An Unlikely Trio: Artists, Torah, and COVID-19

By The Creative Beit Midrash of Hevreh of Southern Berkshire

As the days of pandemic isolation grew from one month to two months to now one year plus, a question kept arising.

It’s a question heard in almost every virtual group meeting on Zoom, among our spiritual leaders, in the political arena, and in the workplace: “What have we learned from COVID that will forge a positive outcome on how we move forward in the future?”

Some of these outcomes and positive impacts have already taken form. At Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, it was the inception of the Creative Beit Midrash.

A beit midrash is a house of study. “Beit” is the Hebrew word for house. “Midrash” comes from the Hebrew root word meaning “to seek dig for meaning.” Add artists of all genres and, voila, you have Hevreh’s Creative Beit Midrash.

The Creative Beit Midrash concept was the brainchild of two artists, Heidi Katz and Larry Frankel, who chafed at the reality that their creativity was stifled by being locked away from the rest of the world. Being inspired by what was going on in the world while also connecting with other artists, they hoped, would be inspirational to all who wanted to participate. Over these many months of COVID-19, it was too easy to get locked into looking inward, not outward, which could sometimes lead to mental blocks on an artist’s urge to express their feelings through art.

Katz and Frankel wondered what might happen if the Hevreh community came together to study with creative intent. Perhaps the interaction with others could awaken people’s imaginations in new and different ways. So they brought their idea to Rabbi Neil Hirsch, and Creative Beit Midrash quickly became a Saturday morning staple at Hevreh.

The concept Katz and Frankel expressed was “to gather a group of people to explore the intersection of creative and spiritual lives,” an idea that enthralled Rabbi Hirsch, who is himself an artist, photographer, and writer.

Katz recalls: “The idea was to produce and talk about art based on Jewish themes or interwoven with Torah study,” using Zoom as the meeting room. An invitation was sent out in early May 2020 to the congregation, inviting all creative souls who felt the need to interact with others to form a virtual group to “explore the intersection of our creative and spiritual lives.”

The initial response brought ten artists into a Zoom space at 8:30 a.m. every second Shabbat. Original participants included visual artists, photographers, songwriters, and writers/poets. Each brought their special gift to share with the others. The group has grown, and each meeting has at least 12 participants, including a dancer who recently joined.

As Larry Frankel observes: “The insights we give each other while discussing our work is both intuitive and informative. What is of even greater importance is that we are supportive of one another and the work we do.”

Creative Beit Midrash has developed into a safe haven for the artists. Relationships based on trust have grown among the participants. Each Creative Beit Midrash includes exploring a Jewish text or concept through the artworks that the participants have created. No critiques are offered – just the experience of sharing and gleaning new insights into one’s own work and appreciating the creative souls of colleagues.

Those viewing the art sometimes see things in the works that the creator did not even realize are there. It is an exciting process that fosters a trusted community, a community that is always open and welcoming to new participants. Creative Beit Midrash has become such an important part of each of the artists’ lives that some participants also spend time together on Saturday mornings when the group doesn’t “officially” meet through Hevreh. In their separate studios, each artist explores new techniques or creates a new work. Participants inspire one another, get to know one another, and support one another through the creative process.

The influence of Judaic traditions is evident throughout the works – sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. Participants explore themes of social justice; of appreciating and saving the environment; valuing family; and of recognizing the bravery and agony of frontline pandemic workers emerge in many works. These themes all reflect the Torah teachings that birthed the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. As the scientist-artist in the group declared: “Creation helps combine today with action.”

When interviewed for this article, Creative Beit Midrash participants were asked a series of questions. The similarity among the responses was remarkable. People often think that artists create alone, but the Creative Beit Midrash proves that for many artists, that is not so. Hearing how others perceive one’s work is cathartic and inspirational to an artist. Describing one’s creative process and what inspired a particular work allows the artist to see deeper into their own work. Participants’ explanations of their initial interest in the group aligned with the intentions of Heidi Katz, Larry Frankel, and Rabbi Hirsch in starting the group – artistic people need to interact with others to keep their creative juices flowing.

