"If you cut my legs off, I'm still going."
These words were attributed last week to Michael Levin, a former Bucks County resident and Gratz College student who died in 2006 while fighting in Lebanon with the Israeli Defense Force. Levin, who served with Ariel Sharon's former unit, was the only American-born IDF soldier to die in the war. As such, he was the subject of the documentary "A Hero In Heaven," which screened this year at the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival.
Levin and others were memorialized May 6 during a Yom Hazikaron event at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park. The solemn day — which in Israel is immediately followed by Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel Independence Day — honors the sacrifice of Jews and Israelis who died defending the Jewish homeland and in terror attacks.
A pair of speakers emceed the event in both English and Hebrew — local actress Sharon Gellar providing the English translation to Dina Eliezer's Hebrew. Eliezer is the educational director at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J.
Several speakers and performers addressed the crowd of nearly 400 people, including Consul General of Israel in Philadelphia Uriel Palti. His remarks, delivered in Hebrew, focused on his connection to three generations of soldiers killed defending Israel.
The first, Erich Weil, a German-born Jew, fought the Nazis in Greece before spending four years as a POW between 1941 and 1945. Weil was killed defending a kibbutz in 1948 shortly before Israeli independence. The consul general is named after him.
The consul general also told the story of his best friend from childhood, Ben Golan. The pair went to school together and chose to postpone their army service for a year to do volunteer work. Golan was later killed in the Yom Kippur War one day after Simchat Torah in 1973.
Palti's final remembrance concerned Levin, who made aliyah in 2005 before joining the IDF.
He quoted the young soldier's parents, who spoke of his determination to fight for the Jewish state. Levin's mother once said, "Knowing who he was, he didn't have a choice."
The consul general said that Yom Hazikaron was more significant than usual this year because of Israel's 60th anniversary.
"Israelis always remember that, while we're celebrating, many were killed to let us live in a Jewish state," he said. "Their blood paid for the independence of Israel."
The hourlong ceremony featured music from two Bach cello suites, as well as poetry readings and several songs, including a performance by the locally based Israeli Choir and a rendition of "Hatikvah" led by students from several area Jewish schools.
A number of current and former IDF soldiers participated, including Dina Tauber, who read from Yehuda Amichai's poem, "Now the Memorial Days Are Over," which contains the line, "A new generation is using the passing generation's hopes like hard tools to decipher the future."
In much the same spirit, Palti said that it was important to "do everything to reach peace in the Mideast, but not forget what's come before."
"Our parents' generation never thought it would happen to their kids, and we never thought it would happen to ours," he said, referring to the ongoing violence against Israel.
In keeping with tradition, Yom Hazikaron here was followed one day later, this year with a Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, which hosted a cocktail reception the following evening. Palti also spoke at that event.