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America Needs a National Year of Service

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There's a reason why the Mormons fielded two top candidates in a single presidential election cycle and there's a reason why the comparatively small church is surging to prominence worldwide. Primarily, it's the fact that they inculcate within their teenagers the idea of mandatory service. From age nineteen to twenty-one, young Mormon men are encouraged to serve on a mission which they themselves largely subsidize by working in their teen years. Many Mormon women also do a mission beginning at 21 for about eighteen months. And what does a mission do? It teaches them altruism and selflessness, not to mention going beyond a natural shyness and learning to approach complete strangers about their beliefs. The approximately 52,000 Mormon missionaries are not allowed to call home other than Christmas and Mother's Day and communicate with loved ones with a single weekly email.

As a young Chabad Rabbinical student I did something very similar, leaving my home in the United States with nine colleagues to spend two years in Syndey, Australia, educating the local Jewish community. We too did not visit our families for the duration of our time. It was an experience that built character, brought us significant maturity, and created friendships that last till to today. I would later marry a young woman from Sydney and I still visit the community for lectures annually.

But there was an added benefit that I never expected. Once I decided to run for Congress, I discovered that I already had many built-in campaigning skills because of my Chabad training of approaching strangers on the streets to discuss Jewish themes. As a young Chabad teenager, I was forced to overcome my natural reticence and find the inner confidence to approach Jews who were strangers for the purpose of educating them about their heritage. The skills necessary for retail campaigning on streets and knocking on people's doors are the same, requiring as it does the natural belief that you have something valuable to share with others that they will actually be interested in hearing.

But more than anything else, what a two-year tour of service did was help me transcend any natural human disposition to self-absorption and make me other-people focused.

Of course, the greatest example of the inculcation of this selfless is the Israeli insistence that all its young men and women give two to three years of their young lives to their country in the form of military service. And while this is a necessity due to the endless collection of enemies arrayed agianast the Jewish state who seek its total destruction, its immediate by-product is the creation of a populace which, though tiny, is electrifying the world with its industriousness, creativity, and entrepreneurship. My wife and I were humbled when our daughter Chana decided to serve in a combat unit of the Israeli army entirely at her own initiative. The same applies to our son Mendy, who decided of his own accord, after serving as a Chabad student emissary for two years in Frankfurt, Germany, to apply to West Point.

A year of service is something that all American youth need to learn.

What plagues America more than anything else is a sense of entitlement on the part of our population in which citizenship is seen as something that entails receiving without giving, obtaining government gifts without concomatant civic obligations, indulging in the blessings of America without consecrating our lives as a blessing to our great Republic.

In 2008 we came within a whisker of collapsing the world's richest economy because whatever it gave us was still not enough. And let's be honest. Greed has not only infected Wall Street. It has also trickled down to Main Street. American culture often resembles one giant reality show where we fixate on the lives of the rich and famous hoping to be struck with the same good fortune as our envied heroes.

Fair enough. Wealth is a great blessing. May it happen to each and every one of us. But money without sacrifice, wealth without obligations, breeds woefully inadequate character.

Which is why I believe it essential that the United States institute a year of national service for all its high school graduates. It need not be mandatory and could be easily instituted as a replacement for one of the four years of college wherein those who volunteer to give a year of their lives to the military, to a hospital, to a home for the elderly, or to a local community, receive a year of college credit in return.

It's not just the study of geometry, physics, and finance which constitutes a robust education. Learning to give is what rounds off any truly complete course of character training.

And do we really need four years of college?

I served as Rabbi at the University of Oxford for eleven years. A world-class institution, it's a three-year course, as are most of Europe's leading universities. And even in a three-year course, the students still had plenty of down-time.

Already two year stints of service are becoming more mainstream in the United States. My friend, the TV host and heart surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, started Health Corps, which inspires college graduates to defer medical school or graduate health programs to serve two-year assignments at designated high-need public high schools delivering a curriculum of nutrition, fitness and mental strength.

And then there is the outstanding Teach for America organization that enlists recent college graduates to teach for two years, mostly in low-income communities throughout the United States, to eliminate educational inequality. Acquaintances of mine who have participated in the program consider it life-changing. And rather than feeling they sacrificed two years of their lives, they often go on to high paying jobs with employers who seek them out knowing that the best kind of employee are those who have chosen to serve.

The highest form of service in our nation is, of course, those who choose to serve in the United States military, which has distinguished itself as the single greatest force for good in the world, protecting the innocent, fighting for the downtrodden, and resisting malevolent and evil forces who delight in brutalizing G-d's children.

By some estimates evangelical Christians constitute three percent of our armed forces, which just proves that those who are raised with a spiritual heritage of giving are often the first to volunteer.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is a candidate for the United States House of Representatives in New Jersey's Ninth Congressional District. His website is www.shmuleyforcongress.com. Follow him Twitter @RabbiShmuley.