I couldn’t sleep. It was going to be a long flight home from Israel. Despite the fact that I’d taken all the necessary precautions, including earplugs, blackout shades and a Tylenol PM, I was still wide awake. My problem was compounded by the two young boys seated behind me who were noisier than the jet engines that propelled the plane.
So there I was thinking about Michael. Thinking about how much has changed in our lives in the past seven years and about the very last time we saw our son. It was at the EL AL departure lounge at JFK Airport in July 2006. Harriet and I were there along with Michael’s sisters, Dara and Elisa. The Second Lebanon War had just begun and Michael was rushing back to rejoin his unit. We knew that in a few days he would be doing what he was trained to do, what his heart and mind told him he had to do — defend the nation of Israel with every fiber of his being.
What we didn’t know and could barely have imagined was the impact that Michael’s death would have not only on our family, but on the worldwide Jewish community. Out of 119 Israel Defense Forces casualties, Michael was the first paratrooper and the only American to die in the war.
When thousands of people arrived for his funeral in Israel and a memorial service in Bucks County, we knew that Michael’s death had affected people in ways we were only beginning to understand. Harriet and I were left with a choice: succumb to that crushing burden of grief that surrounded us or try to change this tragedy into something meaningful, something that would do justice to the sacrifice made by our son.
Then we met Sally Mitlas, an incredibly dedicated and talented woman who understood Michael’s passion for Israel. She produced an award-winning documentary on Michael’s life called A Hero in Heaven. This film has served as the catalyst to raise the consciousness and appreciation of the sacrifice young men and women like Michael are making. Fundraisers, speaking engagements and the documentary all aid us in raising money for our son’s charity, The Michael Levin Memorial Fund for Israel.
This fund was established to help other “lone soldiers” like Michael, individuals who have left their family, friends and country behind to live in Israel and help defend it. To date, there are more than 5,500 lone soldiers proudly serving in the IDF.
Over the years, we have helped these soldiers in a number of ways. We began by providing new ammunition vests for Michael’s entire unit, we’ve refurbished several recreation rooms on kibbutzim that house lone soldiers and helped to create four major events for hundreds of these soldiers. These events afforded them the relaxation, food, entertainment, counseling, educational and job opportunities that they so rightly deserve.
The most rewarding part of this endeavor has been to help make Michael’s dream a reality. Early on, he quickly realized that lone soldiers have special needs and face a variety of problems and challenges that other Israelis do not. His vision was to someday establish a lone soldier center designed to cater to these needs. I am proud to say that with the help of a very dedicated, talented and passionate staff, along with hundreds of volunteers, there are now four centers up and running in Israel. Our ultimate goal is to raise enough funds to purchase a larger facility in Jerusalem to serve as a permanent home for the center.
As Father’s Day approaches, I look forward to rereading the four Father’s Day cards that Michael sent me during his years in Israel. Something told me that I should put them away for safe-keeping. Thank God I did. It not only helps me get through the day, but serves to reinforce the unbreakable father-son bond that we shared. As Michael’s dad, I feel proud and gratified to be helping to carry out his vision even though he is not here to see the results. May his sacrifice and memory continue to be a blessing to all of Israel.l
Mark A. Levin lives in Bucks County. To contribute to the fund, visit: www. aheroinheaven.com. To learn more about the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center visit: www.lonesoldiercenter . com.