Interstate 95 in New Jersey. The 5 p.m. commute. Eastbound from Trenton it’s a traffic jam. But heading west, it’s open road. And as I drive past strip malls, pay-at-the-pump gas stations, a minor league ballpark, I marvel that this slice of Americana produced one of the most influential soldiers the Israel Defense Forces will ever know. As his teacher put it, “he out-Israelied the Israelis.” His death on a Lebanese hillside 10 years ago radically changed the way we Jews think about sacrifice, Zionism, and Israel.
By now the Michael Levin story is legend: a 130-pound youth group kid from Philadelphia sneaks into the IDF Induction Center, talks his way into a tryout for the paratroopers, and passes, against all odds. When war breaks out in Lebanon, he finds himself on lone soldier leave in Philly. Determined to fight, he catches the first plane to Israel, joins his unit, and is killed in a firefight on August 1, 2006. Two thousand people attend his funeral on Mount Herzl. They came to salute the lone soldier who has become the face of all lone soldiers.
No less compelling is the story of Michael’s parents, Harriet and Mark. In the 10 years since their son’s death, and without a shekel of government help, they’ve built a network of Lone Soldier Centers throughout Israel, providing everything from Shabbat dinners to combat vests to PTSD counseling for upwards of 6,000 lone soldiers in the IDF.
Which is why I now find myself in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, navigating streets like Strawberry Circle and Old Mill Drive — quintessential America! — for a dinner date with Harriet and Mark. I want to see where Michael grew up. I want to hear how his parents channeled their grief into one of the greatest grassroots projects in Israel. As I turn into the driveway of their storybook house, they are waiting for me.
“Because of Michael, there’s no one in Israel — and I mean no one — who doesn’t know what a lone soldier is,” says David Keren, head of United Synagogue’s gap year Nativ program. David met Michael in the fall of 2002, when Michael was a participant on Nativ. “Whether it’s the chief of staff celebrating Passover with lone soldiers, or 30,000 people showing up for the funerals of lone soldiers during (2014’s) Operation Protective Edge — that’s Michael’s impact.”
At first it seemed that Michael’s death jarred the Israeli populace into awareness of lone soldiers, IDF service members without immediate family in the country. However, I discovered through becoming steeped in Michael’s biography that he’d started raising awareness for lone soldiers the moment he entered the army.
Gilad Zvilich, now 31 and a lawyer in Tel Aviv, was Michael’s commander in basic training. “He was the first lone soldier I ever met,” Zvilich says. “He completely changed the way I think about the army. The idea that he didn’t have to serve but chose to. He could have been a Zionist from afar.”
For his reserve duty, Zvilich is in charge of paratrooper gibbushim — those grueling tests 17-year-old Israeli boys must endure to qualify for the brigade. At a typical gibbush, Zvilich evaluates 300 teenagers while they sprint, hike, and schlep sandbags up and down hills. “And you know what I look for?” Zvilich asks. “I look for Michael. I look for guys who have the motivation and tziyonut — the Zionist drive — that Michael had.”
A couple of months into basic training, Michael mentioned the idea of a one-stop center for lone soldiers.
“It started innocently,” Mark Levin recalls. “He had paperwork to fill out for the army but couldn’t find a fax. The next week he needed help translating a phone bill. One little thing after another and nowhere to get help. He made up his mind: as soon as he got out of the army he was going to start a Lone Soldier Center. That was Michael’s dream.”
Michael’s bedroom is a museum. On one side, a Philadelphia Phillies hall of fame: autographed balls, Mike Schmidt poster, signed photo of Lenny Dykstra. On the other side, a scale model of the Ammunition Hill Paratrooper Memorial in Jerusalem.
Dozens of framed photographs commemorate Michael’s every moment with the paratroopers: Michael and buddies in the bunk; Michael posing between red-and-white paratrooper flags; Michael shaking hands with a colonel.
In the last photo, taken just hours from a combat mission in Lebanon, he rubs camouflage grease with the rapt joy of a child immersed in finger painting. This is where Michael belonged
Harriet Levin points to a picture in the bottom row: Michael, face painted black, smearing camouflage onto the cheek of a fellow soldier. “This was the last photo of Michael ever taken,” she says.
I examine the picture. From the tilt of his head and the swift stroke of his arm, you can tell Michael is completely at ease.
