By Melissa Nordell
John 15:13 – “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
U.S.-born Max Steinberg, 24, laid down his life for Israel on July 20 as both an American and Israeli citizen – the ultimate sacrifice for his adopted country.
In 2012, just starting his life as an adult with many goals and high hopes, Max was offered a free trip to Israel, called a “Birthright tour” to see the homeland of his Jewish ancestors. Taglit-Birthright Israel offers young Jewish men and women free trips to Israel to discover and explore their roots.
The name “Birthright Israel” stems from the idea that all people of Jewish heritage, wherever they live, have the right to call Israel home.
Initially, Max did not want to go on this Birthright tour, preferring to stay stateside, letting his younger siblings, Paige and Jake, go by themselves. However, family and friends convinced Max to change his mind…and that changed his life forever.
Max went on the birthright tour and became intrigued by the burial marker at Mt. Herzl Cemetery at the gravesite of one who is called a “lone soldier” from the U.S., Michael Levin. A lone soldier is one who leaves the country of his birth and his (or her) family to fight in the armed services of another country, doing so without any family locally to help and support him, or her.
However, in Israel a lone soldier is “adopted” by everyone, and all in Israel help with emotional and financial support, as well as providing the soldier with new friends and “family.” Ironically, it was the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center, named after the lone soldier from the US that was buried in the grave that touched Max’s heart, which aided Max in this home away from home, Israel.
Max decided after reading the burial marker of Michael Levin to come to Israel to be a soldier in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Max gave the news to his parents, but they were uncertain.
“As a mother, you’re fearful; I was hesitant because it was such a volatile place,” Evie Steinberg told the Washington Post. “We just kind of weren’t sure.” But, she said: “When Max wants something, you can’t change his mind. He’s a go-getter — doesn’t take no for an answer.”
“When he was there, he was very moved by it,” Max’s mother continued. “He fell in love with the state of Israel.”
By the fall of 2012, Max moved to Israel and soon became an expert sharpshooter in one of the IDF’s most elite units, the Golani Brigade, similar to the Navy Seals or Green Berets in the United States – the “best of the best.” At first, Max was not accepted because they felt he did not know Hebrew well enough, but Max pushed through and “made the cut.”
“He went back,” Max’s father, Stuart, told the Associated Press. “He was completely dedicated and committed to serving the country of Israel. He was focused, he was clear in what the mission was, and he was dedicated to the work he needed to be doing.”
“I’m not here by requirement, I’m here by volunteering and I have a purpose,” Max told his father.
Max was passionate about serving in the Golani forces and was about to achieve the rank of sergeant, defending Israel’s right to their homeland, his mother said — more than he’d ever been passionate about academics back home. But his father says that they did not know how Max would feel about being a soldier after actually fighting on the front lines of a war, even though bombings from Hamas to Israel had never ceased for many years. In fact, Max lived in Beersheba while in the army, a region that was bombed repeatedly for the last several years non-stop. His father says but “It’s a whole other situation when you’re actually in combat.”
Max called home for the last times Saturday in the wee hours of the night and told them that he had been in an accident in the IDF tank as it careened into Gaza. He later called that night again and said he was okay and returning to combat with his unit.
“He told me he loved me and he’s going back in but he’ll be home,” Evie Steinberg told The Post. “He went in, came back out and went back in because he felt that’s where he belonged.”
Max had been working to locate terrorist tunnels and rocket launchers in Saja’iya when his armored vehicle was hit by an anti-tank rocket, according to David Seigel, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles. Six other IDF soldiers also were killed in the attack, he noted.
It was David Seigel that went to the Steinberg house in Woodland Hills, CA Sunday morning to notify the Steinberg’s of their son’s death. The Consul General said that they would fly the Steinberg’s to Israel, and pay for a hero’s funeral and burial at the national cemetery at Mount Herzl in Israel, if they chose to do so. After all, “Max made a commitment to the state of Israel … to really defend the civilized world against the threat of Islamic terrorism,” Siegel said.
It would be Evie and Stuart Steinberg’s first trip to the land of their ancestors, Israel, to bury their son. “We feel it will be the right place for him,” Evie Steinberg said Monday from their San Fernando Valley home where the family was finalizing plans to fly to Israel. “Now, when other people come to visit, he’s there. Maybe he’ll touch someone” as Michael Levin had touched their son. Later, Max’s father Stuart announced that it was indeed the right decision after seeing the love and outpouring of support from the democratic country Max was fighting for.
Wednesday morning, July 23, around 11:30 am, Max Steinberg’s coffin was lowered into the ground at Mt. Herzl as Jewish cantors sang. Then the coffin was gently covered in soil and flowers of remembrance by fellow Golani soldiers from his unit.
