A Memorial Day Unlike Any Other
Editor’s Note: Michael Levin was a great friend of The Friends of Israel. Although he was young, Michael had the maturity and sense of purpose of someone much older, and we were privileged to have him address our Up to Jerusalem tours in Israel, his adopted country, twice a year. At age 18, Michael had followed his heart and immigrated to Israel from Pennsylvania all alone. He enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and became a paratrooper.
When Michael was in the States in 2006 visiting his parents, he stopped by our headquarters, popping into various offices to say hello. Everyone was thrilled to see his smiling face. Several days later, he received word that war had broken out with Hezbollah. He cut his vacation short to rejoin his unit, which was sent into combat in southern Lebanon. As the IDF soldiers were clearing a building, they came under heavy fire from Hezbollah terrorists; and 22-year-old Michael Levin was killed.
On May 5, the entire nation of Israel will grind to a halt for two minutes as a siren sounds throughout the country for Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, to commemorate all the brave soldiers of Israel’s armed services who made the supreme sacrifice over the years to keep Israel alive. The following article was written in 2012 by Michael’s father, Mark. We are grateful that we can share it here with you.
I can’t move. My legs are beginning to cramp, and I can’t move. Harriet and I have been wedged in a corner standing beside Michael’s grave for more than three hours, surrounded by a sea of people. It’s Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for its fallen soldiers, and we’re at Mount Herzl National Military Cemetery in Jerusalem.
So here we stand, along with hundreds of others who have come to this hallowed ground on this solemn day of remembrance to pay our respects. Even though the piercing siren which sounded promptly at 11 A.M. has long been silent, the crowd around Michael’s grave has not dispersed at all.
It’s hard to believe almost seven years have passed since our son, Michael, fell in combat. He was the first paratrooper and the only American out of 119 IDF casualties to fall in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. His final wish was to be buried in this cemetery.
The scene is unlike any you can imagine. There are thousands upon thousands of people standing shoulder to shoulder throughout most of the cemetery. The graves are covered with flowers and memorial candles, which are donated and given out upon entering Mount Herzl. Michael’s grave is unrecognizable, as the flowers brought by well-wishers lay in a heap waist high. They easily cover the hundreds of stones, personal items, and especially Philly [Philadelphia] memorabilia left by the hundreds of visitors who stop by his grave each week. What’s most astonishing is that the groundskeepers tell us that Michael’s grave is the most visited grave in the cemetery.
How can I possibly explain this to all of our friends and family back home? In America, unfortunately, Memorial Day does not carry the seriousness it does in Israel. For the most part, it is a day that marks the beginning of summer. A day for family picnics, barbecues, sales at the malls, or for opening your shore house, if you are fortunate enough to have one.
There is no national siren in America. No two minutes of silence, when all motor vehicles and pedestrians in the nation come to a complete standstill. The thousands of brave, patriotic American soldiers who gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan are not visited by the soldiers who served with them. In Israel, it is a time-honored duty and obligation to do so. Sometimes entire units will visit the bereaved.
The reason for all of this is apparent. Israel’s Jewish population has recently exceeded 6 million. It is estimated that one and a half million Israelis pay their respects at cemeteries throughout the country on this day. That is 25 percent of the population. This extraordinary turnout is due to the fact that many Israelis have either lost someone dear to them or know someone who has.
They also know full well that, for the most part, it is the Israeli armed forces that have kept them safe. If it weren’t for the IDF, there would be no Israel. The massive turnout on this day is a fitting tribute to the more than 20,000 soldiers who have given their lives in defense of the nation in the past 65 years.
One after another, they push their way through the crowd to reach us. It’s been going on for hours. By early afternoon Harriet is mentally and emotionally spent, but as long as there are people still here who want to speak to us, we feel obligated to stay. Some of them are barely able to get the words out; others break down and cry, unable to speak at all. We try our best to calm them. Their comments, both heartfelt and profound, often end with the same three words: because of Michael.
Mr. and Mrs. Levin, I want you to know that I am here in Israel because of Michael.
Mr. Levin, I came here to tell you that I’m a proud member of the IDF, and it’s all because of Michael.
I’m in the paratroopers because of Michael.
I’ve decided to make aliyah because of Michael.
Mr. Levin, my friends and I are 17-year-old Israelis who had ambivalent feelings about joining the IDF until we saw Michael’s documentary in school. After a long class discussion, all of us are going to proudly serve. We are also encouraging our friends to do so, and it’s all because of Michael.
This has been going on for seven Memorial Days. Each year, as we attend this solemn day, we hear these stories over and over again. On the one hand, we feel proud that Michael has made such a profound impact on so many people’s lives. But at the same time, we cannot help but feel a sense of responsibility for their safety and well-being.
It’s obvious to us that Michael’s story of a proud American Zionist who so willingly gave his life in defense of the nation that he loved so dearly continues to resonate throughout Jewish communities and has been passed down by word of mouth through the years. This, coupled with the extraordinary documentary, A Hero in Heaven, produced by Sally Mitlas, continues to touch the hearts and minds of Jews all over the world.
To us he was a proud Jew who simply heard the call and heeded it, who honored his dream by following it, and who fulfilled his destiny by living it. As Michael always said, “You can’t fulfill your dreams unless you dare to risk it all.”
We love him and miss him every day and hope to be proudly standing by his side next year on Yom HaZikaron.