This week I was honoured and humbled to meet and introduce Harriet Levin, the mother of Michael Levin z”l (of blessed memory) as the keynote speaker to a packed audience of Jewish teens and their families who I had recently guided on the “Write On” program in Israel. Part of our visit had included watching the film “A Hero in Heaven” about the life and values of Michael, visiting one of Lone Soldier Centers established in his name, and going to the holy site of Mt. Herzl to pay our respects at Michael’s final resting place where he lies together with all those heroic men and women who paid the ultimate price so we may live in a free and independent Jewish homeland. Harriet regaled the audience with stories of Michael and how his family responded to his death whilst defending our country during the Second Lebanon War.
Harriet said that she and her husband Marc are often asked, “What did we do that Michael became such a hero?” She recalled that Michael was a normal everyday mischievous teenage kid and that he just came out like that. Harriet told us that Michael’s love of Israel came from attending Camp Ramah, Alexander Muss High school in Israel and the USY Nativ program. In addition, both of her parents are Holocaust survivors and Michael heard many stories from his grandfather and knew how important it is for Jews to have a homeland and he wanted to do something about it. Ultimately, she modestly added, “We can’t take the credit for Michael’s actions. It was part of Michael’s neshama (soul) what he did.” Harriet added with tears filling her eyes,
I don’t think I’ve ever loved someone as much as I loved Michael, in spite of his being naughty and stubborn, which can be very frustrating for a mother. I know he was aware of the risks involved in the army service, and he walked in there with open eyes. He knew what he had to do.”
Harriet recalled how “Mikey” did what she always wanted to do and never did. He made Aliyah to Israel and enlisted in the IDF, she said. “I always dreamed of doing more for my country, of coming and volunteering. After all, it’s the easiest thing live in a big, beautiful house in the United States and to write a check for a pro-Israeli organization every once in a while,” she explained. “I wanted to give a lot more, but I didn’t think I’d give so much, that I’d give my son.”
The response of Israelis to the Levin’s was unambiguous and overwhelming: The Consul General in Philadelphia who came with their rabbi to deliver the news no one wants to hear told the grieving family, “The entire State of Israel is with you in your grief. Michael is our family member too.”
Since Michael’s definitive wish had been to be buried on Mt. Herzl, the Government of Israel also made all the arrangements, they booked the El Al flight for the Levin family and they made hotel accommodations. (Moreover, a month later they flew Michael’s parents back to Jerusalem for the Unveiling.) They continue to bring Harriet and Mark Levin each year for an annual visit to the gravesite. The El Al pilots and staff came forward during the flight to embrace Marc and Harriet and Michael’s two sisters.
Harriet told the audience that every year on Yom HaZikaron the family stands by the grave for hours and people come up to them and comfort them and say things like: “I’m going to the army because of Michael.” “I’m making Aliyah because of Michael.” I’m going to live a more meaningful life because of Michael.” Because of Michael people have come to learn about and respect lone soldiers. Because of Michael tens of thousands of people went to the funerals last summer of two more Lone Soldiers, Max Steinberg and Sean Carmeli, who were killed during “Operation Protective Edge.”
She told me that on the first anniversary of Michael’s death the family was at the grave on Mt. Herzl and an Israeli woman was lighting a candle at the grave of her son who was buried four plots away from Michael. The woman heard them speaking English and after she heard that they only get to visit their son’s final resting place one a year volunteered to light a candle at his grave every Friday together with the candle she lights for her son. Harriet told me that for nine years that righteous woman has been lighting a candle by Michael’s grave every Friday and phoning the Levin’s.
After Michael was killed, Harriet told the audience, the family had two choices: They could either wallow into their misery or do something positive. They chose the second option. They 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, thay were going to celebrate his life and the ideals he lived for. They started the Michael Levin Memorial fund focusing on lone soldiers and from that sprung the Lone Soldier Centre (https://lonesoldiercenter.com/) in memory of Michael, which was the brainchild of Tzikki Oud. Michael told him that Lone Soldiers need a place to call home. The Levin family and Michael’s friends are continuing in Michaels footsteps and trying to make a difference. Lone soldiers are no longer alone.
None of this existed when Michael was in the army. The LSC offers many services for Lone soldiers and is a “home away from home.” The centres operate from branches in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. They provide many useful services to lone soldiers such as, helping to finding housing, providing furniture, organising Shabbat and holiday meals and counselling and most importantly a place to feel at home. The website of the LSC states:
Too often lone soldiers are on their own on Shabbat and Jewish holidays – In small apartments, they sit down on broken couches to eat cold schnitzel and frozen pita for their weekend meals. Lone soldiers come from warm families and vibrant communities around the world. The Lone Soldier Centre strives to provide both warm meals and a real community for lone soldiers to eat, celebrate, and integrate into Israel with. We work to assure that no lone soldier is lonely or hungry on weekends off!
Harriet concluded her address by telling us, “Michael loved his life in America — His decision to make Aliyah was not a rejection of the USA – But for Michael, “Israel is a place where even the simplest things are often seen for the miracles they are.” She told us that one way to honour her son’s sacrifice is to stay proactive, to always remember to be an advocate for Israel and always remember to keep our heads high. Michael z”l was one person whose made such a difference. Think what we can all do.