Newman campers take to S.F. streets for gun control

Resembling beatniks, the guerrilla theater troupe stood before San Francisco City Hall Friday, dressed in black and accompanied by the steady beat of a drum.

"Everyone is affected [by gun violence]," the group from UAHC Camp Newman's Hevrah program chanted in unison, punctuating each word. "It-could-have-been-you!"

Performing as part of an annual project day, the teens emerged from their Santa Rosa hillside camp to spread the message, "Lower your guns and raise awareness," throughout the streets of San Francisco. Written by the performers, the short piece touched on the global effects of gun violence.

"It's a dramatic performance that should raise awareness and have the audience be like, 'Whoa,'" said 15-year-old Alex Rubin, a 10th-grader from Arizona. "Too many guns are getting into the wrong hands. We have to do something about it."

Although only attracting a few curious onlookers to its initial performance on Polk Street, the piece was repeated throughout the day in busier locations around the city.

The Reform movement's area summer camps, run by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, have long incorporated an annual project day. Each summer, campers have climaxed their work on social issues by journeying to San Francisco to spread awareness.

This year, campers from three other Hevrah project groups — lobbying, visual arts, and mitzvah corps/tefillah (prayer) — cheered on the first guerrilla performance before dispersing to engage in their own activism projects, under the guidance of counselors and unit heads.

Some teens handed out bumper stickers promoting peace; others solicited signatures for a petition on tougher gun control laws.

The tefillah group moved on to Golden Gate Park where they presented a service for any interested passers-by.

The service, performed at Camp Newman the night before, brought Rubin to tears.

"I had heard the Hevrah project was powerful," she said. "Now I know it is. I never really thought about gun violence until this. I have more passion about it now."

During project day, most of the campers wore "H2k" (Hevrah 2000) T-shirts, bearing a tree of life shedding gun shells rather than leaves. The shirts, designed by the visual arts group, also depicted an hourglass, "to symbolize that time is running out," said 14-year-old Matt Wahl, a ninth-grader from San Diego.

"People continue dying because of gun violence. It's almost like a Columbine everyday," he said, referring to the 1999 high school massacre in Colorado.

This year's Hevrah (Hebrew for "society") project day was the culmination of four weeks of study on gun-related issues through a variety of camp activities. Hevrah project coordinator Talia Shani said the teens also learned about "making a difference through social action, political action and the arts."

Betsy Walter, a Newman unit head, added: "They can contribute to society. They're not just kids. They do play a role."

Ryan Bower, another unit head, said the Hevrah project tried to present a well-rounded program on guns, not just a one-sided attack against them.

"When the campers first came in, they were all very anti-gun already," he said. "But, our goal was to show both sides as well as an understanding of the deep connection between Jewish text and social action."

Project day is the climax of these efforts, said Shani. "It is their chance to bring public awareness to the issue," which this year was gun control.

Past issues have included the environment, AIDS, the disabled and peace in the Middle East.

One camp activity prior to project day brought the teens to the state Capitol in Sacramento, where they had the chance to lobby the state senators for stricter gun control measures.

Tenth-grader Ryan Weiss, president of Students Against Gun Violence at his high school in Los Angeles, was a member of the lobbying group. He hoped the teens' appearance as well as their project-day petitions would make an impact on the Senate.

"I think it should be even more meaningful that [the message] comes from a group of teenagers, trying to make a difference," he said.

However, Rubin, who said the Hevrah project has rendered her an adamant supporter of stricter gun laws, found the Sacramento experience a bit discouraging.

"I don't think the [senators] understood what a big deal this issue is," she said. "We asked them questions, but they seemed to be putting them off. It almost seems as if something big has to happen to them or their kids before anything is going to change.

"I don't think we should have to wait that long."