Michael Levin of suburban Philadelphia was determined to join the IDF. "He once said to me: 'If you cut my legs off, I'm still going to Israel,'" his father, Mark, recalls. There was never a question in his mind that he should go to Israel and join a combat unit. "It was him," says his mother, Harriet. "Knowing who Michael was, he didn't have a choice." But when the Second Lebanon War broke out last year, Levin did have a choice: he was on leave in the United States, visiting his family and was not required to return. He rushed back to Israel to find his paratrooper unit already fighting in Lebanon. He was told that he was not needed, that he should wait in Hebron for his unit's return.
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"If you want to go to Hebron, you go to Hebron. I'm going to Lebanon," Levin told the officer, according to Mark Levin.
Four days later, on August 1, 2006, he was shot by a Hizbullah sniper in Aita al-Shaab, southern Lebanon. A comrade risked his life to carry the fatally wounded Levin out of the village, under heavy shelling and gun fire.
Levin's parents, both born and raised in America, say it's easier for them to cope here in Israel. "American Jewry has a hard time understanding Michael's drive and motivation. In Israel, no one will ever say to us, 'We don't understand how you could let him go,'" his father says.
For his mother, being in Israel is a way of connecting to Michael again. "I feel much, much closer to Michael here. I have great memories of him here because, in Israel, he was so happy."
A year after Michael Levin's death, his family is still discovering new facets of the life he lived. Last week, his father learned that when the news spread of Michael's story, many of Jerusalem's homeless began coming forward to express their sadness at Michael's passing. They told of how Levin - who lived in the capital's Nahlaot neighborhood - went beyond giving them money as he passed: He would sit beside them on the pavement and bring them hope, encouraging them to get their lives back on track.
Now his family is keeping his memory alive by continuing to help others.
To commemorate the one-year anniversary of Levin's death, his family hosted a one-day convention on Friday to raise awareness of the difficult situation of "lone soldiers" in the IDF, immigrants who have no close relatives in Israel.
At the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv, 325 lone soldiers gathered to meet each other and to learn about their rights and opportunities upon finishing their service.
Explains Levin's mother: "Michael was a Zionist through and through but there were a lot of difficulties with coming [to Israel]." Leaving a tight-knit family and adoring circle of friends in Holland, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Michael faced a significant emotional shift upon making aliya.
For the Levins, Friday's event was held not only for the lone soldiers to meet others going through similar difficulties but also - and perhaps more importantly - for their superiors. "It was also for the higher-ups to understand the hardships these boys go through, because I don't think they do," says Harriet Levin, citing leave for Shabbat, which should be a joyous occasion, as being particularly painful for the lone soldiers who often return to an empty apartment thousands of miles from their loved ones.
In addition to agreeing to give lectures across the United States, the Levin family has allowed a Philadelphia woman who was drawn to Michael's story to make a documentary about his life and legacy. The film, A Hero in Heaven, was shown on Channel 10 on Remembrance Day.
After the broadcast, thousands of phone calls and e-mails flooded Channel 10 and the Levin family, saying, according to Mark Levin: "Your son is teaching [Israel] about Zionism."
When asked to explain how it's possible that this young man from a Philadelphia suburb could teach Israelis about Zionism, his father has a simple reply: "Michael was very small in size" - he had to wear weights when parachuting to prevent the wind from blowing him off course - "he was only 5 foot 6 [167 cm.] and 118 pounds [54 kilos], but he had the heart of a lion. It's a paradigm of what Israel is: Israelis almost see him as a mirror of their own existence - that you don't have to be the biggest to make your mark on the world."
What message do the Levins hope Michael has shared with the world? To them, it's not necessarily about inspiring young American Jews to join the IDF. "There are a lot of ways to help Israel, it doesn't mean you have to pick up a gun," says his mother. For the Levins, Michael's lasting impression on the world should be that of a young man who had a tenacious commitment to his dream. "Michael had a dream and he achieved his dream. Hopefully someone will hear Michael's story and be inspired to realize their own dream," says his older sister, Elisa.
For Harriet Levin, her son's dream lives on. She points to a small pair of silver wings pinned to her shirt: When Michael died, one of his fellow paratrooper took his wings from his uniform. As a unit, Michael's comrades presented the wings to her at his funeral. "I wear them everyday," she says, "I believe in everything that he did and I'm very proud of him."
Donations can be made to the Michael Levin Memorial Fund for the benefit of lone soldiers at www.michaellevinmemorialfund.org.