Diaspora army volunteers have a home away from home at Lone Soldier Center.
In the end, Israel’s lone soldiers who fell in battle in recent days were not alone. Far from it.
The funerals for Max Steinberg, 23, of Los Angeles, Nissim Sean Carmelli, 21, of South Padre Island, Texas, and Jordan Bensemhoun, 22, of Lyon, France, were attended by huge throngs of Israelis — more than 30,000 for Steinberg and 20,000 for Carmelli. In the midst of rocket attacks from Gaza, ordinary citizens came out to the cemeteries to show solidarity with and appreciation for the 6,000 young diaspora Jews who are voluntarily serving in the Israel Defense Forces without parents in Israel.
In the poignant eulogies given last week by dignitaries and family members at the three funerals there were references to Staff Sgt. Michael Levin as a role model for those who feel a calling to leave the safety of their homes and connect their fate to the State of Israel.
Levin, one of five lone soldiers who died in the 2006 war in Lebanon, was a young man whose love of Zion and perseverance in joining a fighting unit despite his small size (5-foot-6 and 118 pounds) captured the hearts of Israelis and Jews everywhere. He was 22 when he was killed by a Hezbollah sniper on Aug. 1, 2006.
His parents, Mark and Harriet Levin, leave for Israel this week for their annual visit to observe his yahrtzeit (the seventh of Av) at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery. They may take some measure of comfort in knowing that, according to grounds keepers, their son’s grave is likely the most visited of all the thousands of burial places of war heroes at the serene Jerusalem setting. But the anniversary of Levin’s death and the current conflict in Gaza, with Israel losing dozens of IDF soldiers, make this a particularly hard time for the Levins.
“It has been a difficult couple of weeks, reliving it all over again,” acknowledged Mark Levin. “The tragedy can’t be changed. And we had hoped Michael, who was the only American and first paratrooper killed in that war, would be the last.”
We at The Jewish Week feel a special connection to the Levins. Michael’s twin sister, Dara Goldstein, is a Jewish Week sales assistant, and Rich Waloff, our associate publisher and chief revenue officer, and his wife, Eileen, are close friends and neighbors of Michael’s parents.
I never had the privilege of meeting Michael, but from the stories told, the articles written and the poignant documentary, “A Hero In Heaven,” made about his life, a portrait emerges of a young man who seemed to represent the very spirit of Israel, an underdog succeeding beyond all expectations.
In the 2009 book, “Lone Soldiers: Israel’s Defenders From Around The World,” Michael was one of 14 volunteers profiled by Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon. He wrote that Michael’s story has had such resonance “because of the choices he made while he was alive.” Keinon cited Michael’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.”
Mark Levin is often asked about what sparked his son’s love of Zionism. “It’s hard to explain,” he said, “but we believe he was born that way. Hashem gave him a Zionist neshama [soul] at birth and we watched it grow.”
In their grief following Michael’s death his parents decided to make good on a goal their son had expressed during his two and a half year service in the army.
“He had gone to see a friend who helped lone soldiers,” Mark Levin recalled, “and Michael told him, ‘after I finish my service we are going to start a center for lone soldiers.’”
So the Levins channeled their sadness into creating the Lone Soldier Center in memory of Michael Levin, now established in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beersheba and Haifa, and serving up to 3,000 men and women a year in creating a home away from home for soldiers on their own.
Josh Flaster, a 29-year-old native of Phoenix, has been affiliated with the center since its founding, the first five years as a volunteer and now as national director. He was one of two Jews in his high school class of 600, he said, and left home a decade ago to serve in the IDF and settle in Israel. A brother and sister followed him. He said the number of lone soldiers has continued to increase from year to year. These days he spends much of his time visiting them in hospitals and at their army bases, encouraging them, bringing them food and clothing, and coordinating visits from family members.
Flaster knew Michael Levin, and said that he was, for both Israeli and diaspora Jews, “the embodiment of the lone soldier — someone who came to help unselfishly, not for his own glory or benefit.
“Israelis in the army see the lone soldiers as the last frontier of Zionism,” he continued, “committed to doing anything possible to help this country.”
The center serves as a support group for the soldiers, providing housing, furniture, food and basic needs. More than that the volunteers, who include about 350 former lone soldiers, are a source of warmth, guidance and inspiration.
“The family of the lone soldier here in Israel is other lone soldiers,” said Flaster. “We sponsor social events to bring them together and make them feel part of a bigger community.”
A key aspect of his job is meeting with potential lone soldiers, often young diaspora Jews in Israel for gap-year programs at universities or yeshivas. He offers advice and counseling, stressing that joining the IDF is “not like summer camp or an adventure. I tell them it can either be very boring or very dangerous.”
Flaster estimated that about one-third of the IDF lone soldiers are from North America, and noted that the fastest growing contingent is made up of Israeli haredim who feel a responsibility to serve in the army. For their patriotism they are shunned by their families and rabbinic leaders, with no place to go home to for Shabbat or holidays, according to Flaster.
“We look out for each other, for our own,” he noted, regardless of background or country of origin. “That’s what families are for.”
Mark and Harriet Levin will take part in the dedication of a new and expanded lone center facility in Jerusalem during their 12-day stay. A number of dignitaries are expected to attend, including Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren.
Another highlight for the Levins will be emotional visits with large numbers of Michael’s friends who have become his parents’ friends as well. It was through Michael’s fellow soldiers that the Levins learned a small Israeli flag was found folded up in his pocket when he died — a poignant lesson in Zionism for so many, in Israel and around the world, who take Israel’s existence for granted.
They say they have no regrets about allowing Michael to serve in the IDF, seeing that it was his passion and calling, or about honoring his wish that if he were to die in battle, he be buried at Mount Herzl.
Harriet Levin said that if he had been buried back in the U.S., few would visit his grave. “In Israel,” she said, “he stands for so much more.”
As his eighth yahrtzeit is observed this week, may his memory be a blessing — and may there no more fresh graves dug in Israel for those who serve in the IDF.
For more information on the The Lone Soldier Center in memory of Michael Levin, go to www.lonesoldiercenter.com
Gary Rosenblatt has been the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week for 20 years and has written more than 1,000 "Between The Lines" columns since 1993. Now a collection of 80 of those columns, ranging from Mideast analysis to childhood remembrances as "the Jewish rabbi's son" in Annapolis, Md., is available. Click here for details.