Though just hours from a combat mission in Lebanon, he rubs camouflage grease with the rapt joy of a child immersed in finger painting. This is where Michael belonged.
“A year after Michael died I came in here with Shlomie,” Mark says. “You know Shlomie?”
I nod. Shlomie was the medic assigned to Michael’s unit in Lebanon.
“I sat Shlomie down. I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Tell me everything.’ And when he finished telling me everything, I said, ‘Now — tell me everything you didn’t tell me.’”
The IDF defines a hayal boded — a lone soldier — as a soldier with neither parent residing in Israel. There are 6,300 lone soldiers currently serving, spread out in every branch of the IDF, from Navy SEAL-equivalents to Oketz dog handlers, combat engineers to cooks.
Half of these lone soldiers are immigrants from the US, Europe, and a handful of other countries. The rest are ultra-Orthodox Israelis whose families disowned them for their decision to join the IDF.
Until Levin was killed, few in Israel knew what a lone soldier was. I say this from experience. In the late 1990s I was a lone soldier in the Armored Corps. On the first night of basic training I asked my mashakit tash (the IDF equivalent of a social worker) for a lone soldier ID Card.
She was stymied. As a mashakit tash her duty was to help soldiers with any and all personal issues, including my rights as a lone soldier.
I explained that I was a hayal boded and was supposed to get an ID card so I could get my rights.
She took out an index card, wrote my name and personal number, and, below that, the phrase “hayal boded.” “Here,” she said, handing me the card. “Don’t lose it.”
The “everything” that Mark Levin needed to hear from his son’s medic is brutal — partly the consequence of the savagery of war, partly of Israeli government missteps (communication was poor, orders were given and then recanted, and so forth).
Shlomie, the medic assigned to Michael’s platoon, describes the night of July 31, 2006. “We felt no fear. Only the feeling of being pumped up. Soldiers had been kidnapped and we wanted to get them back.”
The platoon bused to Fence 105 on the Lebanese border, where soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser had been abducted. “The road was charred,” Shlomie recalls. “Like after a horrible car accident” — the aftermath of an explosion that killed three soldiers, injured two, and led to Regev and Goldwasser’s kidnapping.
“Our mission was to reach Aita El-Shaab, where we believed the two soldiers had been taken. We crossed the fence at 11 p.m. and walked for eight hours, on foot — into this place that had been waiting for us for the past six years.”
At 7 a.m. they still hadn’t reached their destination. Where they expected to see the village, instead they found a mountain. The force split into two to conduct a search. “Almost immediately, we heard ‘Patzua!’ — injured — over the radio.”
Their company commander had been hit. When his second moved forward to take charge, he too was shot. “We’d been there less than a minute and already there was no one in control. We had no choice but to enter a house and seek cover.”
When they entered the house, Hezbollah was inside. Waiting.
I tell Avi Lurie, now serving as a lone soldier, that I, too, was once a lone soldier, before there was a Lone Soldier Center. He gasps, as if I told him I had done basic training barefoot.
Like me, Lurie grew up in the suburbs, went to Jewish day school, and decided as a teenager that he wanted to be an Israeli paratrooper. Unlike me, Avi Lurie had the Lone Soldier Center supporting him.
I speak with Lurie via cell phone during a break in his newest challenge in the paratroopers — koors makim, Infantry Squad Commander Course. “When I got to kibbutz I had nothing — so they got me furniture,” Lurie says. “And when I moved to Jerusalem they sent a truck and moved my stuff.” He reels off half a dozen additional ways the center helped him.
“Shabbat dinners when I’m home. Seminars about my lone soldier rights. They’ve given me gear. But most of all it’s friends. My best friends are lone soldiers and we have this instant bond, all these guys who are going through what I’m going through. They are my rock.”
Mike Meyerheim runs the Lone Soldier Center’s northern office. One of his most important jobs, he says, is conducting seminars for IDF officers. “I ask these officers, ‘When you go home for Shabbat what’s the first thing you do?’ They all say the same thing: ‘Call home and tell Mom to cook my favorite meal. Ask Dad to put gas in the car.’ Then I tell them, ‘The first thing a lone soldier does is find a laundromat. Then get the shopping done before the stores close and cook himself Shabbat dinner.’”
