On July 31, 2006, in Bucks County, thousands rallied in support of Israel during the Second Lebanon War. They cheered also for a local boy, Michael Levin, a “lone soldier” in the IDF, who just weeks before had cut short a visit with his family in Philadelphia to return to Israel to rejoin his paratrooper unit.
Two days later, the Levin family — and later, countless others — were mourning his loss.
Last month in a program at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, his mother, Harriet Levin, spoke on behalf of the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin. Created in 2009 by a group of Michael’s friends, the center provides support, in many forms, to lone
soldiers — those serving in the IDF without family in Israel.
Harriet Levin recalled the day her rabbi at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Bensalem, Pa., and Israel’s consul general in Philadelphia came to her workplace to tell her that her son, a staff sergeant, had fallen in battle. He was killed on Aug. 1, 2006, in clashes with Hezbollah in the southern Lebanese village of Ayta ash-Shab.
She said his passion for Israel began at a young age. “Michael was about 10 when he started talking about going,” Harriet told NJJN in a phone interview from her Langhorne, Pa., home. “Both my parents were survivors of Auschwitz, and that really informed his decision. He was very close to my dad and knew the importance of having our own homeland. He always talked about making aliyah.”
Operating at two locations, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the center assists lone soldiers before, during, and after their military service by providing them with basic necessities, meals, equipment, and guidance. The center also offers Shabbat meals, seminars, social gatherings, and other events.
Harriet said the idea for such a facility actually came from Michael. He had become close with Tziki Aud, an employee of the Jewish Agency for Israel whose job was to look after the lone soldiers, and had told Aud he was interested in starting such an organization.
From his own experience, he felt strongly about the need for such a service. “When Michael made aliyah, in 2002, he spent his first two nights sleeping on a park bench,” said Harriet. “He would go to the Kotel Friday nights and find strangers to invite him home for Shabbat.”
After Michael’s death, Aud came to Harriet and her husband, Mark, to ask for their blessing to launch the center in their son’s memory.
“I’m very proud of it, and it’s bigger than anything he could have imagined,” she said. “His passing put lone soldiers on the map. Before Michael died, the term was relatively unknown. Now you hear it all the time.”
Thousands attended Michael’s funeral in Israel and a memorial service back in Pennsylvania. Harriet said people sent her clippings about her son from newspapers across the country. Michael is buried in Israel’s national military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem; “the groundskeepers tell us his is the most visited grave,” his mother said.
Appearing with Harriet Levin at B’nai Tikvah was Andi Flug Wolfer, executive director of U.S. Supporters of the Lone Soldier Center. The purpose of such a program, the East Brunswick native told NJJN, is “to raise awareness about lone soldiers and the difficulties these brave young men and women have when they leave their homes and go fight in the IDF.”
The services the center offers are significant. For soldiers who have no family in Israel, she said, “we are their home away from home.”
“When an Israeli soldier leaves his or her army base on Friday night,” said Wolfer, “they have a ‘mom and dad’ to go home to. They have someone to give them a hot meal, someone to do their laundry, and someone to give them hugs when they walk through the door.”
Wolfer, the organization’s only American employee, said she became a Zionist “at a young age.” She went on trips to Israel organized by East Brunswick Jewish Center and attended Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison and the former Solomon Schechter Day Schools in Cranford and in East Brunswick, both now closed.
The center has 400 volunteers in Israel and provides housing in six sites, all of which have long waiting lists; it provides emergency assistance if a lone soldier is wounded.
The Jerusalem center serves about 100 Shabbat dinners weekly, Tel Aviv about 50 every two weeks.
Shelly Talmud, an East Brunswick resident and a member of B’nai Tikvah’s Israel Awareness and Action Program, invited Harriet to speak at the synagogue. Talmud herself is the mother of two former lone soldiers: Adam, now 29, served in 2012 and remained in Israel; he lives in Tel Aviv. Jesse, now 26, was in the IDF in 2015 and returned to the U.S. after completing his service.
“My goal is to bring awareness and educate the community about the Lone Soldier Center and the crucial resources it provides to the 7,000 lone soldiers, foreign and Israeli, presently serving in the IDF,” said Talmud.
Both her sons benefitted from the center, she said, recalling in particular one of the center’s biggest undertakings, its annual Thanksgiving feast, which is attended by some 1,000 lone soldiers. Though she found it “difficult having my boys so far away, and I was sad not having them home with us for holidays,” she was “comforted knowing they were celebrating and being taken care of by the center.”
The center also helps the soldiers with routine tasks such as finding an apartment or a doctor and opening a bank account. A former lone soldier praised Michael Meyerheim, a special adviser at the center who assists non-Israeli IDF soldiers.
“Mike was a major help with so much, whether it was getting laundry done, any emergency, or just taking care of what I needed,” said Jonathan, a West Orange native who recently completed his IDF tour of duty. (He was identified by first name only to protect his identity.)
There are 112 lone soldiers from New Jersey currently serving in the IDF, according to the Lone Soldier Center.
Debbie Buechler of West Orange is co-president of a Greater MetroWest chapter of the center. The group includes 45-50 families of former or current lone soldiers. The chapter holds meetings, sponsors speakers, and hosts two closed Facebook groups for families.
“We want to educate, support lone soldier families, and assist in any way possible,” she said.
NJJN Staff Writer Jed Weisberger contributed reporting.