Exactly eight years after he was laid to rest in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, dozens of friends and loved ones gathered last Wednesday evening to commemorate Max Steinberg, an American lone soldier who fell in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge.
Near the familiar names of soldiers who died more recently, a canopy was erected and stools laid out, but it was standing room for most of the more than 100 visitors. After the speeches and recitations of psalms, the visitors laid candy belts— Max’s favorite— on the red and yellow coneflowers that have since sprouted on his gravesite, and stopped to speak with his parents and brother.
Reminiscent of Steinberg’s funeral, dozens of participants who had never met Max or his family were at the memorial, inspired by his story to attend. “It’s rare that I come and don’t find someone here,” longtime friend Jason Rosen said of Max’s gravesite.
In 2014, the Steinbergs arrived at their son’s funeral to find a crowd of some 30,000, even while the conflict in Gaza raged.
The Steinbergs now count many among those who were strangers in 2014 as their friends. “We were grieving and yet we were being held up, literally held up by the people of Israel,” father Stuart Steinberg told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. “Many of our friends right now are Israeli.”
“To be here eight years later… and see a lot of the same people, the same faces I saw eight years ago who come here every year to honor him, is wonderful,” said Evie Steinberg, Max’s mother. “It warms my heart to know you’re all remembering my Max.”
When Max Steinberg left the familiar world of suburban Los Angeles to join the Israel Defense Forces, Evie and Stuart’s only personal knowledge of the country came through their children. They had never been to Israel and didn’t know anyone there. So when in June 2012 Max phoned home midway through his Birthright trip to tell them he intended to join the IDF, their reaction was naturally one of disbelief.
“He actually called me, and said he’s having a great time, and he’s moving there and joining the army,” Evie recalled during last week’s memorial visit to Israel. “And I just thought ‘Okay, Max.’”
“I honestly didn’t take him seriously. I just figured he had a moment,” Evie said.
Max’s captivation with the country and its people was apparent even after he returned to California. Israel’s pace of life and the enthusiasm of its people enthralled Max, a lover of Bob Marley and nature, Stuart said.
“He just was really like, wow, everybody’s so passionate here, and happy,” said Evie. “He just really was in awe of that.”
Seeing Max’s drive to join Israeli society, and even to defend it, Stuart and Evie encouraged his passion. “He saw a purpose,” Stuart recalled. “He had something that he was really kind of gravitating towards – and it was a good, amazing cause.”
A lone soldier but not alone
Max immigrated to Israel in September 2012, without knowing anyone there. Cousins of family friends, the Pessen family of Beersheba, took Max in as he worked to join the Golani Brigade, determined not to let his subpar Hebrew stop him.
Max enlisted in Golani in early 2013, only twice returning home before being sent into Gaza during the summer of 2014. During the Battle of Shejaiya, his platoon’s stalled armored personnel carrier was hit by a Hamas anti-tank missile, claiming Max’s life and those of six fellow IDF soldiers.
Only after Max’s passing did the Steinberg family encounter firsthand the country and people for whom Max had laid down his life.
“It was still war,” said Evie, “and we thought, okay, well, obviously the army is gonna send somebody, so we’ll probably have ten people,” referring to the quorum necessary for a Jewish burial.
The family, who up until that point “didn’t know anybody” in Israel, was inundated with visits and messages of condolence from ministers, the president, and a cross-section of Israeli society. Three days of “chaotic” shiva, the Jewish mourning period, held at Jerusalem’s Crown Plaza Hotel saw thousands more strangers travel to share their support for the Steinbergs.
“It was very overwhelming,” said brother Jake Steinberg. “but it was also one of those realizations for us of just how special the country was, too.Who’s gonna wait in line for a couple of hours potentially?”
The family reflected on this immense outpouring of support as they returned to Israel on the eighth anniversary of Max’s passing. The Steinbergs now say they feel “very connected” to its people. “With our experience with Israel, with the Israeli people, with how they embraced our family,” said Jake, “I mean, there’s no way we couldn’t feel good about this place.”
‘Brought together for a reason’
It was during this difficult time that the Steinbergs met Sam Grundwerg, then a reserve-duty casualty officer assigned to the family. Grundwerg, now the world chairman of Keren Hayesod, had accompanied fallen soldier’s families in their most difficult times, but the unique circumstances of the Steinbergs’ loss placed him in an atypical position.
“The only time that we ever heard from the IDF or the consulate at that time was when they knocked on our door,” Stuart said. After locating the family abroad by way of Max’s host family in Beersheba, a consular official rushed to notify the family of their son’s passing. Only upon arrival in Israel did the standard team of three casualty officers meet them, led by Grundwerg.
Although according to protocol casualty officers offer background support, the thousands who came to console the Steinbergs, and the family’s lack of Hebrew, necessitated a far greater degree of support and intimacy. “Because of how intense the shiva was, we were together basically 24 hours a day,” said Grundwerg. “We actually slept in the hotel.”
After he was with them during their darkest moments, the Steinbergs say Sam feels like family. “He’s my brother from another mother,” joked Evie.
“It definitely impacted me,” said Grundwerg, who himself moved to Israel as a lone soldier at age 17. He said it made all the more poignant the lessons “of sacrifice, of what it means when we talk about mutual responsibility, and being one people and coming together.”
Grundwerg’s professional relationship with major Jewish organizations meant that the family stayed in in close contact. He organized annual memorial visits to Israel on Max’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death on the Hebrew calendar, including a 2015 visit as personal guests of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Just two years after Max’s death, Grundwerg was sent to Los Angeles to serve as Israel’s Consulate General. Evie recalled her surprise when she first heard the news: “I’m like, oh my God, you’ve gotta be kidding me! I was so excited.”
Over the years, the Steinbergs and Grundwergs spent Shabbat and holiday meals with one another, and came together for events held by the consulate. “It was really family,” Grundwerg recalled. Beyond providing additional comfort for the Steinbergs, the presence of a trusted friend helped them navigate Israeli government commemorations and speaking engagements in Max’s memory. “I definitely believe that we were all brought together for a reason,” said Grundwerg,
‘Committed to perpetuating Max’s memory’
Stuart and Evie said that as a result of their experience, their connection to their Jewish identity and Jews the world over deepened. They stressed that the outpouring of support surrounding Max’s funeral impressed upon them the depth of Jewish peoplehood and mutual responsibility; “It really proved itself,” said Evie.
Since Max’s passing, each of the Steinbergs has become engaged with Israel and Jewish initiatives in ways they had never anticipated. Evie and Stuart have dedicated much of their time back home to supporting and advocating on behalf of lone soldiers and their families. “We’ve all become soldiers,” Evie said she frequently remarks, “not every soldier carries a gun.” Evie is now an educational speaker for Israel-focused groups like Birthright and AIPAC, and works to help lone soldier parents as a member of Families of Lone Soldiers.
In 2018, Stuart took up his post as chairman of FLS, which supports lone soldiers and helps engage parents in the IDF process. He spoke proudly of his initiative to increase coordination between the IDF and Israeli consular missions abroad on the details of lone soldiers, so that no other family’s first interaction with the IDF is a dreaded knock on the door, Stuart said. When the measure was approved this past year, the Steinbergs received a personal phone call notifying them from then-foreign minister Yair Lapid.
Max’s brother Jake now works as Los Angeles area director for AIPAC, while sister Paige immigrated to Israel and enrolled in IDC Herzliya.
“What Max believed in and what we believe in,” said Jake, “is the Jewish people and Jewish peoplehood, and creating a better future for it.”
“We believe that we perpetuate his memory through action.”
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