Getting together in the studio, as one member observed, “brings different ideas and angles, which is refreshing and echoes my own feelings about my work, which is validating.” Another participant, a writer/author said: “When I sign onto Zoom on Shabbat morning, suddenly I start getting busy in my studio…Thank you! Thank you!”

So what’s next for Creative Beit Midrash after COVID, when meeting in person is again the norm? This question got a unanimous response from the group – their intention is to continue studying and working together, and also show the world what they have accomplished during their time together. Suggestions include creating an Artists’ Gallery at Hevreh; compiling the works and printing a coffee table book; in-person visits to other artists’ studios; and even exhibiting the work as a group in a local gallery.

As Rabbi Hirsch reflects: “Being in community and conversation with other artists is moving. We have given one another a sacred trust, which allows each to explore our creative minds, supporting one another in our own individual creative processes. For someone who spends his career building community, it feels good to find myself in community.”

Creative Beit Midrash may have started during COVID, but it certainly will not end with COVID.

Artist Statements  

Nina Lipkowitz, More Meditations in the Time of a Pandemic; Year II” (Mixed-Media on Canvas) After a year of painting in a watercolor medium on paper, the work expanded into completely unimaginable places.

Rebekah Jordan, Channel. I painted this piece while working on a series of images focused on leaf veins. I started thinking about the ways leaves model how we carry energy and share connections—what extends our reach and what gets in our way.  This piece tries to capture the feeling of that flow.  

Alyson Slutzky, Taconic Parkway Electric Streaks. During car rides between MA and NJ, from 2011 to 2019, I took photographs out the passenger side of my car window. I was motivated by changes in light and the atmosphere, due to time of day or weather, being happy to have photos with blurry lines and abstract shapes. This photo is of the headlights of another car as it passed us.

Larry Frankel, Olive Tree. Global warming has affected the natural rhythm and weather patterns on earth, as well as the balance of flora and fauna. This image represents a visual portrayal as to what may arise as a casualty of non-intervention by humanity in addressing this global issue. 

Heidi Katz, Mizrach. Much of my work inspired by the Creative Beit Midrash during the months of COVID has explored notions of time and space, including directionality. Finding my own center, as well as my place of being, has been a physical and emotional challenge. Even the seeming-center of this Mizrach is a bit off-kilter. (A mizrach [literally, "east"] is a plaque traditionally hung by Jews in the Diaspora west of Israel on the eastern wall of a room to indicate the direction of Jerusalem.)

Barbara Rosenbaum, Untitled. ‘This painting is “Untitled” as it expresses my deep emotions during the pandemic...compassion beyond words.  It is part of a Corona Series that I worked on daily.’

Sally Lebwohl, Open (Hoping). Inspired by the idea of open and closed, I made a pastel of an image from inside a restaurant in Lenox before the pandemic. It's a very literal interpretation: inside looking out, light and dark, closed now with the hope of opening in the future. A wonderful conversation with fellow members of CBM pulled out a more emotional connection for me to my own creation, which is in the collection of Brava in Lenox.




I Pray
Jadwiga Brown

I pray. I pray silently. I pray aloud
Always my prayer is the same —
I pray that I may use my gifts each day
To make our world more whole

I pray for goodness, peace and justice
I pray that when we look at a person
We see a heart, a soul, not skin tones,
Not disabilities, not whom one loves

I pray that we will learn to truly listen
To people, even those we do not know
I pray we do not turn our backs on others
Instead, we offer an open hand to all

I pray that each of us will choose
To be better, more loving, more caring
I pray that we see beyond ourselves
Chanting “Hallelujah” to our differences

I pray you will allow me to sit by you
To share your prayers with me
I pray that we can journey together
On this beautiful road we call life

Written March 1, 2021, as part of Hevreh of Southern Berkshire’s Creative Bet Midrash.