‘When I was young and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer changed every year, but Michael always said the same thing: he wanted to move to Israel and join the army,” recalled Elisa Levin Mindlin, sister of Michael Levin, an American-born soldier killed during the Second Lebanon War.
Levin Mindlin was speaking an English-language Memorial Day Ceremony at Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill on Sunday evening called “The Brothers We Lost.”
This is the second year that the ceremony has been held by the Lone Soldier Center in memory of Michael Levin in a move that organizers hope will help mark the sacrifice of lone soldiers from English-speaking countries, and help members of the community living in Israel better connect to the national day of mourning.
Israel marks Memorial Day on April 30 to May 1, honoring some 23,544 victims of wars and terrorist attacks. The country observes two sirens, one at 8 pm on Sunday night and one at 11 am on Monday morning.
“Something we discovered is that among the English-speaking community, especially in Jerusalem, is that the older generation generally did not serve in the army and often they feel like spectators who are watching Israelis mourn something so intimate,” said Ari Kalker, the Director of Housing and Special Projects for the Lone Soldier Center.
“We wanted to create a platform for them to connect to this day as well, to have stories and lives they can relate to, stories about people like them. It’s in English so it’s accessible. Yom Hazikaron is an integral part of who we are as a people.”
Last year the Jewish Agency honored Michael Levin’s family during a ceremony for Masa participants at Latrun.
This is the second year the event was livestreamed (and available as a recording afterwards) on the Center’s website and Facebook page. More than 15,000 people watched all or part of the ceremony live.
Kalker said the Center hopes the recording helps the larger Diaspora community connect with the gravity of the day. “This is an important day for the entire Jewish people and integral to who we are,” he said.
“It’s important to have it livestreamed, so people from all over the world can watch it,” added Levin Mindlin. “I have tons of friends that I work with, who don’t know what Yom Hazikaron is, and it gives an idea of how serious the day is.”
For those who lost family members and friends it was an opportunity to share memories, including stories of Alex Singer, who was killed in Lebanon in 1987.
Yocheved Rindenow, sister of Shlomo Rindenow, a soldier from New Jersey killed in an accidental grenade explosion on July 17, 2016, also shared stories of her brother as a “fun-loving, spirited, chilled out guy.”
She recalled a brother who was always ready to help and volunteered with special needs children during the summer. Rindenow was the youngest of 10 children and a “warrior of peace.”
“He had the ability to experience light and dark together, and choose light,” she said. “I ask that everyone look inside their heart to make that choice.”
Mark Levin, Michael’s father, noted that Michael’s story has helped draw attention to the challenges that lone soldiers face while serving in the Israeli army.
“Things have changed, there is an understanding, an awareness, and a real appreciation for lone soldiers that did not exist when Mikey served,” he said. Sharing the ceremony with an international audience helps Jews abroad understand how Israel honors their fallen, he added. “I wish America’s Memorial Day was taken more seriously, instead of barbecues and sales at the mall,” he said.
A number of former lone soldiers founded the Lone Soldier Center in 2009 in honor of Levin, a Philadelphia-born paratrooper who was killed in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War. The Lone Soldier Center provides assistance for some 6,300 soldiers serving in the Israeli army, whose parents are either outside of Israel or not in contact with the soldier for a variety of reasons, including soldiers from ultra-Orthodox backgrounds whose families disown them when they become less religious.
Michael Levin has become something of a symbol for American Jews, and his gravesite is covered with memorabilia from the hundreds of Birthrights and tour groups that stop by on a daily basis.
Documentaries about Levin, including A Hero in Heaven, are often shown on Israeli TV during Memorial Day.