In the summer of 2006 while working at Camp Ramah Day Camp in Philadelphia, I was coming back from a work shift when a dark sedan pulled up to the entrance of our building. Men in suits shuffled out of the car, went inside, and then escorted one of my fellow staffers, Dara Levin, into the car and drove off. It was only later that afternoon I understood why, when the camp administrators pulled the entire staff aside to inform us that Michael, Dara’s twin brother, had been killed in action in southern Lebanon.
I will never forget that moment, how surreal and unimaginable the feeling.
I had only seen and spoken to Michael weeks before, when he was home visiting his family. He had come to pick up Dara from work one afternoon. We talked about his service, what it meant, about my dream to someday serve also, and about Philadelphia sports, specifically about our mutual love of the Flyers. I asked him what I should do after graduating, “Follow your heart” he had said with a big smile.
I couldn’t begin to understand that he was gone for good, that he had truly left us.
Michael’s death didn’t just impact his family, it was felt like a wave of pain across our entire community. From his closest friends at Ramah Poconos and from his Nativ year, to his fellow soldiers in the IDF and his friends around Israel, everyone who learned of Michael’s passing sensed the loss of a truly special soul, the loss of someone who had brought so much happiness into their lives.
But in as much as we grieved for Michael after his death, our sadness and pain over the years has transformed into pride and respect. We screen the documentary about his life, A Hero in Heaven, at special memorial services each year, on college campuses, and for Birthright trips. Monuments have been constructed in order to honor the ultimate sacrifice he made for the country he loved so dearly. And his grave is one of the most recognizable on Har Herzl, with thousands of people visiting each year to pay their respects.
In these ways do we tell Michael’s story and share his memory with those who did not have the privilege and joy of knowing him.
Six years ago today the people of Israel lost one of its own, a cherished son, brother and friend, and a hero for many of us who looked up to him as an example of what it meant to live a meaningful life. Michael’s love of Zionism, his devotion to his family and friends, and his commitment to defending the homeland of the Jewish people are an inspiration to those of us whose lives he touched, even in the smallest way. His yearbook quote on Nativ, “You can’t fulfill your dreams unless you dare to risk it all” echoes like a call to action even now, challenging us to put everything on the line so as not to lose hope of ever reaching our goals and living our dreams.
Much has changed in the six years since Michael’s death. I too went on Nativ and returned to attend college instead of enlisting in the IDF. It was a conscious choice of course, compounded by a number of other personal factors, but the stirring words Michael once said to me have never left my mind. Rather, they have fueled nearly four years of committed pro-Israel activism not only on my college campus but around the country. They drove my passion and the conviction that if I could not defend Israel at home I would defend her abroad. And they encouraged me, as my time at school was coming to an end, to return to the dream that never quite went away, to finally follow my heart.
Every time I visit Jerusalem while in Israel, since living in the country in 2007, I make it a priority to stop by Har Herzl, most often at the end of the day. I go to see Michael. I sit by him and talk to him, updating him about stuff back home, about the Flyers and other Philly sports teams, and about my progress to finishing school and my dreams of making Aliyah and serving in the IDF.
And I think about what he once said to me with a smile.
In twelve days I’ll be heeding that advice once more, following my heart onto a one-way flight to Israel. I know when I visit Michael next, it will not be as an American dreaming of living in Israel, it will be as an Israeli finally living that dream.
May Michael’s memory always be for a blessing.