Harvard's Dr. Jeremy Faust was a guest on the May 6 episode of Congregation Sherith Israel's web series “Covid-19: A Conversation from the Front Lines.” (Screenshot/YouTube)
Harvard's Dr. Jeremy Faust was a guest on the May 6 episode of Congregation Sherith Israel's web series “Covid-19: A Conversation from the Front Lines.” (Screenshot/YouTube)

S.F. synagogue’s online series on Covid-19 offers expert insights

With so much yet to learn about the Covid-19 virus, Dr. Jonathan Graf does not have all the answers. But he does have a lot of them. And these days, he’s sharing what he knows on YouTube, courtesy of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.

A rheumatologist and professor of medicine at UCSF, Graf has been following the pandemic closely all year, watching infection rates rise and curves flatten. When his wife, Sherith Israel’s Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf, suggested he launch an informational coronavirus series on the synagogue’s YouTube channel, he jumped on it.

Members of the congregation have been jumping on it, as well. Titled “Covid-19: A Conversation from the Front Lines,” the series drew more than 100 viewers for each of its first four live episodes, with many more watching later.

In the series, Graf interviews epidemiologists, gerontologists, pediatricians and other medical experts — many of them current or former members of Sherith Israel.

All of them attempt to shed light on a disease that has so far claimed more than 112,000 lives in the United States.

“People are anxious and want to know if there are [experts] within the community who can set them at ease, and provide knowledge beyond what [CNN medical correspondent] Sanjay Gupta could provide,” Graf told J.

The episodes — the most recent was on June 3 — are not passive entertainment. Viewers submit questions in real time, eliciting some fascinating discussion, and revealing facts known only by epidemiologists.

“People are not stupid,” Graf said. “They are concerned that they are getting conflicting information. Is it deadly or not? Is it only killing old people? They want to know about testing, how you get it, and what it tells you. They wanted to know about vaccine development, when would things open up and what would that look like.”

In a recent interview with Dr. Jeremy Samuel Faust, a health policy expert and instructor at Harvard Medical School who went to Sherith Israel when he was a kid, the conversation veered toward the pandemic’s dark math. Faust said that as bad as the pandemic has been, it would have to get much worse for everyone in the United States to personally know someone who had died from the disease. Short of that, the perception that the crisis is not so bad could prevail, which would impede efforts to suppress its spread.

In that same episode, Faust and Graf agreed that the commonly touted figure of 60,000 annual flu deaths is a made-up number, extrapolated by number-crunchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and based on pneumonia deaths. Each doctor noted that he had never had a patient die from the flu.

Personally, Graf has seen the reality of Covid-19 beyond media misinformation. He has treated at least five Covid-19 patients.

“In the 24-hour news cycle, stuff gets put out there that hasn’t been vetted,” Graf said. “So we knew precious little about [the coronavirus]. A lot of the confusion out there is because the media puts things out in real time. In our series, we explain the discrepancies, what is not known, what is assumed to be known, or [what is] evolving as we speak.”

In another episode, Graf interviewed Dr. Valerie Flaherman, a pediatrician at UCSF, and Dr. Bennett Zier, a staff physician at the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living (formerly the Jewish Home). They offered beginning-of-life and end-of-life perspectives on the impact of the virus.

Rabbi Graf said she was particularly impressed when Zier “framed his comments through a Jewish lens, and our obligation to take care of people.”

Though the coronavirus is a nondenominational threat, keeping the Sherith Israel series Jewish was an integral part of the planning.

“Jonathan had a real interest in Judaism, Jewish texts and Jewish learning long before he met me,” the rabbi said. “This series has allowed him to be present as a doctor and as a [rabbi’s spouse].”

Though the series keeps the focus on public health, Graf said he feels alarmed by the steady politicization of the pandemic. In 2020 America, wearing a mask is as much a political statement as it is a preventive health measure, and Graf said he laments that.

“I am stunned,” he said about the national schism over the pandemic. “It’s the opposite of what we’ve seen with all other crises. We usually rise to a higher calling. This is the first where I’ve seen less. It comes from our political leadership. They’ve been essentially absent.”

Doctor and rabbi can’t say how long the series will continue — as of June 10, the next episode had not been scheduled — but as long as the pandemic continues to disrupt normal life, claim lives, baffle medical researchers and generate fear, they will not run out of topics or viewers.

“We have incredibly intelligent, thoughtful people at Sherith Israel and in the community,” Rabbi Graf said. “This is a pretty sophisticated, well-read city. I wanted to have high-level discussions with experts in the field and help people understand [the disease] as well as the medical community [understands it].”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.