On Wednesday August 1, 2006 Michael Levin, age 22, was fatally wounded by Hezbollah sniper fire during a house-to-house battle in Southern Lebanon. Michael was an American oleh, an unmarried young man whose family has remained in Philadelphia. He was one of 2300 so-called “Chayalim Bodedim” (Lone Soldiers) within the Israeli Defense Force. My wife, myself, my daughter and one other family [The Walloff’s] of close friends to the Levin’s accompanied Michael’s loving parents and two sisters to Jerusalem for his burial. I had been the Levin’s rabbi and close friend in Bucks County, PA in the late 1970s and have remained “Uncle Alan” to their children. Amid our boundless grief, upon arriving in Israel we witnessed a profound outpouring of love and affection.
First, the logistics of this all-too sudden emergency journey were handled with grace and kindness by Philadelphia’s Israeli Consul General, by El Al, by the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem and by the IDF. At no time was the Levin family left without advocates and facilitators, ready, willing and able to help. As the rabbi within the group, each element of the Israel’s society made clear to me, “Rabbi, please encourage Michael’s family not to have even a moment’s hesitation in asking for any special consideration. Nothing is either too large or too small. We are here to give as much comfort as is humanly possible.”
Second, all of us feared that Michael’s funeral would be a stark military service with precious few people in attendance. Would we get a minyan? Would any of words be spoken to the Levin family in English? As a remedy, at the family’s request on the flight I prepared a eulogy. We waited for the other details to unfold. To our amazement, *two to three thousand people were present, crying with us, and offering their emotional support. It was sea of Am Yisrael: religious and secular, old and young, olim and sabras, Americans and Ethiopians and so forth. This was an outpouring of Jewish unity both by people who had loved Michael and by many more who were had not even met him but were moved by his story. Theirs was a collective expression of the message the Levin’s received throughout the trip: “The entire State of Israel is with you in your grief. Michael is our family member, too.”
Third, our stereotypic view of the Israeli army was changed forever. The IDF is deservedly known for its toughness, discipline and uniformity. We were moved to see that Michael was beloved for his individuality within the IDF ranks. The soldiers in his elite paratrooper unit truly loved and admired him. They knew his passions and his idiosyncrasies. The raw emotions and genuine grief of the unit bonded them powerfully to the Levin family. “We will forever regard Michael as one of us,” paratrooper after paratrooper cried out. Shiva visits by the unit commander, by Major General Elazar Stern of the Human Resources Branch, and by other military brass made clear that Michael’s sacrifice will be remembered and recounted perpetually. Future Israeli soldiers will learn about his life and courage and be inspired by his example.
Fourth, in the midst of war-time, Israeli society came to a brief stop to pay deference to Michael Levin. The Torah warns that our people will live our collective lives as “a people apart” within the family of nations. Given Israel’s on-going struggle for its existence, more than ever there was a profound sense of global isolation yet appreciation of Diaspora Jewry. As I heard from numerous Israelis, “The Arabs have 23 Arab states and 50 Moslem states on their side. All we have is you, the Jews of the Diaspora, especially of the USA.”
This sense of loneliness helped forge Israel’s bond with Michael, a “lone soldier” from America. His saga was a paradigm of the existential challenge of the Jewish State. Press and television hungered for contact with Michael’s grieving family. Israelis from all walks of life came to our hotel to touch and be touched by Michael’s courage. This was true of the family and guests of a Bar Mitzvah boy at the hotel for Shabbat, of a retired commander of Michael’s paratrooper unit who walked five miles to pray with us, of the El Al pilots who insisted upon meeting their bereaved passengers, and of Israelis of all walks of life. As Israel’s President Moshe Katzav conveyed personally to Mark and Harriet Levin by telephone and by telegram: “I express deep consolation to you and to all of your relatives on behalf of the entire citizenry of the State… Our hearts are with you.”
In tribute to Michael’s memory and passionate love for Medinat Yisrael, a Michael Levin Memorial Fund for Israel was established. The Fund allocates dollars to assist other “lone soldiers” through 4 Michael Levin Lone Soldiers Centers scattered throughout Israel. This coming Sunday evening, at the conclusion of Tisha B’Av, David and Jane Cohen of Sharon, Massachusetts are donating a Torah Scroll to the Jerusalem Michael Levin Lone Solider Center. Michael story, retold in the video “A Hero In Heaven,” and his grave at Har Herzl, visited by countless Birth Right groups, have emblazoned the concept of “Lone Soldier” into the world Jewish psche. May the memory of the praiseworthy life and commitments to Am Yisrael, of Michael Levin, remain as a source of blessing.