If Jews in the tri-state area were, for many years, only vaguely aware of the term "lone soldier," its meaning was driven home to them heartbreakingly in 2006, with the start of the Second Lebanon War and the brave story of Michael Levin, a native of the Philadelphia suburbs. Lone soldiers are those who make aliyah from all over the world, leaving relatives behind, and through their love of the Jewish homeland and their dedication to Zionist principles insist on immediately serving in the Israel Defense Force. Levin from Newtown (where his family still resides) was one of them.
A member of an elite paratrooper unit in the IDF, Levin had been vacationing with his family when the war in the north broke out in the summer of 2006, and he rushed back to Israel to join his fellow soldiers. Just 22 years old, he died on Aug. 1 of that year from sniper fire during a battle with Hezbollah near the village of Aita al-Shaab in southern Lebanon.
According to a new book, titled Lone Soldiers: Israel's Defenders From Around the World, Levin was one of five lone soldiers who died in the 2006 war and, though all of their stories are important, Levin's particularly touched Israeli and Diaspora Jews. In author Herb Keinon's opinion, it was "because of the choices [Levin] made while he was alive.
"For instance," Keinon continues, "Levin's decision to move to Israel right after high school without any family; his decision to press to get into a front-line combat unit; his decision to cut short his vacation to Philadelphia in July 2006 to fight in the Second Lebanon War; his decision to ceaselessly nudge his commanders to make sure that he would not be left out of the fighting in Lebanon."
But Levin's astonishing and moving story is only one of those told in this sweet tribute to these young individuals. Also included are Michael Bothan from Britain, Isabelle Fhima from Morocco, Anton Tsarkov from Russia, Anat Lev from the Dominican Republic, Kasaw Dtala from Ethiopia and nearly a dozen more. And accompanying Keinon's celebratory words are wonderful portraits by photographer Ricki Rosen of these spirited individuals.
Among the olim from the United States who are profiled here is the talented Maya Golan. She is a crack shot, according to Keinon — is so good, in fact, that she teaches select Israeli soldiers how to be snipers. And she only learned about guns herself after she entered the Israel Defense Force at age 18!
But perhaps the most stirring story of all is that of Lt. Col. (res.) Tzvika Levy, who the author describes as as an old-style kibbutznik, who has also been called the "father of the lone soldiers." He watches over them and tries to make their inculcation into the army — and, by extension, Israeli society — as smooth as possible.
Keinon quotes the officer as saying that the day the lone soldiers are inducted into the service is, in fact, the loneliest day of their young lives because when they look around they do not see their parents smiling at them.
" 'It is at those times that, while everyone else has parents here, they will be thinking about their mothers in Texas, or in Ethiopia, or in St. Petersburg. This pinches my heart.'
So he "now makes it a point to know in advance each time a unit has a parents' day. 'I try to make sure that each unit lets the lone soldiers go for a day that I organize — a "fun day" where I take them from the base. I take them outside — give them sweatshirts, socks, underwear, chocolates and food. I take them to a place where there is a swimming pool, a massage. I try to give them something nice so that they say, 'Wow, there are people who care about us, who want things here to be good for us.' "
When you read about someone like Tzvika Levy, you not only feel grateful that there are people like him in the world, you may also feel deep in your heart that maybe you've wasted your time here on earth just a little bit. You may even feel compelled, after reading about his dedication to the young, to spend some of your next visit to Israel searching for a way to thank him for all he does.