As each month nears its end, I grow reflective. I arrived in Seoul on September 30, so on the last day of every month, I know I’m that much closer to finishing my contract. I used to think I’d be in Korea forever. Now here we are, ten months in. With two to go, my mind is racing. I’ll be home in just over three months, but don’t know what the next step is. Family and friends have been of little help, and that’s to be expected. Channeling Legends of the Hidden Temple, the choice is mine and mine alone.

But instead of spending time thinking about my way-too-blank-slate future, how about something of greater importance? Let’s try that.

Tonight marks the end of Tisha b’Av, the ninth of Av, one of the most somber days on the Jewish calendar. It was on this day that the first and second temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. To be honest, I’ve only observed the holiday a few times in my life. And by a few times, I mean once. For many years, the holiday only took on significance because it reminded me of the year I did observe it. It was 2002, and I was in California with USY on Wheels. As night fell, 50 of us, all high schoolers (save for our five staff members, who were college students), gathered in our hotel meeting lounge, sat on the floor and read from Lamentations. Of all the places we traveled and things we saw that summer, that night in L.A. has always stuck out as one of the more memorable nights. The seven-week trip helped to define my faith and figure out how religion would play a part in my life.

The other most defining point–at least in terms of religion–came a few years later. My sophomore year at Maryland was spent as an Avi Chai fellow. The fellowship program brought together students from four Washington-area universities for a year of learning. I made some of my closest friends through Avi Chai–people who, years later and thousands of miles apart, I still talk to regularly.

The highlight of the fellowship was a three-week trip to Israel over winter break. We traveled around the country and dipped into its social fabric to gain a more thorough understanding of the people living there. While we were in Jerusalem, my friend Kevin told me his best friend, Michael, would be meeting up with us. Michael and Kevin had grown up together in Pennsylvania. Before I’d even met Kevin, I was friends with Michael’s twin sister, who studied at Maryland. When he graduated from high school, Michael moved to Israel and eventually joined the army. He was still doing his service when he joined our trip for a few days, hanging out at our hotel and coming with us as we visited some of Jerusalem’s most important sites. It was cool to get the perspective of someone who was so similar to us, but had chosen a very different life path.

Of course, the world conspired against me, and two of my most positive memories had to come together in an absolutely horrible way.

On Tisha b’Av 2006 — eight months after I met Michael — his friends, family and fellow soldiers buried him in Mt. Herzl. He was 22 years old. Michael was killed in southern Lebanon on August 1st, having returned to the Middle East after cutting short a visit home because of the start of the war between the Israelis and Hezbollah.

I was out with friends at the county fair when I received the phone call about Michael. Though I didn’t know him very well, the call shook me to the core. I remember being quiet and feeling nauseous the rest of the night. For the very first time, the years of Middle East violence took on a human face for me.

In the three years since Michael’s death, much has been done to inform the world about his life. The film A Hero in Heaven has been shown at universities, youth conventions and synagogues across the world. The Michael Levin Memorial Fund has been created to provide support to lone soldiers (immigrants with no immediate family in Israel). Michael’s story has inspired people to pack up their lives and make aliyah, move to Israel. I don’t know that I could ever do that, but I have an enormous respect for those who have made the leap.

In his Nativ yearbook, Michael wrote, “You can’t fulfill your dreams unless you dare to risk it all.” In the weeks following his death, the line was everywhere–Facebook, away messages, USY pages. It’s important to keep those words in mind. How many of us can say we’ve lived like Michael Levin, risking everything to achieve what we want? If we all take his words to heart, maybe we’ll be that much closer to fulfilling our dreams.

As Tisha b’Av comes to a close tonight, I’ll keep Michael’s words in mind. Michael made the ultimate sacrifice — joining the IDF can be considered “risking it all”…deciding between a job and being a nomad, not so much. We take risks every day, big and small. I don’t know what comes next, but maybe that’s OK. I’ve still got two months to figure this out.

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