Six thousand miles separate Harriet Levin and Leah Eisemann, but the three rows between their sons' graves continue to draw the two women together.
Last week, they were standing side by side at the Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem to mark the fifth yahrzeit of Michael Levin, the Bucks-County-boy-turned-soldier who was killed during a battle with Hezbollah, four years after he immigrated to Israel, right after his high school graduation.
Leah and Eitan Eisemann drove Harriet Levin and her husband, Mark, to the cemetery, where together they visited Michael's grave, then the grave of Tzvi Yehudah "Tziki" Eisemann, who was killed in June 2002 in a jeep accident while on duty with his unit in Israel's north. The couples lit candles and recited psalms and the El Moleh Rahamim prayer at each grave.
It is a routine that the Eisemanns usually follow alone every Friday, beginning soon after Michael's burial.
The youngest of three, Michael Levin had been in Holland, Pa., visiting his parents when the Second Lebanon War broke out. Rather than continue his vacation, he rushed back to Israel, insisting that he be sent to fight up north. He was killed by sniper fire on Aug. 1, 2006.
When the Levins sat shivah for their 22-year-old son in a Jerusalem hotel that August, Leah Eisemann introduced herself, explaining that she, too, had lost a soldier-son.
She asked for Harriet Levin's contact information. When the Levins returned to their home, Eisemann telephoned, offering to tend Michael's grave and to call Levin afterward to say hello.
"My American mentality said, 'We'll see how long this will last,' " Levin said. "I don't think anyone in America would light a candle every Friday. It was very, very generous for someone to want to do that for me. It meant a lot, because I knew that I couldn't do it for Michael."
Eisemann's outreach led to weekly calls and to a strong bond that both women say they cherish.
"It's not pretty much every Friday — it's every Friday," said Eisemann, 67, a Brooklyn native who has lived in Israel since 1962.
The conversations have occurred like clockwork: 8 a.m. Philadelphia time, 3 p.m. Jerusalem time, when Levin is beginning her day and Eisemann returns from the cemetery to conclude Shabbat preparations. Not one conversation has been missed, a streak of approximately 260 Fridays, plus other occasional calls.
"Everyone knows not to call me at 8:30, 9," said Levin, 60, who said that her friend tells her about who's been visiting Michael's grave. Most people assume that Eisemann is a relative because she lights a candle, so she often speaks about Michael "on our behalf," Levin said.
While grief brought them together, the two discuss other topics such as politics and Israeli society.
"We pretty much share everything with each other," Levin said. "She's a sister, a role model, to me. If there were an eishet chayil [woman of valor], she is it. She always finds the good in people."
Eisemann deflected the characterization, saying, "I don't think I'm doing anything special. I can't take away their pain, but if I can help a family that was so wonderful to allow their child to come here and defend the country — and what happened, happened — it's the least I could do."
She continued: "As a bereaved mother, I feel for all the families. I know what they're going through and how hard it is. But in this case, it was more than that, because it's an American family. You can't take for granted that an American family would bury their son in Israel. I realized that they were going through something very traumatic, and would for the future, and I thought that by befriending them I could explain things to them that they might not understand."
For example, Eisemann recently helped the Levins apply for a new gravestone that notes that Michael was killed during the Second Lebanon War, a fact the original omitted. She then proofread the stone, which was installed last month.
Early on, Eisemann impressed upon Levin the importance of visiting Israel for Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day, because, she said, "it's a powerful experience that gives you a lot of strength, to know that everyone is helping you and crying with you."
Since then, the Levins visit Israel every Yom Hazikaron and yahrzeit. Each time, they see the Eisemanns.
"I feel that we have a lot in common with our children," Eisemann said. "We have a feeling that way up there, over the rainbow," Michael and Tziki, the youngest of seven children, "got together and have something in common, too."
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