‘Just joy, no oy’: Jewish survivors of polio support each other on Zoom

In recent years, synagogues across the city have been moving to accommodate people who live with disabilities
Edward Rice, a polio survivor who helped make his synagogue accessible, meets regularly on Zoom with others who had polio.

Once a month, Edward “Eddie” Rice hops on to Zoom to chat with a group of people he doesn’t need to explain anything to: Jewish survivors of polio.

The support group’s motto is “Just joy, no oy,” but they discuss serious issues as well, including dealing with employment issues, communicating with a non-disabled spouse, and the special needs of survivors who may find themselves living alone after their spouse dies.

“We all come from similar backgrounds, with Type A personalities and parents who pushed us to be successful,” says Rice, 73,  chair of the Canadians with Disabilities subcommittee of B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights

“My parents basically told me ‘you’re going to have a career and be successful, go to university’,” says Rice, who worked as a prosthetics designer at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre for 10 years. He is also the creator of the Fuel Service app, which enables disabled drivers to locate gas stations with assistants available to help refuel.

Rice joined the virtual support group after meeting the founder, Mike Kossove, in a non-Jewish polio group.

Kossove, a New York City biology professor, started the Zoom group in 2021, because he missed the element of bonding with fellow Jewish survivors.

“In the non-Jewish groups, there were so many similaries from dealing with polio, but not about growing up in a Jewish home, celebrating the holidays and traditions,” he said.

“In our group, we are not a minority. We talk about our experiences as Jews. We are dealing with the polio disability, and post-polio symptoms, and we listen to one another, give advice when needed, talk about any challenges, and laugh together.”

One issue frequently discussed in the group is post-polio syndrome. Many survivors contracted polio as infants and sometimes will need leg braces and other supports as children and into adulthood. However, Rice says it’s common to develop post-polio syndrome—where someone isn’t even aware that they contracted polio, and symptoms begin to appear in midlife and beyond.

“This is not a disease of the past,” says Rice, who contracted polio at 18 months old and became paralyzed. After being in an iron lung until he was three years old, he used braces and then crutches which enabled him to walk, but is now using a wheelchair, as post-polio symptoms began to surface in midlife. “Many people are not aware that polio is still among us, mainly in the form of post-polio syndrome.”

A lack of awareness among the general population—particularly younger generations—is something the group addresses and would like to see this change.

“Sometimes younger people simply haven’t met a person with polio before,” says Montreal-based Mona Arsenault, 70, who is the president of Polio Quebec and who got polio at 14 months old “But in fact, they might have. The person may not have been showing symptoms until later.”

The group currently has members in a number of cities, including Toronto, Boca Raton, Fla., and New York. Members range in age from 70 to 90 years old.

“It’s a nice flow of conversation,” says group member Stanley Rose, 79,  a Toronto-based lawyer who got polio at 16 months old.

“We support one another as polio survivors, but it’s also nice to share Jewish experiences,” he says. “In particular, the Jewish family ethic, where I was encouraged to strive for more, which helped prepare me and made me feel more confident in an able-bodied world.”

A current issue that’s been addressed by the group is vaccine hesitancy. “If parents don’t immunize their kids, they’re taking a chance,” says Rice. “If we polio survivors had had access to vaccines, wouldn’t we have taken it?”

 Kossove agrees. “I’ve lived through three epidemics in my lifetime,” he said. “First, polio, then COVID-19, and then stupidity… Not choosing to get yourself—or your kids—vaccinated is stupidity.”

The Jewish polio support group meets the third Thursday of the month. For more information, contact Mike Kossove: [email protected]