A Young Zionist, a Lone Soldier, a Fallen Hero

Filmmaker Sally Mitlas' documentary, 'A Hero in Heaven,' tells the tragic tale of Michael Levin, an American-born IDF soldier who fell in battle.

"It's a dream come true," a smiling Michael Levin tells the camera at his induction ceremony into the IDF more than two years ago. "It's something I've wanted since I was a little kid. It's something no words can describe, what it means to me."

In the scene, his parents, who have flown in from Pennsylvania for the event, are beaming.

"From the time he was a little boy, he always said he was going to go to Israel and he wanted to fight in the army," his mother, Harriet, told the camera, also smiling. "And everyone always said that when he grows up, he'll change his mind. And I said, 'No he won't.' And that was his dream. Always."

The scene is part of the newly released documentary "A Hero in Heaven," a poignant tribute to Levin, the only American-born soldier to have fallen in the Second Lebanon war. Harriet later describes the day as "one of the proudest moments in his entire life."

Levin, who was 22 at the time of his death, was also the first paratrooper to fall in battle during the summer war. The 45-minute film will be screened on Monday, Memorial Day, at 6:15 P.M. on Channel 10.

The title of the film was inspired by a letter Michael's twin sister Dara received shortly after his death. "Your family has suffered a horrendous loss," it read, "but God has gained a hero in heaven."

Michael was killed on August 1, 2006 by Hezbollah fire in the southern Lebanese village of Aita al-Shaab.

His death came just days after a short furlough to visit his family in the U.S., where he saw friends, went to a Broadway show and even a Philly's baseball game. But when news of fighting in the North broke, he boarded a plane and returned to Israel.

"Michael would see these news reports and he had to get back, he had to fight with his friends and his unit," Dara said.

The film, a moving portrait of an idealistic young life cut short, shows photos of a smiling Michael playing baseball as a child, in a tuxedo at his bar mitzvah, at his high school prom, and then in cap and gown at graduation from his suburban Philadelphia high school.

There are interviews with his parents and sister, as well as former teachers, army commanders, other lone soldiers, and Israelis who "adopted" him in his four years here. Together, they paint a picture of a committed young Zionist who, above all, wanted to serve Israel - and did so with a smile.

One friend, Benjamin Steward, remembered Michael as the only lone soldier he knew who refused to complain about Israeli bureaucracy.

"I've really never seen someone just thrive and love Israel like he did. He had such a passion for it. And no matter what was going on here, he had nothing bad to say about Israel, which was just amazing, because it's very hard to be a new immigrant here by yourself and to deal with Israeli bureaucracy and everyone complains. And what are you going to do, that's the way it is, but Mikey no matter what had a characteristic smile and would say, 'this and this happened - but I'm loving it here."

"A Hero In Heaven" was directed and produced by Sally Mitlas, who never met Michael. But when she heard his story and learned of their similarities (both were on staff at Camp Ramah in Pennsylvania and both were born and raised in the Philadelphia area), she wanted to do something to commemorate his life. She also discovered that she worked in the same office building as Harriet, Michael's mother.

Just a few days after the family finished sitting shiva, she told Harriet about her idea of making the film.

Mitlas met with Michael's parents soon after to start work on the project.

"We met at the corner Jewish deli near where I work and I remember Mark [Michael's father] looked me in the eye and said, 'What qualifies you to make a film about my son? Have you ever done this before?' I answered him honestly and said 'No, but it depends what criteria you are looking for.

"If you want someone who has years and years of experience working on documentaries," she added, "then I don't have it. But if you base your criteria on neshama [soul], I feel that I am qualified to try and understand what was in Michael's heart and soul when he decided to make aliyah and join the paratroopers.'"

"I will never forget when Mark said, 'If we could choose between you and the most experienced documentary filmmaker, we would choose you. Then I started to cry, because I understood what a big responsibility I had to Michael, to his parents, and to all the generations who would possibly be influenced by the film."

From that point on, Mitlas says she worked closely with the Levin family, interviewing them, as well as dozens of Michael's friends and fellow soldiers who had contacted the family in the weeks after his death. She compiled about 30 hours of footage.

The film is now being distributed free to youth groups, community centers, synagogues and Jewish educational institutions. It is also being screened on Shalom TV, the Jewish cable network available in some U.S. states.

Before he left Pennsylvania last summer, Michael asked to be buried on Mount Herzl should something happen to him. The family honored the request of their only son, even though they were worried they wouldn't have a minyan for the funeral.

"When we pulled up to the cemetery, my first reaction was that of disappointment, because I saw hundreds and hundreds of people outside the cemetery and cars and taxis everywhere and my first thought, my very first thought, was 'Great, there must be five, 10, who knows how many, 15 funerals going on at one time and it's going to be crazy," Mark said. "Little did we know that everyone, everyone who was there was there for Michael."

About 2,000 people from all over the country, some of whom didn't know Michael but heard that a lone soldier had fallen, were there to pay their last respects. He was buried on the fast of Tisha B'Av and on the bottom of his grave is the inscription: "An American oleh whose love of G-d and Israel is eternal."

"That's where he belonged, that's where his heart and soul was, that was home to Michael. That had to be his final resting place," Harriet said.

"Michael always said he was doing exactly what he wanted to do and he was exactly where he wanted to be," she added. "There were no regrets."

To obtain a copy of "A Hero in Heaven" or to contribute to The Michael Levin Memorial Fund to benefit lone soldiers, contact Harriet Levin at Harriet@aHeroInHeaven.com