Zvika Levy, Israel Prize-winning ‘father of lone soldiers,’ dies aged 70
Zvika (Zvi) Levy, an Israel Prize-winning social activist known as “the father of lone soldiers” in Israel, passed away on Saturday at age 70 after years of suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a muscular disease.
Levy founded the Lone Soldiers organization in 1997, which supports some 3,500 young people annually who leave their families, usually abroad, to volunteer for Israeli army service. The organization also serves more than 1,500 Israeli soldiers who come from disadvantaged backgrounds or are estranged from their parents.
After a long career in the paratroopers unit, he has looked after lone soldiers from more than 40 countries, with most coming from the former Soviet Union, the US, Europe, Ethiopia, and South America.
In the ceremony for the Israel Prize in 2017, Levy accepted his award from a wheelchair, to a standing ovation.
“It began 25 years ago or more,” Levy explained in a video made for the event. “Raful [Rafael Eitan, the late chief of staff, who developed a program for disadvantaged youth to do army service] said, ‘Listen Zvika, there are kids who don’t enlist, who sit around in Migdal HaEmek [a northern town with a high immigrant population], you won’t get them to come. I’ll help you to enlist them.”
Levy went on, “I would get up at four in the morning to work in the fields and at 3 p.m., I would wander around the development towns [often poor towns established in the 1950s to house new immigrants] and slowly recruit these youngsters.”
The Israel Prize ceremony was attended by President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett. Bennett was quoted at the time as touting Levy as “one of the finest sons our country has produced – a Zionist role model, but above all a father to thousands of isolated soldiers who found in him an address [to turn to], while he was father, mother, listener, friend, and brother for them.”
Levy’s book about his life and his social activism helping lone soldiers, called “A good ending – a story by Saba [Grandpa] Zvika,” is set to be published next month ahead of his birthday on January 13. All proceeds will be donated to help the families of patients affected by ALS, reported Yediot Aharonot whose publishing house will be launching the book.
Levy wrote the book during the advanced stages of the disease, using just eye movements, his wife told the newspaper.
His death was met with eulogies from military figures and politicians.
“Zvika was a fighter,” President Reuven Rivlin said. “First as a paratrooper, defending Israel, and [then] as a citizen on behalf of Israeli society. We send our love to the Levy family, to the members of Kibbutz Yifat and to the thousands of lone soldiers who feel like they have lost a parent today.”
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and his appointed successor Aviv Kochavi mourned Levy’s death in a joint statement as a “great loss” for lone soldiers.
“For dozens of years Zvika was a warrior for the lone soldiers: He encouraged their immigration to Israel and arranged for them adoptive families,” they said. “The IDF bows its head at the death of Zvika Levy, a dear and benevolent man, and shares in the sorrow of his wife Naomi and his children.”
Former chief of staff Benny Gantz remembered Levy for his support of lone soldiers, his activity on behalf of the Kibbutz movement and his time as a paratrooper.
“When we, his friends from service, were busy over the years with defending the state and its security, Zvika was busy guarding and protecting us,” Gantz said.
Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog hailed Levy as an “Israeli hero” and “model Israeli.”
“He helped integrate thousands of young people who immigrated to Israel alone and made what was his theirs. His severe illness did not prevent him from continuing to accompany thousands of lone soldiers from all over the world and to plow country far and wide,” Herzog said.
Avi Gabbay, chairman of the Labor party, said Levy “left behind an expansive life legacy, and hundreds of soldiers were welcomed in a warm home thanks to him. The values of giving with which he led will always be with us.”
MK Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, said he was a “man with a giant heart who was a source of hope for thousands of soldiers.”
Tzipi Livni, head of the Zionist Union faction, called Levy “one of the most beautiful people in the country.”