American by birth, Meyerheim is as blunt as any Israeli I’ve ever met. During our hour-long phone conversation he veers from philosophical (“The army is black and white but lives in shades of gray — as does Israel”) to sloganeering (“We don’t do it for them; we give them the tools to succeed”) to downright furious: “If the army dealt correctly with lone soldiers I wouldn’t have to do my job!”
Meyerheim rattles off a list of services he provides. “Medical help. I get them socks, underwear. Jobs when they get out, and I tell them what to bring the day they go in. Visits home if there’s a family emergency. Most of all I make sure they get their rights. Lone soldiers get tons of rights but if your commander’s a putz who’s upset you’re getting special treatment, you’re screwed.”
Meyerheim helps parents of lone soldiers, too.
“This one kid — he was French. He got hurt in Gaza. His family wasn’t well off. So we helped fly the father over and rented him an apartment while he took care of his son.”
When parents come to Israel for a military ceremony, Meyerheim gets them together so they can meet and share concerns. “These parents are lost,” he says. “They didn’t raise their kids to join an army.”
Still, some of the center’s most important functions are things you’ll never read about in brochures.
Meyerheim describes the night a lone soldier returned from Gaza after Protective Edge. “He hadn’t slept in a week. He was exhausted, but he told me he was afraid to sleep alone. So I got a sleeping bag and camped out on his floor.”
Over lasagna, I ask Harriet and Mark about Michael’s love for Israel and where it came from.
Mark shakes his head. “I think God just gave Michael the Jewish neshama [soul]. All we had to do was water the seed.”
“When he was eight we came home after Rosh Hashanah services,” Mark continues. “I was on the sofa but kept hearing this sound, like a siren. It was Michael, riding his bicycle, holding the handlebars with one hand and blowing a shofar with the other.”
Harriet laughs. “When he was 10, he dressed up like an Israeli soldier for Halloween…” She says, “He got a lot of it from me. Mark and I took our honeymoon in Israel in October 1973. The war started after we left. I wanted to go back and help.”
“And our parents,” adds Mark. “My father was a World War II vet. Harriet’s father was in Auschwitz for 26 months. They taught Michael that Jewish survival is something you fight for.”
I ask them whether some days are more difficult than others.
“Box Day,” Harriet answers.
In early 2006 Michael got permission to fly home for a wedding. Ever the prankster, Michael told his twin sister, Dara, to find him a giant cardboard box. Once his parents left for work, Michael came home, put the box on the front porch, wrote “FRAGILE — DO NOT OPEN WITH A KNIFE!” on the box, and had Dara seal him inside.
“Box Day was June 20,” says Harriet. “Then it’s a countdown. July 15 is the date of the wedding. July 18 was the last time I saw him, at JFK. He died on August 1 and we buried him on August 3, the ninth of Av.”
The Lone Soldier Center has changed the experience of lone soldiers.
But could it be that Michael Levin’s greatest impact is one we can’t see or count but one which, in the long run, is more powerful than the counseling, dinners, or even friendships the center provides?
During my conversation with Avi Lurie, the American-born paratrooper, he casually mentioned that six of the 32 guys in his platoon were lone soldiers. I thought I’d misheard — six out of 32? Almost 20 percent?
He confirmed it. “All six of us had heard of Michael Levin,” he said. “And there’s no doubt he inspired us. I mean, he got turned down the first time he went to the Induction Center. His persistence shows we’re not crazy for joining. We have someone we can look up to and say, ‘That’s who I want to be like.’”
David Keren, from Nativ, says that the number of Nativ graduates who join the IDF used to be one or two a year; now it’s 17 to 20. “Michael paved the path,” Keren says. “Not that they met him. But his story paved the way.”
But it’s not just about an IDF with more lone soldiers than ever, or that they’re finally getting the recognition they deserve — it’s about what lone soldiers bring to the army.
Mike Meyerheim, from up north, describes a recent basic training ceremony for the Golani Brigade. “They called up all the mitztainim, the Outstanding Soldiers, from each battalion. The commander of the Golani Brigade turned to me and asked how it was possible that so many of these mitztainim were lone soldiers.”
For Harriet and Mark, the answer is obvious. “Lone soldiers add what the army really needs,” Harriet says. “The love of Israel. The passion for the country.”
