Coronavirus is exposing the narcissism of our youth – opinion

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?

spring break (photo credit: AP)
spring break
(photo credit: AP)
I grew up in Miami but never participated in the spring break ritual because I was studying in a yeshiva.
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 COVID-19 virus 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 the US 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 and Prevention data indicate nearly 40% of patients sick enough to be hospitalized were aged 20 to 54. A lot of you folks on the beach fall into that range.
Adults in charge of our health bear responsibility as well. While most large cities are shutting everything down outside of grocery stores, pharmacies and hospitals, officials in Texas and Florida apparently were less concerned with the spread of the virus than the potential damage to their economy if they shut down the beaches. This is irresponsible and sends the message to the young people that what they are doing is just fine, damn the consequences.
We’re fortunate that the youth of today have not been forced to learn the meaning of sacrifice. When I was in yeshiva in New York, a rabbi told us that during the Holocaust American Jewry knew Jews were being annihilated and 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, this was not going to save anyone in Europe. But the point was to teach children that when the world is on fire and people are suffering, you should minimize your pleasure activities.
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, though 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 to the people around them, as well as their own health. They probably are wondering how many of the beachgoers may go to visit their grandparents and bring the virus with them.
I understand that confining hundreds of thousands of teenagers to their rooms is impractical. Believe me, my family and I are going a bit-stir crazy. But they 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.
They are less susceptible to the disease and, if they’re careful and follow the health guidelines, they can be helping people who are suffering and desperately need help.
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 great 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 year of national service. In Chabad we are expected to give two of our teenage years to the global Jewish community and I did mine in Sydney, 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 one of national commitment on the part of the youth 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’s 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’d gone straight to a four-year school. An added benefit is that students and their parents would save a fortune in tuition and loans.
We need a year of national service to make our youth more sensitive, generous and happy. US President Donald 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.
Trump can bring new moral regeneration to our nation by using this time to call for a year of voluntary national service. President John F. Kennedy did it very effectively with the Peace Corps. It’s time for a new age of the youth’s service and commitment.
The writer, 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.