Last week Michael Levin z”l would have celebrated his 30th birthday. Instead he is a hero in heaven. Michael fell, at the age of 22, during the Second Lebanon War. He was the only Israeli/American Chayal Boded (“Lone Soldier”) killed in that conflict. His parents, Harriet and Mark, in addition to honouring the last wish of their only son and laying him to eternal rest on Mt. Herzl, decided that rather than build another memorial in a country that sadly has too many memorials for young boys and girls who paid the ultimate price to keep the Zionist dream alive, that they were going to celebrate his life and the ideals he lived for, by collaborating with a family friend, Sally Mitlas, and creating a wonderful tribute documentary film, “A Hero In Heaven”. Since its premier this film has moved and inspired thousands of people from around the world.
I have personally screened and seen the film countless times, to my Alexander Muss High School in Israel students, to my Birthright groups and American High school and college students. Every time I watch with tears of sadness and joy.
Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) is where Michael fine-tuned his love for Israel. Students at AMHSI use Israel as a living classroom and in the process gain a strong understanding of the concept Yonatan Netanyahu referred to in one of his letters, that the Jewish people are not just the “people of the Book” but also the “people of the Land.” They learn about the young men and women who selflessly devoted their lives to the Jewish State. Michael absorbed the lessons, internalised them, acted on them and became one of them.
It is fascinating just how many lives Michael touched, not only during his all too brief life, but how his life and message continue to resonate. I screen the “A Hero in Heaven” film to every “Amazing Israel” Birthright group the evening before we go to the holy site of Mt. Herzl military cemetery. My aim is twofold. I want to illustrate to my mixed group of serving IDF soldiers and American participants that there is no, “them and us,” but rather we are one big connected Jewish family. Michael an American/Israeli hero strongly represented this link. In addition, similar to the psychological rationale behind the concept of the Shiva House, rather than discuss how Michael was killed, the film allows us to focus on what he lived for. The film, which is replete with beautiful music and views from Israel, in addition to movingly sharing Michael’s love and devotion to Israel, is a tremendous catalyst for cheshbon nefesh (“soul searching”). It forces us to confront important issues in our own lives such as what is our relationship to the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland and, most importantly, what do we do about it?
Through the years since 2006 I have never ceased to be surprised by Birthright participants who knew Michael, either from Camp Ramah, or from the groups I’ve guided from the Philadelphia area where there were participants who attended Michael’s alma mater, Council Rock High School. All share the memories of a very special individual who was full of joy de vive and love of Judaism and Israel. One of my IDF participants went to school with Michael’s officer Gilad, who features in the film. She told me how his officer and fellow soldiers were amazed by Michael’s motivation, constant cheerfulness and love and devotion to our Jewish State.
Michael Levin z”l and participants of Camp Ramah in Jerusalem. Photo: from the Facebook page,”In Loving Memory of Michael Levin.”
When the Second Lebanon War broke out Michael was in the middle of a month long furlough from his active service duty in the IDF Paratrooper Brigade, at home with his family in the USA. He didn’t hesitate but took the next plane home to return to his unit.
For those who cannot grasp what his motivation and drive was to return, I will explain with a personal anecdote. In the same summer of 2006 I was in Australia, at the invitation of the Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA), presenting at the biannual education conference when I received an emergency call up notice (Tzav 8) from my IDF reserve unit. Without hesitation, even though I had only been there for two days, I returned. The plane back home to Israel was packed with Israeli backpackers (one fellow had been on his honeymoon) returning to their units. When I arrived back at my IDF unit there was more than a 100% turn up, as people who were too old and had been discharged from the reserves came back to help. One chap discharged himself from hospital after a bad car accident and came in a cast just to help distribute equipment! We all instinctively understood that we could not rely on other people, but rather we must act ourselves. Israel is Israel because of the young men and women, like Michael Levin, who serve and are prepared to lay down their lives for the sake of the Jewish people, the Jewish homeland and the Jewish hope,
To be a free people in our land after two thousand years” (Hatikvah)
I too served as a Chayal Boded in a combat unit and am aware first hand of the stresses, psychological, physical and emotional that serving in a high pressure unit so far away from family and friends can cause. The fact that Michael managed to always stay focused, and was eternally optimistic, is a sign of the remarkably upbeat, resilient and special person he was. To honour Michael and all the “Lone Soldiers,” his family and many friends, together with other former “lone soldiers” have opened four Lone Soldier Centers in memory of Michael Levin (http://lonesoldiercenter.com). The centers operate from branches in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. They provide many useful services to lone soldiers such as, helping to finding housing, acquiring furniture, organising Shabbat and holiday meals, counseling and most importantly a place to feel at home.
Michael’s Mother, Harriet, observed that Michael was doing exactly what he wanted to be doing and he was exactly where he wanted to be. He had no regrets. How many of us can say that? Michael’s father, Mark, added that Michael strongly believed that the future of the Jewish people would be played out in Israel and he wanted to be a part of it and not an outside observer. Judaism holds that it does not matter how long ones lives ones life, but rather what one does with the life that one lives. Michael, in the few years allotted to him, managed to live a full life packed with happiness and profound meaning.
After graduating high school, before his induction to the IDF, Michael attended the NATIV USY year course in Israel. In his NATIV yearbook he wrote:
You can’t fulfill your dreams unless you dare to risk it all.”
May his memory, deeds and life continue to serve as an inspiration and blessing for us and for all Israel.