Avi Lurie sees it firsthand. “Israelis are forced to do this, but we want to. When Israelis see this — when they see kids like me who want to serve — it changes the way they think about their own service.”
This is Michael’s invisible impact. And I’m convinced it couldn’t have been just any lone soldier. It had to be Michael Levin.
Like Michael, my hero growing up was Yoni Netanyahu, the paratrooper and leader of the raid on Entebbe and the operation’s lone casualty. I read and reread Yoni’s “Self Portrait of a Hero,” a collection of his letters, during high school — as Michael had. It was because of Yoni that I wanted to join the IDF.
But it was just as much because of Yoni that I chose tanks instead of paratroopers. In “Self Portrait of a Hero,” we meet a soldier of superhuman physical strength, unlimited stamina, and unshakable self-confidence. A true Lion of Judah. Much as I admired him, I knew I could never be like Yoni or his paratrooper platoon-mates. I was afraid I’d fall behind.
Then there’s Michael Levin. The anti-Yoni.
‘Michael’s message is not to go and die for your cause. His message is to fulfill your dream the best you can. That’s a worldwide message, not just one for the IDF or Israel’
Michael was not a Lion of Judah. Quite the opposite: the army didn’t want to take him. It was only after he climbed a dumpster and shimmied through a window into the Induction Center that they agreed to let him in. Michael’s source of power was sheer determination.
Who Michael Levin wasn’t inspires lone soldiers as much as who he was. Michael’s Hebrew wasn’t the best. He needed help finishing hikes. He was accident-prone, and dropped a MAG machine gun on his foot during basic training. He was the skinny troublemaker with a goofy sense of humor you feel you’ve known your whole life. The guy you look at and say, “If he can do it, I can, too.” Yoni Netanyahu wows us because we know we can never be like him. Michael’s magic is that we don’t have to try to be like him; we are him.
“Michael’s message is not to go and die for your cause,” says David Keren. “His message is to fulfill your dream the best you can. That’s a worldwide message, not just one for the IDF or Israel. That’s Michael’s story. And how he should be remembered.”
As I drive away from the Levins’ home, I think about two things. First, how deeply Michael was loved. Everyone I spoke with referred to him in hyperbolic terms: “my best mate,” “the closest of friends,” “haver ma-zeh tov sheli” (such a good friend).
And I think about fate. I can’t help but wonder if it was meant to be. I feel bad thinking it. But is it possible — maybe — that Michael was meant to die on that Lebanese hillside 10 years ago, just as Yoni seemed destined to lead the rescue at Entebbe but to ultimately fall? Can it be that Michael was charged with a higher purpose, a mission we can’t quantify, that resulted in touching the lives of thousands of Jewish soldiers and changing the ethos of the Israel Defense Forces from the inside?
“I’m a big believer in fate,” says Gilad Zvilich, Michael’s commander from basic training. “I believe we all have a calling. And it could be — it could be — that this was Michael’s calling. That something about his amazing story… that it’s his destiny. Today, thousands and thousands of soldiers are getting something they didn’t get before. Because of Michael.
“And if we’re talking destiny,” Zvilich adds, “it could be this is Harriet and Mark’s destiny, too. All of these lone soldiers — to Harriet and Mark they’re not just soldiers. They’re sons.”
Michael was killed on the 7th of Av (which falls this year on August 11), and was buried on the 9th of Av, 5766. Today, his grave on Mount Herzl is a point of interest for Birthright trips, youth group tours, and Israeli high school students. It is one of the most-often visited graves in Israel. As such, you’ll see things at Michael’s grave you wouldn’t ordinarily see in a cemetery.
Mike Meyerheim shares this story:
“One evening — it was Friday — a woman from the States came to visit Michael’s grave. When she got there she saw this kid sitting next to the grave — and he was making coffee. He had the coffeepot and his coffee cup right there on the grave.
“The woman started yelling at him. How dare he disrespect the grave of Michael Levin! ‘This is a cemetery, not a cafeteria!’ she said.
“The guy listened patiently. When she’d finished screaming, the kid said, in a quiet voice, “Michael and I were best friends. Every Friday night, when both of us came home from the army, we’d make a cup of coffee and talk. That’s all I’m doing. Just having a cup of coffee with my best friend. Mikey.”