NEWTOWN, Pa. — With a killer smile and irrepressible will, Michael Levin always seemed to get what he wanted.
A rambunctious Jewish kid from suburban Philadelphia, he yearned for a life in Israel and, improbably, a paratrooper's wings. His parents wanted him to attend college, but his mind was made up.
Barely out of high school, Levin settled in Israel, struggled to learn Hebrew and set about winning a coveted assignment in the Israel Defense Forces. His commanders told him he was too thin to make it as a paratrooper. But the young man everyone called "Mikey" would not be deterred. He bulked up, became a crack sharpshooter and made the cut.
So when his grieving parents had to choose between burying their only son in Israel's national military cemetery or bringing him home to the rolling landscape of Bucks County, they granted Mikey his final wish.
Mortally wounded during a firefight with Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon this month, Levin, 22, was buried on an Israeli hillside.
His death so moved Israel's armed forces that IDF sound trucks drove the streets of Jerusalem before Levin's military funeral, urging residents to honor "a holy man." And his passion for Israel has stirred young Zionists and Jewish congregations across the U.S., personalizing a conflict that has at times seemed remote and politically muddied.
"Michael's story of sacrifice has captured the minds of people all over the country," said his father, Mark. "My son was a hero in every sense of the word."
Life-size portraits of the soldier and fragrant flowers filled a Newtown synagogue this week as more than 1,500 people crowded inside during a raging thunderstorm.
Clustered at the front were Levin's family and friends, dozens of whom had come by bus from Camp Ramah, a Jewish overnight camp where Levin had kindled his determination to move to Israel. Sitting behind them were hundreds of mourners, many of them young Zionists, who had never met the paratrooper but had come from across the East Coast to pay their respects and honor a kindred spirit.
"Michael did what we all wish we could do," said Ari Goldner, 23, who drove from New York City with two friends for the memorial service. "He died a hero fighting for the land he loved."
According to his father and a brief account by the IDF, Michael Levin had been sent with his paratroop unit the morning of Aug. 1 to take a house occupied by Hezbollah fighters in the village of Aita Shaab. During fighting that left two other Israeli soldiers dead, Levin was killed when an anti-tank artillery round exploded as he searched the building.
Like so many fallen soldiers and storied leaders, Levin was buried at the Israeli national cemetery at Mt. Herzl, a rocky outcrop on Jerusalem's outskirts. Hundreds attended the ceremony, milling beneath pine trees around Levin's family and his simple wooden coffin. Wearing dress uniforms and maroon berets, fellow paratroopers quietly laid their service wings on his grave.
"From the beginning, I was struck by his incredible motivation," said Levin's IDF commander, Noa Pheterson, 21. "He was a very special person."
The Levins had known that about Mikey almost from his birth. "From the very beginning," Mark Levin said, he and his wife, Harriet, "knew that Michael would leave his mark on the world."
It started with the Levins' garage door. Obsessed with ice hockey, Mikey riddled it with dents as he practiced slap shots day after day.
"No matter how much he was told to stop, he kept doing it," said Rich Waloff, a neighbor and close family friend. "He was just full of energy about everything he did."
The Levins are Conservative Jews who raised their son, his twin sister, Dara, and his older sister, Alisa, to keep kosher. They attended services at Tifereth Israel, a growing congregation in nearby Bensalem -- one of many exurbs in the verdant stretch between Philadelphia and Trenton, N.J.
During his teenage years, Mikey showed up for class at Council Rock High School wearing a yarmulke and Israeli-made Naot sandals. He endured anti-Semitic cracks from classmates and even complaints from his father, who wondered aloud how his son could wear the open-toed sandals while sitting in frigid temperatures at Philadelphia Eagles games.
By his senior year, Mikey had come to a critical decision: He wanted to move to Israel and join the army.
The Levins understood their son's love for Israel. During eight summers at Camp Ramah, he had been taught Hebrew by Israelis and told bedtime stories about their land and its history.