WASHINGTON — Thirteen seemed like a lucky number for Max Steinberg. He was a member of the August ’13 draft class of the 13th Battalion of the Golani Brigade. Even on leave in far-off California, where he was raised, Max told his army buddies that his snowboard bore the number.
But on the thirteenth day of Operation Protective Edge, Max was one of 13 soldiers killed in heavy fighting in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, in the northern part of the 40-kilometer-long Strip, a Hamas stronghold that is home to some 100,000 people.
Steinberg, 24, served as a sharpshooter in Golani and lived in Beersheba, but he was a native of the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills, CA. He attended Pierce College and El Camino Real High School, but fell in love with Israel during his first visit to the country on a Birthright Israel trip in June 2012.
When he returned, he told his parents that he was planning to return and join the IDF, Steinberg said. He made good on that promise less than six months later.
Steinberg arrived in Beersheba in fall 2012, and quickly found himself under fire from the barrage of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip that pounded the southern city.
Steinberg his sights on enlisting into the Golani Brigade, first attending Michve Alon, an IDF program preparing immigrants for military service. In late July 2013, he began basic training in the Golani Brigade.
On Sunday night, friends and community members organized a gathering in Steinberg’s honor near the town in California where he lived.
“He was completely dedicated and committed to serving the country of Israel,” Steinberg said. “He was focused, he was clear in what the mission was, and he was dedicated to the work he needed to be doing.”
Stuart Steinberg last spoke to his son at 4 a.m. California time Saturday, hours before his death. Max Steinberg called his father to tell him that his group had been injured when two of their armored vehicles collided. They had to return to Israel for treatment. Some soldiers had broken bones, and Max Steinberg had sprained his back, his father said.
“He called me up at 4 a.m. that morning and said he’d be returning to Gaza, back to combat, to be with his friends,” Steinberg said.
Steinberg said the family is leaving on Monday for Israel, where their son will be buried.
Steinberg last visited the US in April. On returning to Israel, he wrote that the return was “bittersweet.”
Responding to a friend from his Golani unit, Steinberg said that it was “hard saying bye to my family and friends back in cali.. but love you guys so it’s not too bad.” He noted, jokingly, that even his snowboard in California displayed the number “13”, a tribute to his unit – the storied 13th Battalion.
Even while serving as a lone soldier, Steinberg looked out for his fellow troops. In February, he set as a goal “to help raise money for the troops, specifically for the guys I serve with.”
Describing as “unforgiveable” the shortages that soldiers face, Steinberg used social media to urge his friends and family members in the States to donate money to his unit.
“We could really use the help now more than ever,” Steinberg wrote. “I know things aren’t easy back home in the states, but if you or someone you know can help we would be beyond grateful.”
A Facebook page set up after his death was inundated by anti-Israel hecklers, even as members of the California community attempted to voice their support and condolences to Steinberg’s family.
Max is survived by his parents, Stuart and Evie Steinberg, and by his brother Jake and sister Paige.
The other American killed overnight was Sean Carmeli, 21, of Raanana and South Padre Island, Texas. Sean’s parents — Alon and Dalya Carmeli — are Israelis who moved to the Texas island known in America as a vacation party spot. But surrounded by flocks of college students who migrate to the island during spring break, the Carmelis were at the heart of a 75-person strong Jewish community that grew more unified over the years. As community leaders, the Carmelis helped to build a local synagogue and hire a rabbi.
According to the local Chabad rabbi, Alon Carmeli purchased the community’s first Torah scroll and dedicated the synagogue in memory of his father-in-law, Nissim Buganim – Sean’s namesake.
Rabbi Asher Hecht, co-director of Chabad of the Rio Grande Valley, met Sean in summer of 2006 when he and a friend ran a day camp for local Jewish children. He described Sean as a “kind, gentle boy” who served as a “kind example to everyone else.”
By 2009, Sean had joined his two older sisters in Israel, where he enrolled in the Ostrovsky School in Ra’anana for high school. Sean stayed in touch with other members of the South Padre community who also moved to Israel, while making a close cadre of new friends in his new community.
The dual citizen opted to study in a Jerusalem yeshiva before enlisting in the Golani Brigade, where he served with distinction.
Hecht, who visited Sean in Jerusalem, said that during preparation for his final operation in Gaza, Sean’s commander told him that he did not have to participate due to an injury to one of his feet. Sean, whose friends describe him as loyal, insisted on joining his unit in the operation.
Sean is survived by his sisters, as well his by his parents, who flew to Israel immediately upon being notified of their son’s death.
Following the costly day on Sunday, the Jewish Federation of North America issued a statement saying that “Jewish Federations across North America express our deepest sympathies to the families of 18 Israeli soldiers killed fighting the Iranian-backed Hamas in Gaza over the past two days. Along with all of Israel, and the entire Jewish People, we mourn their loss as if they were our own.”
The statement noted the loss of the two Americans among the 13 Golani soldiers killed on Sunday.
Also on Sunday, US State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki issued a terse statement saying that the State Department “can confirm the deaths of U.S. citizens Max Steinberg and Sean Carmeli in Gaza.”
“Out of respect for those affected by this, we have nothing further at this time,” she concluded.