They arrived by the thousands for Max Steinberg’s funeral. In flip-flops and tank tops, dressed in youth movement uniforms and army unit T-shirts, with yarmulkes and hats, bareheaded and with sunglasses, they filed in to the cemetery at Mount Herzl, standing in uncharacteristic silence under the hot sun to pay their respects.
“We’re here to give the family the feeling that we’re with them,” said Nirit Friedlander, a Jerusalemite who came with two friends. “They should feel that we’re holding them.”
“He’s a lone soldier,” said Yisrael Schwartz, another local. “He’s part of us.”
It was the sentiment voiced by everyone who spoke at the hour-and-a-half-long funeral.
Steinberg, 24, a sharpshooter in the Golani Brigade, was one of 13 soldiers killed on day 13 of Operation Protective Edge, in heavy fighting in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City.
He was a volunteer in the IDF, a designated lone soldier who hailed from Woodland Hills, California; who didn’t speak much Hebrew after less than a year in the army.
His close friend Michael, whose Beersheba family adopted Steinberg as their lone soldier, said that his own sister tried to get him to study the language.
“Max would say, ‘I’ll be all right, I know the commands,’” said Michael.
His parents — each speaking, in English, a few sentences at a time — made it clear that they didn’t regret his decision to join the army and to serve in a combat unit.
“I want to answer a question that’s on the mind of many people,” said his father, Stuart Steinberg, “about whether we regret letting him go, and to give an unequivocal no.”
Evie Steinberg described her son’s childhood in suburban California, his surprising strength despite his small stature, his love of soccer and football, his quick, fast moves. It was his younger brother and sister, Jake and Paige, who convinced Max to join them on a Birthright trip, but it was Max who ended up in Israel, something he hadn’t expected, she said.
“He connected to Israel in a way he couldn’t have imagined,” said Evie Steinberg.
He only wanted to serve in Golani, said his mother, despite the risks of being in an elite unit.
He didn’t take no for an answer, said his father, referring to the army’s repeated questioning about whether he wanted to serve in a combat unit, given his volunteer status.
“He said, ‘If I’m not in Golani, then send me to jail or send me home,'” said his father. The army sent him home and when he returned to Israel, they finally accepted him to the unit.
Max was his siblings’ hero, said his brother and sister, an older brother who listened to them, encouraged them and loved them.
“How can I describe you?” wept his sister, Paige. “Max is just Max. You’re Maxie.”
They all spoke of his deep love and respect for reggae singer Bob Marley, whose songs and sentiments formed a core of Steinberg’s belief system.
“It was an obsession, but in the right way,” said his brother Jake, telling of the last time they were together, watching a documentary about the late reggae singer.
Matan Halik, an Israeli friend who met Max on Birthright, said Steinberg spoke of becoming a Birthright legend, similar to Michael Levin, another lone soldier who died in the 2006 Lebanon war.
“Max said, ‘Like Michael Levin, but I’ll live.’”
“In one thing you were right, brother: You are a legend,” he said.
“Max, you are a lion of Zion,” said his friend Michael, quoting the famous Bob Marley song.
It was the VIPs, including former Israel Ambassador Michael Oren, US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, MK Dov Lipman and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who spoke about Steinberg’s choice to become a lone soldier, and how to grapple with the fact that someone so new to Israel could contemplate dying to defend it.
“Volunteers always came here from other countries,” said Oren. “Many remained here, and over the decades, many more have joined them.”
“You can’t see this hill,” continued Oren, speaking to the Steinberg family. “But it is covered with thousands and thousands who came to pay their respects, even though you’ve never met them.”
The police confirmed that in fact, 30,000 people had come to the funeral of this lone soldier.
“I didn’t know him,” Oren said. “But I feel like I know him. That was my path too.”
Steinberg left his family to become a “Golanchik,” said Barkat, doing what he thought was the right thing to do.
Now, said Barkat, Steinberg would be buried next to two other soldiers who died this week, two other soldiers whose families originally came from other countries to find a home in Israel.
“Moshe Malko is to his right, from Ethiopia,” said Barkat. “And this afternoon, Dmitri Levitas, from Russia, will be buried here as well.”
The crowds dispersed as the funeral drew to a close, and wreaths of fresh flowers were placed on Steinberg’s grave.
“It’s hard to process,”said Hanit Ajami, making her way out of Mount Herzl to one of the Egged shuttle buses. “We all have boys in the army, but he did this on his own. We have to hold them as if they’re one of us.”