Pennsylvanians Mourn Hometown Soldier

By Matt Schuman

Published August 11, 2006, issue of August 11, 2006.
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NEWTOWN, Pa. — More than 1,200 men, women and children came together at Shir Ami, Bucks County Jewish Congregation in the Philadelphia suburbs on the evening of July 31 to demonstrate their support for the State of Israel. The evening’s most poignant moment came when a speaker recognized the presence of Mark and Harriet Levin, noting that their son, Michael, had immigrated to Israel and become a paratrooper in the Israeli army. The spontaneous standing ovation reduced Mom, who was wearing a paratrooper’s shirt, to tears.

Less than 24 hours later, Michael Levin, a first sergeant, was one of three Israeli soldiers killed when their platoon was hit by a Hezbollah anti-tank missile in the southern Lebanese town of Aita al-Shaab. Two days later, thousands attended his funeral in Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem.

On August 7, a mere eight days after the pro-Israel rally, an even larger crowd — estimated at 1,500 plus — again gathered at Shir Ami to memorialize a 22-year-old Israeli war hero from a quiet Bucks County, Pa., neighborhood known as Holland Acres. “It’s with all the love I have in my heart that I must now say farewell to my son,” said Mark Levin, the last of more than a dozen speakers who shared their thoughts with the overflowing crowd.

Those who knew him best described Michael Levin as warm, caring, considerate and, perhaps above all else, driven. By the time he was 16, they said, he already was planning to move to Israel and join the army.

Rabbi David Silverstein, a close family friend, noted that Levin wasn’t content to support the State of Israel and pledge allegiance to the Zionist ideal from the comfort of his suburban Philadelphia home. So after his 2002 graduation from Council Rock High School in Newtown, Pa., he immigrated to Israel. However, Levin wasn’t content to merely live in Israel; he wanted to defend the Jewish homeland. So eager was the young man to join the Israeli military that he actually gained access to an enlistment center by standing on a Dumpster and climbing through a second-floor window in the rear of the building after being turned away at the front entrance. Still, Silverstein said, he wasn’t content. The 5-foot-6-inch, 118-pound Levin had a burning desire for higher service, and his determination led him to become one of the few Americans admitted into an elite paratrooper unit.

In fact, in early July he cut short what was supposed to be a three-week visit home to rejoin his unit.

“Michael lived a heroic life and died a heroic death,” Silverstein said, struggling to maintain his composure. “Not only was he a hero, but he defined what it is to be a human being and what it is to be a Jew.”

Uri Palti, consul general of Israel, added that Levin is a symbol of how “we are indeed one.” Directing his comments to Levin’s loved ones, the consul general said, “Michael left what was his world to be with us, to defend us. And now the nation of Israel is crying with you.” Ephraim Lapid, a brigadier general, related how just eight days ago, immediately following the rally, Mark Levin was bursting with pride as he showed him photos of his son the paratrooper. Since then, Lapid lamented, so very much has changed.

“We’re sorry, Michael. Sorry we couldn’t save you. God wanted you closer to him,” the brigadier general said. Then he saluted and began to speak, but his voice cracked. “I salute you, Michael Levin.”

Shortly before he and the other members of Battalion 101 headed to battle in southern Lebanon, Levin had told his twin sister, Dara, and older sister, Lisa, that he missed them, he loved them and that he’d be okay.

Kevin Waloff received a text message from his lifelong best friend. “Michael said I wouldn’t be able to reach him by cell phone” for a short period of time, Waloff said. “I figured he was going to southern Lebanon.”

Mark Levin vividly remembers his final in-person conversation with his son, which took place at JFK Airport in New York.

“After we exchanged hugs,” the elder Levin began, “Michael said: ‘Please don’t worry about me. I’m going exactly where I want to be and doing exactly what I want to do.’ He also told me that if anything should happen to him, he wanted to be buried in Mount Herzl Cemetery.” On August 3, thousands of mourners were on hand as Michael Levin’s request was honored.

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