Swig campers take teen pregnancy issues, abortion to S.F. plaza

When she's inevitably asked the old question, "What did you do at summer camp?" 15-year-old Jessica Taich of Sunnyvale is gonna have most of her friends beat.

The Camp Swig camper spent a memorable part of her summer as a tormented teenage mom clutching a plastic baby in her arms while kneeling on the bricks of San Francisco's Justin Herman Plaza.

After listening to a chorus of fellow campers chanting, "You're too young to be a mother," Taich screamed out, "Stop! It wasn't my choice!"

This clearly wasn't the typical image conjured up of a camp experience where kids knot lanyards, paddle canoes and cook s'mores in a fire pit.

Rather, the noontime scene that unfolded Tuesday at the foot of Market Street was a bit of street theater staged by teens from the Saratoga-based camp completing a social-action section called Chevrah.

While office workers and tourists mostly strolled by, Taich and six other cast members gave an edgy performance on the potential consequences of growing legal restrictions on the ability of minors to obtain abortions.

"Pregnant! But we used condoms. Are you sure?" asked 15-year-old Isaac Lewin of San Luis Obispo, who was playing the role of the bewildered boyfriend. "But we can't have a baby. We can't even drive yet."

During the performance, some three dozen other Swig campers fanned out throughout the plaza and amid stalls where vendors sold jewelry, photos and other artwork. Clad in light-blue camp T-shirts, the teens handed out pamphlets explaining their project and sought signatures on petitions attempting to block laws requiring girls to get parental consent before having an abortion.

In between the five-minute skits, Taich said: "I feel like I'm doing this for a worthy cause. Even though it's emotionally draining, it's something I believe in."

The guerrilla theater sketches drew a handful of onlookers — and one vocal objection from an angry vendor.

But office worker Erin Walsh stopped to watch and then observed, "I think it's a cool concept if they believe in what they're fighting for."

The teens said they did, indeed.

"You might as well make a difference as long as you're in camp," said Taich, who wore a white peasant dress that had been stained with splotches of red at the hemline to resemble blood.

"I think it's like opening people's minds up more," observed Teddy Raven, a 15-year-old from Tucson, Ariz., who played the part of a "Compassionate Conservative" and like his fellow actors, wore a laminated label around his neck.

For years, high school students attending the Reform movement camp spend their Chevrah session learning about social action in a Jewish context. In the past, campers have tackled such issues as hunger and black-Jewish relations.

This year's theme focused on the separation of church and state and included discussions on prayer, vouchers, abortion and how the issue is viewed in Israel and other countries.

"It's a social-action session because that's such a big piece of Judaism," said Suzanne Spencer, Swig's coordinator of Tuesday's project day. The trip to San Francisco was a culmination of the two-week program.

Fellow campers Bekah Panger and Jessie Lackey, both 14, admitted that initially they weren't terribly fired up about this year's theme.

"We were like, 'Whoa, what's this about?'" said Lackey.

But the two said they wound up learning plenty about the subject and developing strong opinions.

Lackey said she backs a teen's right to obtain an abortion without parental consent, which is allowed in California but not in many other states.

Panger said she was surprised at how she managed to overcome her fear of public speaking. "All day, we've been walking up to strangers," said Panger, who was holding a hand-painted sign reading: "Church and state is a big mistake."

Asked about his time in camp, 14-year-old Joey Kahn of Marin County, said, "It's been awesome."

In between performances, 22-year-old camp counselor Noah Levin tried to persuade passersby to stop and listen to the skit. "I did this as a camper in 1994," he said.

Levin wasn't concerned that his efforts drew just a few office workers and other spectators.

"If one person listens, it's worth it. The goal is to start challenging what people think."

Jessica Baloun, a 15-year-old from Palo Alto, admitted that she had expected a larger audience. "People aren't listening as much as I thought they would," she said.

Still Baloun, who played the role of an angry mother who doesn't want her daughter to abort her baby, was philosophical. "If anything, I guess people see a group of teenagers trying to do something," she said.

During the rest of the day, campers met with staffers for Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, helped serve dinner at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church and held a panel discussion on church and state issues for residents of the Jewish Home. They ended the day with dinner and prayers at Stowe Lake in Golden Gate Park.