At the height of the Second Lebanon war, on Aug. 1, 2006, Michael Levin, 22, was fatally wounded by Hezbollah sniper fire during a house-to-house battle in southern Lebanon. He was the first paratrooper and the only American soldier killed in the war. 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 Levin’s rabbi in Bucks County, PA, in the late 1970s, 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.
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.”
In the midst of this war, 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 ongoing 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.” The Zionist pride and devotion of Michael Levin z”l unified Israeli and Diaspora Jewry.
Zionism affirms the remarkable power of the human spirit. Zionism’s “1st commandment” is the Herzl motto: “if you will it, it is no dream.” The Jewish State embodies being “A Start-Up Nation” with a “Can Do” spirit. The Zionism dream has prevailed against all odds. With pride, former Knesset Member and former Lone Soldier Michael Oren observed that “Zionism revived the [ancient] Hebrew language, which is now spoken by more widely than Danish and Finnish and will soon surpass Swedish. Zionist organizations have planted hundreds of forests, enabling the land of Israel uniquely to enter into the 21st century with more trees than it had at the end of the 19th.” Zionism effectively has absorbed immigrants from more than 100 countries as the Jewish destination for inspiration and/or for refuge. Countless dreams have been fulfilled!
Michael’s life was a story of Zionism at its finest. The loss of Michael Levin z”l is irreparable. Yet even in death his powerful Zionist soul continues to provide an inspiring Zionist dream for the Jewish People. That dream was emblazoned upon his psyche during his years of service as a “Lone Solder.” In 2006, the sacred term “chayal boded” was not widely known outside Israel. Lone Soldiers are courageous young men and women enlisting in the IDF to defend the reborn Jewish State. However, they are alone, lacking a family support system inside Israel. Assessing the challenges faced by Israel’s fellow Lone Soldiers, Michael imparted his vision of a remedy to his loving parents.
Michael’s plan was to create a center in Israel dedicated to address Lone Soldiers’ physical and social needs and struggles. Israeli soldiers serving on bases inside a small country receive ongoing support from parents, siblings, extended family and life-long friends. They are able to return to their parents’ home for Shabbat and for Jewish festivals. They receive encouragement, guidance and the perspective of family members who had already served in the IDF. They have a network during times of illness, of injury, of crisis. They have “a home base” in which to contemplate “the next chapter” in their lives, e.g., life after active military service, whether going to college, traveling abroad, or entering into the work world. These elements of “coverage” are not present for Lone Soldiers. Michael desperately wanted to tackle this challenge: ENSURING THAT LONE SOLDIERS ARE NEVER ALONE. He was troubled that without a solution, a large percentage of Lone Soldiers do not remain as permanent Israeli residents.
With Michael’s passing, implementing his Dream became a sacred cause for the Levin family and for Michael’s “chevra.” The Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin was founded in 2009. The growth of the Center has embodied the Zionist Mitzvah of bringing an inspiring dream into reality. Today, the Lone Soldier Center operates throughout Israel with its main offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Smaller satellite offices are located in both North and South. As envisioned by Michael, the Center provides advice and counseling, emergency assistance, Shabbat meals and holiday celebrations. The Center presents educational seminars, social events and networking opportunities, as well as logistical support and even furniture to meet housing needs.
Today, there are 4 Lone Soldier Homes housing more than 100 lone soldiers. These residential facilities enable the soldiers to live in a warm, supportive environment, with experienced counselors who were once Lone Soldiers. The soldiers in residence are connected with support by the surrounding community. They have their own personal space plus a large living and dining room where they can relax, recharge and enjoy Shabbat and time away from the stress of military service. There are dozens of Israel partner communities providing meals and other services to the Center’s Lone Soldiers. Thousands of Lone Soldiers annually attend the Center’s Shabbat dinners and annual barbeques on Yom HaAtzmaut.
For Lone Soldiers who do not live in any of the 4 Lone Soldier Homes, the Center collects beds and other furniture to be distributed to Lone Soldier Apartments. The Center is committed to “ensure that Lone Soldiers Are Never Alone.” In particular, rehabilitation and financial support is provided for injured Lone Soldiers. Visiting flights are arranged for parents of wounded Lone Soldiers. Visits are made to Lone Soldiers at dozens of IDF bases. An annual Thanksgiving celebration embraces hundreds upon hundreds of Lone Soldiers. Hundreds of parents of Lone Soldiers, living abroad, receive mutual support and guidance. Lone Soldiers from Israeli-based families receive support. These young people primarily are IDF recruits from Haredi households with parents shunning their sons once they enlist.
The Center enjoys the support of hundreds of volunteers and provides salaries for a relatively small number of paid staff. Minimizing costs enables maximizing the degree to which the funds raised go directly to meet the needs of Lone Soldiers. Keeping their operating expenses under control has always been a top priority at the Center. Thousands of Lone Soldiers now have “heimisch” places 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, travel and career and so much more. On Tisha B’Av 2016, a Torah Scroll was donated to the Jerusalem Center by David and Jane Cohen of Sharon, Massachusetts.
There are more than 6,500 Lone Soldiers serving in the IDF. Unfortunately, Lone Soldiers receive very little supplemental compensation from the military or from the Israeli government. Consequently, the Lone Soldiers Center provides direct assistance to nearly half of the Lone Soldiers currently serving. Lone Soldiers come to Israel from all over the globe. For example, in 2016:
- 1,142 USA
- 739 Europe
- 425 Israel [“disowned” by their family – often Haredim]
- 396 Russia and the Ukraine
- 139 South America
- 110 Canada
- 60 Australia/New Zealand
Testimonies abound describing the powerful impact of the Center upon Lone Soldiers:
“Living in Israel without any immediate family can be difficult at times. The dedication from each and every member of the Center goes above and beyond to provide you with that sense of home and family. From the Yom HaAtzmaut barbeque to the Friday night Shabbat dinners, there is a sense of family and community in everything the Center does. They were truly my home away from home.” [Ari Platt, Chief Sergeant IDF, Los Angeles, CA.]
“The Center is my family in Israel. It is where I go whenever I get off base. It’s loving and amazing people who take of me and all the other Lone Soldiers if we’re sick, hurt or something happens. They give you the knowledge, power and support you need to succeed in your service.” [Avi Lurie, Commander IDF, Bryn Mawr, PA]
Michael’s inspiring story has been captured by a moving video, “A Hero In Heaven.” The film has been distributed by the thousands and shown extensively in Jewish institutions around the world. Harriet, Mark, Elisa and Dara Levin have been honored speakers in diverse venues. Throngs of friends gather at Michael’s grave on Har Herzl each Yom Hazikaron, and on his Yahrzeit, as well as 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 and by his motto – You can’t fulfill your dreams unless you dare to risk it all.”
Here at his 13th Yahrzeit, the memory of the praiseworthy life and commitments to am Yisrael of Michael Levin grows into an ever stronger source of blessing. As a result of the staff’s hard work and dedication, THE LONE SOLDIER CENTER IS THE ONLY ORGANIZATION IN ISRAEL DECIATED SOLELY TO THE NEEDS OF ALL LONE SOLDIERS ON A FULL-TIME BASIS. The Center does not receive any funding from the Israeli Government. However, thanks to the ongoing flow of private donations, mostly from the United States, the impact of the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center continues to make a positive impact upon the lives of all Lone Soldiers. In the process, the Center promotes Aliya and Zionist pride all throughout the world. For more information and to offer your support, contact www.lonesoldier.us.