Rabbi Shmuley: Young People Need to Lead the Fight Against Coronavirus

Miami Beach spring break (Joe Raedle / Getty)
Joe Raedle / Getty

I grew up in Miami, but never participated in the spring break ritual, because I was studying in a yeshiva (religious seminary). So, no doubt, there is a tinge of jealousy in seeing thousands of young men and women partying on the beaches of Texas and Florida while I’m cooped up in the freezing cold of New Jersey and New York.

My overwhelming feeling, however, is confusion at seeing this spectacle juxtaposed with the stories of the coronavirus stacking up bodies in churches in Italy.

These young people, who probably never watch the nightly news, are still aware of the global crisis from their smartphones. They know that people are dying, that tens of thousands are infected, and that our country is on the verge of paralysis as we are asked to stay in our homes to prevent the spread of the disease.

Yet we see them frolicking in the sea, potential carriers of the disease who are putting other people at risk and endangering themselves.

I get it. Some people feel we’re overreacting. Among them are my friend Bret Stephens and Tom Friedman, both of the New York Times, who would not condone the beach scenes but who feel the shutdown of American business is a cure worse than the disease.

But still. Even if those who say we’re overreacting are right, shouldn’t those who are part of the partying scene feel that it’s unseemly at a time when so many are suffering?

We know that America’s college students probably worked hard at school and looked forward all year to a week of partying. Still, it is not too much to expect a modicum of respect, an acknowledgement that we are all in this fight for survival together.

If you’re going to get sloshed at a bar, the rest of us probably don’t need to see you broadcast it on social media.

But a lot of people just don’t seem to give a damn.

I saw one spring breaker interviewed on TV. When he was asked whether he was worried about the virus, he said something along the lines of: “Whether I get the virus or not, I’m going to keep partying.”

Ok, I’m not entirely surprised. Young people are often narcissistic and believe they are invincible. They’ve also been lulled into complacency by reports that the most vulnerable people are elderly, and that if young people do get the disease, it’s not much worse than the flu.

Well, now we’re getting more information, and it turns out that is not entirely correct. New Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data indicate nearly 40 percent of patients sick enough to be hospitalized were age 20 to 54. A lot of you folks on the beach fall into that range.

We’re fortunate that the youth of today have not — until now — been forced to learn the meaning of sacrifice. When I was in yeshiva in New York, a rabbi told us that during the Holocaust, they’d tell kids in yeshiva to do something to show they cared, to sacrifice something, even if it was as trivial as giving up eating candy to demonstrate empathy for the suffering of Jews elsewhere.

Obviously, that was not going to save anyone in Europe. But the point was to teach children that when world is on fire and people are suffering, you should minimize your pleasure.

This isn’t the Holocaust or World War II. God willing, we will take the necessary measures, and our medical researchers will discover a vaccine to flatten the curve and minimize the sickness, death, and economic pain caused by the virus.

But right now, virtually the entire world is suffering. People are really scared. Imagine how it must look to people in, say, Italy, where the pandemic is taking thousands of lives, to see pictures of young Americans partying on the beach. They must be appalled by the insensitivity and indifference.

I understand that confining hundreds of thousand of teenagers to their rooms is impractical. Believe me, my family and I are going a bit stir crazy. But we also have a future to consider.

Of course, not every teenager is partying at the beach. This is a generation that has demonstrated the potential to teach their elders lessons about what it takes to save the world. They are fighting for social justice and the need to address things like unnecessarily harming the environment.

Now is the time to harness that positive energy for the benefit of America.

Young people are less susceptible to the disease, and if they’re careful and follow the health guidelines, they help people who are suffering and vulnerable.

I saw a clip on the news of two people who played their instruments on the porch of an elderly woman living alone. There are other ways to help people confined to their homes feel less isolated. The healthy can pick up and deliver medications and groceries for the elderly, or help provide meals to poor children. This is the time for young people to prove they can be the next “greatest generation.”

We’re dealing with an emergency now, but we should already start planning for the future so our youth can develop greater sensitivity, a sense of pride, and a realization that they have an obligation to their country. Israelis learn these attributes serving in the military, men for nearly three years and women for two.

We do not face the existential threat Israelis do, so I don’t think we should be instituting a mandatory year of national service. But we should encourage it. In my religious movement, Chabad, we are expected to give two of our teenage years to the global Jewish community. (I did mine in Sydney, Australia, where I, together with nine colleagues, pioneered the Rabbinical College of Australia’s largest city, where we conducted hundreds of communal events.)

We don’t need four years of university in America. I was the Rabbi at Oxford and it’s a three-year undergraduate program. The same is true for other world-class European institutions, such as the Sorbonne and the London School of Economics. We can begin making the fourth year of one of national commitment on the part of young Americans, to teach them selflessness and service.

Our teens don’t have to make many sacrifices for this country. Is it too much to ask every high school graduate to commit a year to helping their fellow Americans?

One of the great things about young people today is that many are enthusiastic about public service. We see this when students volunteer to help communities after national disasters. It should not be that onerous to ask every student to participate in a project that will truly make America greater.

It has become popular for young people to take gap years before going to college — so why not put time to use for the betterment of society? If college is only three years, they will be finished with school at the same time as if they had gone straight to a four-year school. An added benefit is that students and their parents would save a fortune in tuition and loans.

President Trump can encourage a new moral regeneration by leading the call for a year of national service and offering incentives for participation.

The current crisis will not be our last. We will be far better prepared for the next one if we have an army of people dedicated to serving the needs of their fellow Americans.

President Trump can bring new moral regeneration to our nation by using this time to call for a year of voluntary national service. President Kennedy did it very effectively with the peace corps. It’s time for a new age of youth service.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the author of “Judaism for Everyone” and “Renewal: The Seven Central Values of the Jewish Faith.” Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.


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