JERUSALEM – Ever since he was a teenager growing up in suburban Philadelphia, Staff Sgt. Michael Levin dreamt of moving to Israel and joining the Israel Defense Forces. He died on Aug. 1 fulfilling that dream, fighting in the service of the country he loved near the southern Lebanon village of Aita al-Shaab. He was 22.

In the days and weeks since his untimely passing, many have spoken and written about the American’s dedication to his elite paratrooper unit – he was vacationing with his family in Newtown, Pa., when the war with Hezbollah terrorists broke out in July, and he promptly boarded a plane to enter the fray. But those who knew Levin also attest to his passion for Judaism.

“Michael’s idealism was a total selflessness, a response from within to do the right thing,” said Rabbi Yehuda Shemtov, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Bucks County, where Levin was part of the inaugural teens’ group. “That’s very rare for a teenager.

"Michael’s idealism was a total selflessness, a response from within to do the right thing," “You saw it in his joy and happiness, and in his contagious excitement for Yiddishkeit,” continued the rabbi.

According to press reports, thousands packed the Aug. 7 memorial service at Shir Ami of Bucks County where Levin grew up. Shemtov, who has known Levin’s family for many years, said a tribute to the fallen soldier will take place in the near future.

Always Moving Up

According to close friend and fellow soldier Eddie Morgenstern, a Lubavitch adherent originally from Morristown, N.J., Levin was the only religiously observant soldier in his regiment.

“Michael was a true Chabadnik in his spirit, even though he didn’t formally consider himself as such,” said Morgenstern, who spoke last week by cell phone from southern Lebanon. “Michael was always trying to bring people closer to Judaism and show other soldiers the beauty of Jewish prayers and Jewish law. He even succeeded in convincing some of them to lay tefillin in the morning and pray with him.”

Morgenstern, who met Levin through a mutual acquaintance, said that they soon became friends. The pair often shared Shabbat dinners in Chabad families’ homes across Jerusalem.

“Many of our conversations revolved around religion,” said Morgenstern. “He had many questions regarding Jewish law and it was important for him to understand the commandments and perform them right.”

Morgenstern and Levin would talk about the approach taken by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, toward a Jew's performance of mitzvot.

“A person can observe every single commandment but have his feet stuck in the ground and his spirit low,” said Morgenstern. "One should always keep moving forward and aspire to climb higher on the ladder of spiritualism. [On the other hand,] a person should not push himself beyond the limit, but allow himself the time to grow and his spirit to find its way up.”

Shemtov said that Levin embodied Morgenstern’s advice.

“He was a spark of energy, a ball of fire,” he said. “When you were around Michael, there was energy in the room.”

And like the wide reach of a spreading fire, Levin touched an untold number of people.

Mark Levin told the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia that when he arrived for his son’s military funeral on Har Herzl in Jerusalem, he was disappointed to see so many cars lined up along the street, presumably indicating that there were many burials that day.

“But they were all there for Michael,” said Levin. “It was overwhelming.”

Shemtov related a similar experience upon the Levin family’s return to Philadelphia after burying their son.

“When I went for a shiva call, two people from New York City who didn’t know the parents just showed up,” he said. “Michael’s mother said it was encouraging to them that he touched so many people.

“Some people have to make a lot of noise to be heard,” continued Shemtov. “Some are heard just by their sheer presence. That was Michael.”