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Soldier Was Determined to Fight for Israel

Times Staff Writers

With a killer smile and irrepressible will, Michael Levin always seemed to get what he wanted.

A rambunctious Jewish kid from suburban Philadelphia, he yearned for a life in Israel and, improbably, a paratrooper’s wings. His parents wanted him to attend college, but his mind was made up.

Barely out of high school, Levin settled in Israel, struggled to learn Hebrew and set about winning a coveted assignment in the Israel Defense Forces. His commanders told him he was too thin to make it as a paratrooper. But the young man everyone called “Mikey” would not be deterred. He bulked up, became a crack sharpshooter and made the cut.

So when his grieving parents had to choose between burying their only son in Israel’s national military cemetery or bringing him home to the rolling landscape of Bucks County, they granted Mikey his final wish.

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Mortally wounded during a firefight with Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon this month, Levin, 22, was buried on an Israeli hillside.

His death so moved Israel’s armed forces that IDF sound trucks drove the streets of Jerusalem before Levin’s military funeral, urging residents to honor “a holy man.” And his passion for Israel has stirred young Zionists and Jewish congregations across the U.S., personalizing a conflict that has at times seemed remote and politically muddied.

“Michael’s story of sacrifice has captured the minds of people all over the country,” said his father, Mark. “My son was a hero in every sense of the word.”

Life-size portraits of the soldier and fragrant flowers filled a Newtown synagogue this week as more than 1,500 people crowded inside during a raging thunderstorm.

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Clustered at the front were Levin’s family and friends, dozens of whom had come by bus from Camp Ramah, a Jewish overnight camp where Levin had kindled his determination to move to Israel. Sitting behind them were hundreds of mourners, many of them young Zionists, who had never met the paratrooper but had come from across the East Coast to pay their respects and honor a kindred spirit.

“Michael did what we all wish we could do,” said Ari Goldner, 23, who drove from New York City with two friends for the memorial service. “He died a hero fighting for the land he loved.”

According to his father and a brief account by the IDF, Michael Levin had been sent with his paratroop unit the morning of Aug. 1 to take a house occupied by Hezbollah fighters in the village of Aita Shaab. During fighting that left two other Israeli soldiers dead, Levin was killed when an anti-tank artillery round exploded as he searched the building.

Like so many fallen soldiers and storied leaders, Levin was buried at the Israeli national cemetery at Mt. Herzl, a rocky outcrop on Jerusalem’s outskirts. Hundreds attended the ceremony, milling beneath pine trees around Levin’s family and his simple wooden coffin. Wearing dress uniforms and maroon berets, fellow paratroopers quietly laid their service wings on his grave.

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“From the beginning, I was struck by his incredible motivation,” said Levin’s IDF commander, Noa Pheterson, 21. “He was a very special person.”

The Levins had known that about Mikey almost from his birth. “From the very beginning,” Mark Levin said, he and his wife, Harriet, “knew that Michael would leave his mark on the world.”

It started with the Levins’ garage door. Obsessed with ice hockey, Mikey riddled it with dents as he practiced slap shots day after day.

“No matter how much he was told to stop, he kept doing it,” said Rich Waloff, a neighbor and close family friend. “He was just full of energy about everything he did.”

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The Levins are Conservative Jews who raised their son, his twin sister, Dara, and his older sister, Alisa, to keep kosher. They attended services at Tifereth Israel, a growing congregation in nearby Bensalem -- one of many exurbs in the verdant stretch between Philadelphia and Trenton, N.J.

During his teenage years, Mikey showed up for class at Council Rock High School wearing a yarmulke and Israeli-made Naot sandals. He endured anti-Semitic cracks from classmates and even complaints from his father, who wondered aloud how his son could wear the open-toed sandals while sitting in frigid temperatures at Philadelphia Eagles games.

By his senior year, Mikey had come to a critical decision: He wanted to move to Israel and join the army.

The Levins understood their son’s love for Israel. During eight summers at Camp Ramah, he had been taught Hebrew by Israelis and told bedtime stories about their land and its history.

