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Hebrew College’s photography exhibit explores faith amid isolation

A mask-clad bust positioned in front of the “Faith in Isolation Expressed” photography exhibit at Hebrew College in Newton.
A mask-clad bust positioned in front of the “Faith in Isolation Expressed” photography exhibit at Hebrew College in Newton.Elyse Genrich

Or Rose, a rabbi at Hebrew College in Newton, sat outside the school’s new photography exhibit and recalled how religious traditions during the pandemic have been bittersweet. Zoom has enabled loved ones to join from afar, but at the same time, many are lonely.

“Painful, but also a vessel ... into which we pour our questions, our pain, our sense of confusion, fear, and hope against hope,” Rose said. “It was an intergenerational moment, and we were all looking for wisdom, insight, direction, orientation — what is happening and where will we go from here?”

Hebrew College’s new photography exhibit, “Faith in Isolation Expressed,” works to examine instances of faith altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibit can be seen by appointment through June 6 and consists of locally sourced photographs as well as images taken during the pandemic worldwide.

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The words of curator Brenda Bancel, a Boston photographer, were displayed in a foreword at the beginning of the exhibit: “I saw photos of people finding ways to celebrate the high holidays, perform sacraments, conduct prayers and even do baptisms by squirt guns. People were getting creative in order to engage in their faith.”

Deborah Feinstein, a member of the Hebrew College Board of Trustees and founding chair of the college’s arts committee, said a sense of global community and how people have turned to faith — despite being unable to physically gather — is what makes the exhibit so impactful.

“What does faith mean? For me, it’s a big question, you know, does faith mean there’s a man up there on the organ and stuff? No, I think it’s the people all coming together, that we are this very large global community,” Feinstein said.

“Faith in Isolation Expressed” is the first photo exhibit organized by the new arts committee. Feinstein said an exhibit like this can be an important way for people to understand the role of faith in current events.

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“I’m drawn to the visual stuff, and that’s why the exhibit was very impactful for me,” Feinstein said. “When you see a picture, you see the heart of the whole thing, the whole isolation that we’ve been in, and I loved it.”

Feinstein recalled a photograph at the exhibit showing a child hugging a screen.

“I could have cried,” Feinstein said. The child was “hugging the cantor at a temple because that’s the only way [to have] a connection. I mean what else do you have to say, right?”

Rose, who is the director of the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership at Hebrew College, said the exhibit gives people a much-needed opportunity to reflect on what they have lost and what they hope for in a time of transition. At the same time, he said, the existence of an in-person exhibit itself speaks volumes.

“It has been mounted and is now open at a liminal moment in the COVID experience,” Rose said. “There are still restrictions, and people are still very much healing, and yet, we’re beginning to see changes in the possibility of greater health and well-being and light at the end of this very dark tunnel.”

Celene Ibrahim, an Islamic author and religious scholar who was a panelist in the exhibit’s accompanying discussion, said in some ways, religion helped people stay connected.

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“The exhibit shows us the tremendous resilience of communities to find ways to continue offering rituals and points of connection,” Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim said she has not “set foot in a mosque since the pandemic began.”

“But I’m watching a lot of live streams and saying my prayers from home and connecting to the mosque communities through these online channels,” Ibrahim said.

Rose explained how faith can transcend physical isolation, pointing to an image in the exhibit of a woman sewing handmade masks.

“Now, that’s a kind of expression of embodied holiness, and it’s not public and it’s not grand in terms of its ritual, its setting,” Rose said. “It’s one person sitting at a sewing machine faithfully working to try and protect other people.”

Elyse Genrich can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.