On Tisha b’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, in 2006 Michael Levin z”l, the only American/Israeli casualty of the Second Lebanon War, was laid to eternal rest on Mt. Herzl. Today, 17 years later, his brothers-in-arms and friends will gather amid the silent hills and grassy quietude of Mt. Herzl to commemorate and celebrate Michael’s all-too-brief but meaningful life.
After Michael entered eternity his parents, Harriet and Mark, in addition to honoring 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 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 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 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 Rama, 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 vivre 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 the group how his officer and fellow soldiers were amazed by Michael’s motivation, constant cheerfulness and love and devotion to our Jewish State. 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 corps, at home with his family in the USA. He didn’t hesitate but took the next plane home to return to his unit.
I too served as a Chayal Boded in a combat unit and am aware first hand of the stresses, physiological, physical and emotional that serving in a high stress 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 Lone Soldier Centers in memory of Michael (The Base and the Lone Soldier Centre). They provide many useful services to lone soldiers such as, helping to finding housing, providing furniture, organising Shabbat and holiday meals and 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, said 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 his 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. All give some. Some give all.