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But his desire to become a soldier seemed to come from another place. According to several close friends and Rabbi Jeffery Schnitzer, who heads Congregation Tifereth Israel, Levin grew curious about Israel’s military lore during a high school tour of the country in April 2001. On a visit to Mt. Herzl, Levin was transfixed by the stone-walled gravesite of Yonatan Netanyahu. The brother of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “Yoni” Netanyahu was a decorated Israeli soldier killed in 1976 while leading the rescue of hostages at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.

Dani Miller, one of Levin’s closest friends, witnessed the transformation. “It was love at first sight,” Miller said. “When you’re 16 and you hear about a guy who died in this heroic way, your imagination runs wild.”

Even though the Levins knew their son was intent on settling in Israel, they were equally determined that he get a college education. Mark Levin took his son on college tours and threatened to withhold his passport. But his son was adamant. Says Rabbi Schnitzer, “I told Mark that he could cut off his son’s legs, but he’d still get there.”

Soon after high school graduation, Michael Levin showed up alone in Israel and plunged into his new life. At Kibbutz Yavneh, near the city of Ashdod, he began studying Hebrew and applied to the IDF for a slot in a paratroop unit. Dava Heksher, his language teacher, was struck by his military obsession. “He was always talking about the army,” she recalled.

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Even after he was accepted as a recruit, Levin -- at 5 feet, 6 inches and 118 pounds -- was a longshot to become an elite paratrooper. During training jumps, he drifted perilously off course because he was too scrawny. So trainers attached weights to his parachute -- a practice he continued throughout his stint in the IDF. Levin began pumping iron and filled out, although his gun belt still drooped below his hips.

Pheterson met Levin in August 2004, when he entered a three-month basic training program for recent immigrants. And she was the one who told him that he had been accepted into the paratroopers, presenting him with a piece of cardboard cut into the shape of a parachute and inscribed with the force’s motto: “Follow me to the paratroopers!”

“He was so excited,” Pheterson said. “He had a big smile.”

The two stayed in touch after Levin joined his unit. His only complaint was that he wanted to do more. “He used to call me and say they were doing nothing but guard duty,” she said. “ ‘I want to do the real thing,’ he would tell me. ‘I want to fight.’ ”

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But when Israeli forces rolled into Lebanon in late July, Levin was back in Bucks County on home leave. He had shown up at his parents’ door hiding inside a giant UPS box -- a prank he cooked up with Alisa. As the situation in the Middle East deteriorated, Levin grew antsy. He called his unit and was told to return for combat.

He said his good-byes to his parents at Kennedy International Airport in New York, in his usual wisecracking manner. But then he grew somber. “He said: ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m doing what I want to do,’ ” his father recalled. “He said, ‘If God should decide to call me home, I’m fine with that. If something happens to me, please bury me at Mt. Herzl.’ ”

The day before Levin went on his final mission, he spent a few hours with his friend Dani Miller in the northern Israeli town of Tiberias, near the Golan Heights. Under a punishing sun, they reminisced about life back in the States, careful not to talk about the hazards of war.

“Mike was never scared,” Miller said. “He knew ... that he could be killed at any minute. But he didn’t dwell on it.” When his commander informed him that he had only 10 minutes before they returned to Lebanon, Levin escorted his friend to the bus. “We hugged, and I told him to be careful.”

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The next morning, according to Mark Levin, his son’s unit was in a fierce gun battle with Hezbollah fighters hiding in a group of houses in Aita Shaab. When a commander ordered a group of paratroopers to storm one of the houses, they hesitated.

“The officer said to Michael, ‘You take the lead,’ ” Mark Levin said. “He sprayed enough cover fire for the soldiers to get into position.”

Levin, Schnitzer said, “died before he hit the ground.”

His grieving parents thought briefly about bringing his body home. But they knew what he wanted. They quickly arranged for his burial at Mt. Herzl. And in his memory, they laid plans to start up the Michael Levin Memorial Fund to provide social support for “lone soldiers,” foreign-born Zionists -- like their son -- who have moved to Israel to fight for their adopted homeland.

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Burying their son at Mt. Herzl “was the most important decision of our lives,” Mark Levin said.

“It brought us a lot of closure. And it was the last thing we could do for Michael.”

One final time, he had his way.

*

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Braun reported from Newtown and King from Jerusalem. Times researcher Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.


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