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The Alchemy of Tragedy

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Alchemy is the ancient study of how to change one thing into something else.
This past week in Israel was quite an intensely emotional one. This time of year, the State of Israel marks two special days in sequence. The first is Yom HaZikaron – Israel’s day of remembrance, officially known as Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terror. Yom HaZikaron is followed immediately by Yom HaAtzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day.

This year, I attended a particularly meaningful ceremony on Yom HaZikaron, and, as a result, I was uplifted in a most unexpected way. I was honored to learn from two women, two mothers, who intuitively understand the alchemy of tragedy.

The event, The Sons We Lost, was sponsored by The Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin. Michael Levin (pictured above left with his mother Harriet) was an American Jew who came to Israel alone, in order to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). These young men and women, who serve in Israel without their parents in the country, are called lone soldiers. There are over 7,000 lone soldiers serving in the IDF today.

Michael Levin was one of the sons we lost. He fell fighting in Lebanon in 2006.

I had the chance to speak with Michael’s mother Harriet Levin before the ceremony. I asked her how Michael’s service, and his death, impacted the Levin family’s relationship with Israel. “For myself, I just feel more and more of an attachment here. When Michael came, I was so proud, I was almost living vicariously through him. He was doing things that I could never do.” This trip to Israel was number 31 for Harriet. “I’m aiming for 50. That’s my bucket list,” she quipped.

The Lone Soldier Center was created because Michael Levin understood from his own experiences that there was a need. “The Lone Soldier Center was actually Michael’s idea,” Harriet explained. “He slept on a park bench the first two nights because he didn’t know where to go and he didn’t speak any Hebrew. As the time went on, he would say to Tziki Aud [who has dedicated his life to helping lone soldiers and who was Michael Levin’s adopted father during Michael’s service], ‘Tziki, when I’m done the service, we’re going to start a Lone Soldiers Center.’

“About six months after Michael was killed, Tziki came to me, I was here for Yom HaZikaron, and he said, ‘I’m going to fulfill Michael’s dream. We’re going to start this.  Are you in?’ I said, ‘Yes. Up until two years ago, my husband Mark and I pretty much did everything from the States. We’re really growing by leaps and bounds.”
Asked how the Lone Soldier Center has helped her family cope with Michael’s death, Harriet reflected, “I think it’s helped a lot. I always wanted to do something for Israel since I fell in love with it, more than write a check. I have a new job now, speaking, which I do not like doing at all. Up until Michael died, even on my synagogue board, I always took jobs where I did not have to speak, so this is a whole new me. But I know that so many soldiers [are being helped]. And it’s in Michael’s memory and I think he would be so, so happy to see what was going on.”
The tragedy of Michael Levin’s death in battle inspired a physical center that offers thousands of lone soldiers the food, shelter and love they need. It also transformed Michael’s mother Harriet into a public speaker, a role she reluctantly accepted, motivated entirely by her commitment to helping other lone soldiers.

That’s the alchemy of tragedy.
One of the other speakers at the program was Evie Steinberg, mother of lone soldier Max Steinberg, pictured above right. Max fell while fighting in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in July 2014. He was another son we lost.

Evie spoke at length about how her family was transformed by the tragedy of losing Max. “As a result of Max’s death,” she said, “we have become soldiers for Israel. I’m not sure if we ever would have visited Israel had we not lost Max.

“Our family has made the choice to turn our grief into action. Max’s little sister Paige, who’s 24, moved to Israel two months after Max was killed and began attending IDC [The Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya] and presently she’s completing her fourth year. Because we live in LA, Paige represents us anytime there’s a need. Jake, Max’s younger brother, who is 26, now works for AIPAC, helping to make sure that the US-Israel relationship remains strong and receives the necessary military aid to help keep Israel safe.

“My husband and I are continuing Max’s desire to help lone soldiers by serving on the board and are very involved with the wonderful organization Families of Lone Soldiers (FLS), based out of LA, California. I’m happy to announce that on June 3, FLS will be venturing out of LA and on its way to Southern Florida to spread the word and to let other families know that we are here to help and that no lone soldier should ever feel alone, like our family did during Max’s army service.
“Max, because of you, we came to Israel, and, like you, we fell in love with this Land and its people. Because of you, we have become strong Zionists. Because of you, we have learned not to live for ourselves, but to live for others, and to help others. Thank you for making us better people.”

Both the Levin and the Steinberg families experienced unspeakable tragedy when they lost their sons in battle. And both families have turned something brutal into something at least a little sweeter, through their service to others.

That, in a nushell, is the alchemy of tragedy.
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