Uri and Frisch for Elan).

Phil and Jean joined the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, but one Shabbos morning as they drove from Pelham Parkway to the shul, Elan asked, “It’s Shabbos. Why are we driving?”

Guided by his spiritual compass, Phil made a bold decision to move to Riverdale so the family could walk to shul. The move further solidified their connection to the Jewish community.

Phil also developed a relationship with Rabbi Levi Shemtov in Riverdale as well as Rabbi Moshe Drelich from SAR, who’d sought his services when he lost his voice. The two of them shared a love of rollerblading and spent many hours skating around Central Park together, exchanging ideas.

His deepened connection to Judaism sent him scores of clients from all ends of the Orthodox spectrum through word of mouth, and he learned Torah concepts that were new to him. “My Jewish journey informed my professional journey,” Phil says. “I found many ideas I could integrate to enrich my work with Jewish clients.”

He often cites the example of Moshe Rabbeinu, who was charged to go speak to Pharaoh despite his speech impediment, and who told Hashem he didn’t think he could do it.

“Hashem believed in Moshe when he didn’t believe in himself,” Phil says. “It was the first case of speech therapy. Hashem told him, ‘You’re not alone — I’m with you. Get out of your comfort zone, and take one small step at a time.’”


Unexpected Roadblock

Eight years ago, Phil found his emunah and bitachon put to a real test when he noticed that his thumb had begun to twitch. The writing on the wall seemed clear enough: His sister had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease ten years prior, and it seemed he was next in line.

Like his stuttering clients who find clever ways to mask their condition, Phil simply hid the twitch from his wife.

“That went on for a year,” he says. “I’d keep my hand stuffed in my pocket. Later I tried to hide a tendency to drool.”

Two years in, his condition was only getting worse. He didn’t think doctors could do anything for him, so he avoided them. But when he lost his voice, he decided it was time to seek counsel.

He called a former student who’d become a voice specialist to help him get his voice back. “I can’t do it alone,” he admitted. Next he found a video about a man who had been overweight, but began exercising to keep his Parkinson’s under control and ultimately became a world-class athlete. I could do that, he thought.

He set about finding a trainer and discovered an “incredible Israeli guy” who lives just half a block from him with a gym in his home. They began working together, and Phil now says he’s stronger than he was seven years ago.

He discovered two Jewish organizations for Parkinson’s patients, LifeSpark (founded by Rabbi Moshe Gruskin) in Brooklyn and Lakewood, and the Parkinson’s Wellness Project in Monsey (directed by movement therapist Susan Lust), which honored him as their Ambassador of the Year in 2021. He also began volunteering his services as a speech therapist to Parkinson’s patients, both individually and in groups.

He found himself a holistic doctor who promoted exercise, sleep, avoidance of stress, and a sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free diet. For a long time, he resisted taking medication for the tremors, but his doctor said, “Listen, I respect that you want to hold out, but your life will be more pleasant if you allow yourself a little bit.” Now he takes small doses of Sinamet and is happy with the results. Speaking to Phil, you’d never guess he has a condition.

“Parkinson’s was a call to be more healthy,” he says. “Of course, I myself can tell that I’ve lost a little cognitive and emotional function, but it’s slight.”

When Covid took over the world, he thought it might be a signal to pull back on his work. But Uri told him he could easily continue on Zoom. Now he’s doing 100 percent of his work remotely and says it’s some of his best work ever.

Phil has never forgotten a lesson he learned about the limits of medical prognoses during his time working at the VA Hospital. One day, he noticed a man standing by the bedside of a patient who’d suffered a severe stroke. “How long will he live?” the man asked the doctor. The doctor replied dismissively, “The end is near.”

“That doctor died later that day in an accident, while the patient outlived him,” Phil says. “It showed me clearly that we never know when our time will be.”

Meanwhile, Phil is assiduously continuing the mission he undertook 52 years ago, with his son Uri continuing his legacy: to help clients live their best lives. In the process, both of them are living their best lives as well.


Finding the Right Help

In any sort of therapy, it’s crucial to find the right shidduch and steer clear of charlatans.  Moe Mernick recounts that as a 17-year-old, he attended an expensive program that touted itself as the ultimate cure. “I was so excited — I was sure it would lead me to a great job and the right girl,” he says. “But it didn’t work, and I came home and cried. Some of these programs even ask you to sign an NDA to make sure you don’t denounce them when they fail to fulfill their promises.”

“Most people put more thought into shopping for a car than shopping for a good speech therapist,” Phil says. “Make sure to ask if the person you’re looking into has a master’s degree, a license, and professional certification. Ask if they specialize in stuttering. Ask what age range they specialize in, and ask about their experience.” You can find out online if a therapist belongs to professional organization such as the American Speech and Hearing Association or the Stuttering Foundation of America (which lists therapists by region). Ask how much experience they have.

Of the 100,000 speech therapists in the U.S., less than 1,000 treat stuttering, and of those, only a few deal with the three-to-five-year-old age range. Parents should ask the therapist if they will be involved in their child’s therapy.

“Parents suffer, too,” Phil says. “They feel guilty if they can’t make things perfect for their children. They feel pressure to ‘fix’ the problem, so they need a therapist who hears them and works with them.” In the Schneiders’ practice, parents share videos of themselves working with their children, and Phil and Uri offer feedback and guidance. “Parents should follow their hearts, asking themselves if they’re in the right place for their child,” Phil says.

Social support among stutterers is extremely empowering and offers a place to connect and heal the painful experience of feeling alone in one’s struggles. Leading non-profit groups exist in the USA through the National Stuttering Association, with chapters in New York, New Jersey and around the country, and in Israel through AMBI (Israeli Association for People Who Stutter).

Demystification is also possible through documentary films like Transcending Stuttering (produced by Dr. Phil Schneider) and podcasts like Transcending Stuttering, a stuttering podcast with dozens of episodes in which Uri interviews the likes of Dr. Phil, Moe Mernick, Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, and other stutterers and researchers to provide understanding and inspiration for people who stutter.


The Odd Couple

Uri Schneider works with clients from many countries, but was nevertheless surprised when he was approached by a father from Kuwait. Adel was concerned that his college-age son would find himself barred from good jobs and become socially isolated because of a speech impediment. Uri agreed to take on the case, and the son began to blossom, while the father proved himself to be a caring, encouraging person.

In one of the more challenging moments, Uri says, “Adel pressed me to understand the tough culture of the Middle East, with its unforgiving attitude toward deviation or difference. He feared this cultural context could be an insurmountable barrier for his son. At that moment, I shared the tale of our client Ori, an Israeli commando soldier who faces similar hurdles. Ori’s success, which blends bold strength with vulnerability, served as an inspiring true story and a reminder that even in tough cultural landscapes, ‘ordinary’ people can do extraordinarily well.”

Today, six years later, Adel’s son is thriving in his job at a prestigious international bank in Kuwait, having dared to dream and work hard for his goals. Adel and Uri’s professional relationship grew into a friendship, as they bonded through shared interests in nature, food, and the rollercoaster of fatherhood. “We continue to celebrate each other’s triumphs, and focus on the human bonds we share,” Uri says.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 994)

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