Like other Bay Area Jews with a connection to Camp Newman, the teens at Contra Costa Midrasha were devastated by the news that the camp had burned down in the Tubbs Fire last October. As a group, they batted around ideas as to what they could do to help.
So when it came time to discuss an upcoming day of community service, they had Newman on their minds, according to Devra Aarons, executive director. “There was all kinds of talk like, ‘We’re going to rebuild this, or clean up that,’ ” she said.
Instead, the kids took an artistic route.
At the Midrasha graduation ceremony held May 23 at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek, the teens unveiled a handmade 4-by-8-foot movable mural, which they hope will liven up the new site of Camp Newman this summer. The mural, which they conceived and painted, was presented to camp associate director Rabbi Allie Fischman.
Initially, the students wanted to pitch in by helping to clean up the Santa Rosa site. But between schoolwork demands and the dangers of working in the toxic environment of the burn areas, the teens never made it there.
“No one understood how big the devastation was,” said Aarons. “No one had any experience to wrap their head around it. But they love it there. It’s another home for them. They really wanted to be there to help bring it back to life.”
The idea of a fundraiser came up, but it struck the teens as too similar to what so many others were doing. In discussing what makes camp a camp, someone remembered the murals at Newman.
“One thing that makes it unique as a Jewish site is that there’s so much Hebrew,” said Aarons, who has attended numerous retreats at Camp Newman. “So many Jewish values are painted into the murals.”
There’s also “so much art-making at Newman, with people from various sessions working on one project,” said Izzy Young, 17.
When the group learned that Camp Newman would be held at a new location this summer — at the 89-acre Cal Maritime campus in Vallejo — they realized that a mural could help make a place that is unfamiliar to them feel more like home. So they decided to hold a contest to pick a design.
As luck would have it, Young, a junior at Monte Vista High School in Danville, has been drawing and painting all of her life. This year, she has designed sets for her drama class, and in an art class, she was assigned to do something with letters and surrealism. She already had been working on an idea with Hebrew letters when she heard about the mural contest and entered her design. It was the winner.
As their teacher, Aarons took the opportunity to teach the class about Bernard Zakheim, a Polish-born Jewish muralist who immigrated to San Francisco and was a contemporary of Diego Rivera’s. His work is on display in the Coit Tower Depression-era murals. Zakheim’s mural at the old JCC in San Francisco was one of the reasons preservationists did not want the building torn down. The teens watched a PBS documentary about him.
But since murals are normally painted on permanent walls, how does one go about painting a temporary mural? Given that Newman’s leadership was preoccupied with restoring the site, they didn’t know where it could go.
“We were in touch with them, but for obvious reasons, it was not a priority for them and we didn’t want to quash the energy and passion of our teens in wanting to do this,” said Aarons.
Young’s winning design features five large poppies and the Hebrew words “Ahavat Olam” in curvy blue script. Since poppies are the state flower, she said, to her they represent California as home, and Newman as home.
“I interpret ‘Ahavat Olam’ as eternal love,” said Young. “Even though the physical site of Newman is gone, we can still remember that memory and pass it on to the other campers — l’dor vador [from generation to generation] — to experience the love we felt when we’re all there.”
While Young herself will be attending a summer arts program and won’t be returning to Newman this year, she said, “I hope it will help liven up the new site and help make it more of a home. I think some people are hesitant as to whether they’ll feel connected to the new location, and this will help bring a bit of home there.”
“We are incredibly touched by the students’ beautiful mural and dedication,” said Fischman. “They were so thoughtful in creating such a meaningful piece of art for our summer home.”