A Decade Later, Michael Levin’s Legacy is Just Beginning

For Harriet and Mark Levin, the pain from the loss of their son and IDF soldier, Michael, hasn’t gone away. 

Harriet and Mark Levin will tell you categorically that the cliché so many of us use — that time heals all wounds — is just not true.
Ten years since their 22-year-old son, Michael, an American paratrooper fighting for his beloved Israel was killed in the Second Lebanon War, the pain hasn’t gone away. 
As proud as they are of his accomplishments, as touched as they’ve been by the outpouring of love and respect that has continued for a decade, as pleased as they’ve been by all the work to honor his memory, they’d give it all up in a second.
“I don’t know where 10 years went,” Harriet Levin said a few weeks before they departed for their annual government-sponsored trip to Israel, where they’ll commemorate the 10th anniversary of their son’s death at his well-visited grave in Mount Herzl. “I can’t believe it’s 10 years since I’ve spoken to him or hugged him — or heard his voice. 
“You learn to live with it, but no, it doesn’t heal. There are simchas in the family. His sister got married and you’re happy, but there’s always a hole.

“No, time doesn’t fix this.”

“I keep thinking of everything he’s missed in the past 10 years,” said his twin sister, Dara, who used to tease her “little” brother that she was two minutes older. “All the changes in the family.
“I’ve gotten married and have two kids, one named for him. My sister Elisa’s gotten married. In some ways, it seems like yesterday. I can remember vividly the day of my last visit with him. But then looking at what’s happened with us and friends, it seems forever ago.” 
“But mainly I hold onto the memories.”
The facts say Michael Levin was killed Aug. 1, 2006, some two-and-a-half years after he went through the back door — literally — to get past security in front and sign papers to join the Israel Defense Forces.
The rebellious kid who used to get in trouble for calling out teachers in Hebrew school because they weren’t taking their job seriously and whose parents shuddered each time they arrived for visiting day at Camp Ramah wondering what he had done this time, grew up to become a committed soldier, potentially a leader like his idol, Yoni Netanyahu. 
But the facts don’t even begin to tell the story, which began long before Levin fell so in love with Israel that he decided he not only wanted to live there but to serve in its army.
You have to go back to his childhood, to the time his father, having just returned from synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, was sitting in his chair and kept hearing a strange sound. 
“Every five minutes I hear this noise, and I can’t place it,” Mark Levin recalled, with a smile. “So I decided I’ll go over to the window to check it out.
“Michael was about 8 years old and had just learned to ride a two-wheeler. I look out the window and, sure enough, it’s Michael riding around our development on his two-wheeler.
He’s holding onto the handlebars with one hand only — his right hand — and it’s wobbling, and with his left hand he has a shofar. And he’s blowing the shofar announcing to our neighbors it’s the New Year.”
Fast forward a decade, and that spirituality had only deepened.
“Israel was always a part of him — and from a very young age,” said Harriet Levin, who’s discovered her own voice—which used to be pretty much silent—following his death. “Michael was very close to my father, and both of my parents were Holocaust survivors [in Auschwitz and Birkenau]. Mark and I are very pro-Zionist, and I think he just saw how important it was to have a homeland and to be able to defend ourselves. 
“He was very, very proud of his Judaism. On his eighth birthday, he insisted his cake have a Jewish star.”
Once in the Israeli army — having resisted all temptations to stay in his luxurious Langhorne home, including his ailing grandfather Lulek’s offer to buy him the car of his choice — Michael discovered things were different for lone soldiers such as himself. 
“When Michael was in uniform he realized early on that lone soldiers — people who come from various countries around the world to serve in the IDF — have no friends or family,” Mark Levin said. “They’re alone, and they have a whole set of problems native Israelis don’t have.
“When Israelis go home for the weekend, they have a Shabbat meal waiting for them. They get their laundry done. They get to see their families and people they know and love.
“Michael would call me and say, ‘Dad, I really need some help with some forms, and there’s no one to turn to.’ Or, ‘I need to find a moving truck, but I don’t have the time.’ A whole long list of problems. 
“After about a year in uniform he said to a friend who worked for a Jewish agency, ‘When I finish my service in a year we are going to start a lone soldier center.’”
Ten years later, there are three lone soldier centers in Israel named in memory of Michael Levin. As part of their trip, which began Aug. 8, the Levins will participate in the grand opening of a new, improved center in Jerusalem joining ones in Tel Aviv and north of the Kinneret at Kibbutz Gesher.
Since Michael Levin did not live to carry out his promise, his parents — aided by their son’s friends, fellow soldiers and countless others who heard his story — have done it for him.
A 2007 documentary, A Hero in Heaven, brought that story and the plight of the lone soldier to light.
“Things have changed dramatically for lone soldiers in Israel, and Michael was the turning point,” Mark Levin said.  “Ten years ago the term ‘lone soldier’ was under the radar. 

“Much has happened in 10 years because of Michael’s story, the documentary, all the kids we speak to.  The awareness and appreciation for lone soldiers is at an all- time high.

“It makes us feel wonderful.  We wanted to help Michael’s dream come true. They say he was a visionary, so we’re doing everything we can to make it come true and it has.”

His parents’ efforts since haven’t gone unnoticed.
“They did a double mitzvah,” said Yaron Sideman, the outgoing Philadelphia-based consul general of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region. “First of all, they raised their son as a shining example to all of us. He’s the prime example of what Zionism’s all about — committing his entire being and, ultimately, his life to that cause. 
“Secondly, they made his life worth living. They’re perpetuating his legacy by this remarkable program. Thanks to people like Harriet and Mark, there aren’t any lone soldiers in Israel, because they’re not alone.”
The Levins have raised several hundred thousand dollars since their son’s passing — all of which goes directly to the centers.
Of the estimated 6,300 lone soldiers in Israel about 1,000 come from the United States and North America, 2,000 are from Europe and, surprisingly, close to 3,000 are Israelis, according to the Lone Soldier Center. They are designated as lone soldiers because either their parents are gone, their families don’t live in Israel or they’ve been disavowed by their families.
For the Levins, their own personal void remains.
As you enter his bedroom, which has been turned into a shrine, you see photos of his favorite sports teams, including–gasp, inexplicably the Dallas Cowboys–along with Levin and his IDF buddies in their red berets. There also are plaques in both English and Hebrew and, near the window, an Israeli flag.   This is all they have left, besides the memories.
Thousands of miles away, near Jerusalem, rests his soul.
“He told us, ‘If anything happens to me, I want to be buried in Israel,’” Harriet Levin said. “And it made sense. He fought for the country. He lived in the country. That’s where he belonged.” 
They’re over there to see him now, part of a bereavement package that enables parents of fallen soldiers to visit annually for a week at the government’s expense. Since siblings can only come every five years, Dara and Elisa were unable to join them.  

“I’m not just doing it for Michael,” said Mark, who first met his wife of 43 years in 11th grade at Northeast High.  “I’m doing it for myself because I have such admirations for them.

“When lone soldiers come from different parts of the world most of them are taking a step up in freedom. However, when lone soldiers come from the U.S it’s a whole different ballgame.

“But Michael was a passionate Zionist who wanted to live his life in Israel.”

He’s been gone 10 years now.  But never forgotten.  The wounds, the pain still linger for Mark, Harriet, Dara and Elisa Levin.

And will forever.

Contact: jmarks@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729 



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