Max’s family members said their final words, fighting back tears. His brother Jake said: “Live for yourself and you will live in vain; live for others, and you will live again. This”, Jake said, “described Max perfectly. He left everything to live for others by enlisting in the IDF. He did not live in vain. He will live again in all of us.”
“As I look around right now, I am in awe,” said his sister Paige, 20, in eulogizing her older brother. “I never thought I’d be here with so many people who understand how brave you are.”
Family member goodbyes were followed by emotional speeches from U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Israeli Knesset member Dov Lipman and more.
Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the United States said in the eulogy, posted on his Facebook page: “Evie, Stuart, Paige and Jake, we are here today to lay your son and your brother, to rest. We lay him in a land that has been sacred to the Jewish people for 4000 years. We lay him to rest in the city that has been our physical and our eternal spiritual capital. We lay him amidst the hills where, during Israel’s War of Independence, volunteers like Max came from around the world to fight here, and to ensure that we can live as a free people in our own land. Many of them remained here, and over the course of the decades many more joined them to ensure that we could go on being here, a free people in our own land. You can’t see this hill, but it is covered with 30,000 people who’ve come out to pay their respects to Max. I imagine many of them knew him, but the vast majority never met him. They came out because they love him – because he made sure that we will remain a free people in our own land. I never met him. But looking over his past, his childhood in California, playing baseball, how he came to Israel on Taglit-Birthright and saw the miracle of this country and fell in love with it. He concluded that this country is worth fighting for, defending, and perhaps making the ultimate sacrifice for.”
There would have been many more in attendance at the funeral had the Israeli government not given the advice to stay home since even Mt. Herzl was under rocket fire from Hamas; but that did not deter 30,000 Israeli people from paying their respects to the fallen lone soldier.
Even those in the crowd who had never met Steinberg felt like they had. “The lone soldiers are the least lonely,” Jerusalem resident Avital Schenkollewski, 24, told the Jewish Journal. “We want to be so close to them. [Steinberg] gave everything for us, so it’s the least we can do to be here.”
Afterward, the Steinbergs’ traditional shivah, or Jewish mourning, at Jerusalem’s Crowne Plaza Hotel was equally well-attended.
“Thank you for bringing up such a child,” Israeli President Shimon Peres told the Steinbergs at the shivah. Even though Israeli President Shimon Peres had only two days left in his term, he came to the shivah and spoke at length about Max’s “depth, seriousness, devotion and courage.” Later in conversation, as reported by the Jewish Journal, the Israeli President told Steinberg’s family: “His brigade saved the lives of others, maybe thousands of people. … We found tunnels that lead straight under the border to the kibbutzim, the most peace-loving people that we have.”
Hamas owned up to the fact that they were planning to go through the tunnels to massacre all the people in the kibbutzim, as they did in October of 2006. Hamas has made many failed attempts to massacre civilians in the kibbutzim, by burrowing out from these tunnels into Israeli land over the years.
“I probably couldn’t stand here and talk without breaking down, without… all this love and all these people,” Steinberg’s mother, Evie, said at the shivah after the Jerusalem ceremony to thank all the people who had come. “It’s so overwhelming and so incredible,” she told the Jewish Journal.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on a Middle East tour to encourage a cease fire between Gaza and Israel, stopped by the shivah to offer his condolences to the Steinberg family. He immediately expressed his awe at the lengths their eldest son had gone for Israel: “It’s just a huge statement about a young guy finding a place that he was so passionate about and giving his all, putting himself on the line,” he said. “It’s an amazing story.”
“I am so honored to be here. I am in awe of your son, truly,” Kerry told the family. “And I think you know, I served in the military, and I have great respect for anybody who… especially puts themselves willingly in harm’s way. And as an American, we’re so proud of the affection that he felt, just the love he felt, and the roots he found in this country.” Then Secretary Kerry gave the family a small, gem-encrusted Book of Psalms, records the Jewish Journal.
Earlier in the day, Kerry had tweeted: “Deaths of IDF/US citizens Max Steinberg & Sean Carmeli in Gaza heartbreaking reminder of close bonds w/ Israel.”
U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro spoke at the funeral, then accompanied Kerry to the shivah. Ambassador Shapiro elaborated on Kerry’s sentiment: “There’s no greater manifestation of the bond between our countries than an American citizen putting himself in harm’s way to defend Israel.”
Please pray for the peace of Jerusalem/Israel.
You can send an email to offer your condolences to [email protected] or send them to Steinberg Family: Tribe Media Corp. 3250 Wilshire Blvd. Suite 1250 Los Angeles, CA 90010.