On Aug. 1, 2006, Michael Levin, 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 suburban Philadelphia. He was one of several thousand “hayalim bodedim” (lone soldiers) in the Israel Defense Forces. My wife, my daughter, and I along with Rich and Eileen Waloff and their sons, accompanied Michael’s loving parents and two sisters to Jerusalem for his burial. I had been the Levins’ rabbi in Bucks County, PA., in the late 1970’s and have remained “Uncle Alan” to their children. Amid our boundless grief, upon our arrival in Israel we witnessed a profound outpouring of love and affection never to be forgotten.
The logistics of this all-too-sudden emergency journey were handled with grace and kindness by Philadelphia’s Israeli consul general, El Al Israel Airlines, the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem, and the IDF. At no time was the Levin family left without advocates and facilitators ready, willing, and able to help. Each element of Israel’s society we encountered made clear to me, as the rabbi in the group, “Rabbi, please encourage Michael’s family not to have a moment’s hesitation in asking for any special consideration. Nothing is too large or too small. We are here to give as much comfort as is humanly possible
We feared that Michael’s funeral would be a stark military service with precious few people in attendance. Would we get a minyan? Would any words be spoken to the Levin family in English? At the family’s request, I had prepared a eulogy during the flight. We waited for the other details to unfold. To our amazement, on Tisha B’Av, 2,000 to 3,000 people were present, crying with us, offering their emotional support. It was a sea of am Yisrael: religious and secular, old and young, olim and sabras, Americans and Ethiopians. This was an outpouring of Jewish unity by people who had loved Michael and by many more who had never met him but were moved by his story. Theirs was a collective expression of the message the Levins received throughout the trip: “The entire State of Israel is with you in your grief. Michael is our family member, too.”
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 for Zionism, for the State and People of Israel. 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 then IDF human resources branch chief Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern, and by other military officials made clear that Michael’s sacrifice will be remembered and recounted perpetually. Israeli soldiers of the future learn about his life and courage and be inspired by his example.
In the midst of wartime in Lebanon, 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, there often is a profound sense of global isolation. As I heard from numerous Israelis, “The Arabs have 23 Arab states and 50 Muslim 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 determination to defend Israel embodied the existential challenge faced by 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 mitzva boy who were at our 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 Katsav 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, Harriet and Mark Levin established the Michael Levin Lone Soldiers Centers in Jerusalem Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beer Sheva.. Thousands of Lone Soldiers now have “heimisch” base in which to socialize with one another, to attend to day-to-day challenges of life in Israel, to learn about post-army Israel opportunities for college and career and so much more. Last Tisha B’Av, a Torah Scroll was donated to the Jerusalem Center by David and Jane Cohen of Sharon, Massachusetts.
Michael’s inspiring story has been captured by a moving video, “Hero In Heaven.” The film has been shown by hundreds of Jewish institutions around the world. Harriet, Mark and Elisa Levin have been honored speakers in diverse venues. Throngs of friends gather at Michael’s grave on Har Herzl each Yom Hazikaron, on his Yahrzeit, and on other special memorial occasions. Birthright groups and IDF units come to Michael’s “kever” to be motivated by his heroism. Countless young Olim were motivated to come to Israel by the narrative of this Zionist hero.
Here at his 11th Yahrzeit, the memory of the praiseworthy life and commitments to am Yisrael of Michael Levin grows into an ever stronger source of blessing. Thanks to the on-going flow of donations, the impact of the Michael Levin Lone Soldiers Centers expands, promoting Aliya all throughout the world.