While visiting family and friends in his hometown of Holland, Pa., last month, First Sgt. Michael Levin was safe from the war that suddenly erupted in Israel. But rather than finish his vacation in a leisurely fashion, the Israeli Defense Force soldier immediately returned to the Jewish state, rushing to the aid of his 890 Paratrooper Brigade as they battled Hezbollah in Lebanon.
On August 1, Levin was killed in action in the Lebanese town of Aita al-Shaab. He was 22.
"He was 118 pounds, 5 feet 6 inches and he had the heart of a lion," said his father Mark Levin during a phone interview Sunday. "This was Ariel Sharon's unit — those are the biggest, toughest guys around."
Levin's attachment to Israel stemmed from his upbringing, which included youth and family trips to Israel, eight summers spent at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, affiliation with United Synagogue Youth, and Torah study at Congregation Tifereth Israel of Lower Bucks County in Bensalem.
By the time he was 16, Levin had told his parents that upon graduation from Council Rock High School, he planned to make aliyah and join the IDF. His parents worried about their son's safety, but supported his decision.
"Whatever he did, he did all the way," said rabbi Jeffery Schnitzer of Tifereth Israel. "He was never one to touch his toe to the water to see if it was okay. He just jumped right in."
Levin made aliyah in May of 2002. According to Israeli friend Lital Rashi, he became increasingly comfortable living in the Jewish state.
"He felt really at home in Israel and his Hebrew had gotten so good," said Rashi, who noted that he worked vigorously to learn the language.
Rashi and Levin met at Camp Ramah where the Israeli spent several summers.
With friends Levin was outgoing, Rashi said. After introducing him to some of her classmates from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, he immediately created his own friendships.
Rashi described him as a friend who was always more interested in listening than talking.
"I would ask how things were and he would give short answers — just to hear about how I'm doing," she said.
According to Mark Levin, his son felt that the IDF was dragging its feet in enlisting him, so Levin took matters into his own hands, climbing into a second floor window of a military building in an effort to convince military personnel to give him enlistment papers.
After joining the army, Levin was not satisfied unless he made it into an elite unit like the paratroopers, his father said. His quest to become a paratrooper led him to complete rigorous training sessions with men much larger in stature than he.
"At the end he was [still] standing," said Mark Levin. "He said these guys could have [had him] for lunch, but they didn't have the drive and determination that he did."
At the time he died, the paratrooper was only months away from completing his required army service.
His parents, Harriet and Mark Levin, accompanied Michael's twin sister Dara and older sister Elisa to Michael's funeral in Israel last week. Their son and brother was laid to rest among other fallen soldiers in Mt. Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.
Upon arriving at the cemetery, Mark Levin was initially disappointed, as he saw hundreds of cars and people lined up on the hillside, since he believed that meant his son's funeral wouldn't be the only one that day.
"I thought, 'Oh great, there are dozens of funerals today,' " said Mark Levin, who saw his son buried on Tisha B'Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, "but they were all there for Michael. It was overwhelming. This story must have captured the hearts and minds of people all over the country."
On July 31, a group rallying in support of Israel at Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Newtown gave Mark and Harriet Levin a standing ovation after it was announced that their son Michael was fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The very next day, he was killed, bringing the Levin family back to Shir Ami exactly one week later, this time for a memorial service for their child.
At the standing-room-only service, which drew upwards of 1,500 people, friends and relatives spoke of how Levin wore his Israeli sandals regardless of the weather, cheered hard for the Philadelphia Flyers, and had a mischievous sense of humor. His sister Elisa related how her brother wouldn't tell his parents he was coming to visit, choosing to surprise them instead. During his last visit — only weeks ago — Levin hid inside a large shipping box while his sister rang the doorbell.
"[My mother] screamed so loud when he jumped out that I'm surprised no neighbors called the cops," said Elisa Levin.
Mark Levin noted that the death of his son does not change his outlook on Israel.
"In terrible times, with weapons of mass destruction, Israel needs to be defended," said Levin. "With young Zionist men like my son and the people I met in his unit, Israel is in good hands. With God's help, we will prevail."
Donations in Michael's honor can be made to The Michael Levin Memorial Fund for Israel and mailed to Congregation Tifereth Israel, 2909 Bristol Road, Bensalem, PA 19020.