Infectious disease specialists fill leadership roles at St. Louis synagogue, in fighting coronavirus

Unable to work in his clinic because he is in a high-risk age group, Dr. Gregory Storch has been helping groups like the Orthodox Union from his home in Clayton. 

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

The board of directors at Bais Abraham Congregation could be mistaken for a COVID-19 response unit.

Of the 19 people on the board of the modern Orthodox synagogue, four are physicians who specialize in infectious diseases. 

For those counting at home (which is where everyone should be), that means 21 percent of the board could provide medical advice on how to respond to this pandemic.

And they have been providing guidance to Jewish and medical groups. 

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On Feb. 23, before life had been entirely upended, the four doctors gave a presentation at the University City synagogue. Dr. Gregory Storch spoke about the definition of a coronavirus and modes of transmission. Dr. Michael Gutwein spoke about the origins of the coronavirus and how it compares with influenza. Dr. Morey Gardner answered the question, “How contagious is the coronavirus?” And Dr. Tessa Gardner, who is married to Morey, answered “What is known about the disease in children, pregnant women and perinatal transmission?”

Since then, Storch has been serving on a medical advisory panel on the pandemic to the Orthodox Union, a national umbrella organization for the stream of Judaism.

Rabbi Moshe Hauer, the incoming executive vice president of the OU, said the organization decided to form such a committee — rather than only rely on guidelines from government agencies — because “while we would certainly never deviate one drop below the national health standards, we are aware that as a community that goes to a synagogue and classes on a regular basis, our level of social interaction internally is higher than average. As a result, we seek to adopt a standard that is even beyond that which is mandated.”

For example, Storch recently helped the OU develop guidelines for Jews before Passover, which starts April 8. The committee determined that while travel and gathering as a group should be discouraged, there would be an exception for people living alone or couples “who just can’t get Passover together.”

If they self-quarantined for 14 days in advance of the holiday and were then asymptomatic, they then would be permitted to go to a local family that also is low risk and willing to host them.

On whether that is realistic, Storch said, “I would hope so, but people don’t always follow the rules.”

Despite his efforts to help the Jewish community, Storch is not able to fully help in his usual setting: the clinic. His specialty is viral respiratory diseases.

But he is 71 years old, which means he is in a high-risk age group and not allowed to provide direct patient care during the pandemic. So he is working from home in an advisory role.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “It’s a period of intense need.”

But he said platforms like Zoom have helped him contribute remotely, adding, “I feel for people who are less able to meet their needs, people whose living circumstances are more limited.”