One year ago, after midnight on July 20, 2014, a barrage of anti-tank missiles tore through the hull of a stalled armored personnel carrier, on the outskirts of Shejaiya, Gaza, and killed seven Israeli soldiers. One of them was Sgt. Max Steinberg, whose parents, upon hearing the news the following morning in Encino, California, had a sharp and immediate impulse: to take him home, to California, where he was born and raised. To have him near them.
But that afternoon, before boarding a plane — before experiencing the historic turnout at the funeral, where 30,000 Israelis came to pay their respects to a lone soldier who crossed the ocean to fight for Israel — Evie and Stuart Steinberg huddled in their bedroom, consulted with their children, and decided to bury Max in Jerusalem, at the national military cemetery on Mount Herzl.
“He needed to be buried where he would be recognized and appreciated for having sacrificed his life,” Stuart said, explaining the rationale.
That decision, made by two people who had never set foot in Israel, who thought they “might one day vacation here,” changed their lives and continues to do so, with their son’s grave serving not only as a lodestone for Israeli and American youth, but also as an anchor to a country that young American Jews are increasingly conflicted about loving.
The Steinberg family, in Israel this week, marked the anniversary of the passing of their son and brother with a string of ceremonies, including an IDF memorial over Max’s grave, the completion of a Torah scroll in his honor, and the dedication of a Birthright memorial site at the Arbel nature reserve in the Galilee. Stuart and Evie spoke to The Times of Israel about their ordeal – the pain and the solace that came from the community – and the way it has shaped their family.
Not a whim
In 2012, Max Steinberg and his two siblings, Jake and Paige, came to Israel together on a Birthright trip. It was their first time visiting the country. When the trip was over, he called his parents. “He said he’s going to join the army,” Evie recalled.
She thought it was “a little whim” and nodded in a yes-you-can-be-an-astronaut sort of way.
He flew home in July and returned to Israel that September 11 (when flights are cheaper) in order to prepare for the army. As a Jew, he was given citizenship and made eligible for service, but as he knew no Hebrew – Evie described his local language skills as “probably the worst in the entire army” – he was not allowed to enlist in the Golani Brigade, which was what his heart was set on.
The army sent him home, told him to improve his Hebrew, and said it would then reassess his Golani request.
A people person whom his mother described as “extremely bright” but more interested in life “outside of the classroom,” Steinberg stayed at home for the next few months and “didn’t open a book.”
In March, still armed with little Hebrew, he offered the army an ultimatum: he would go either to Golani or to prison for refusing to deploy where he was told. The army relented, prescribing several months of intensive language training at Michve Alon, the education corps’ main base, followed by access to Golani, Battalion 13.
At first, Steinberg’s Hebrew was so bad that he had to have one of the squad leaders write down the Hebrew commands in English letters in a little notepad so that he could memorize them
Lt. (res) Ohad Roisblat, Steinberg’s platoon commander, who received him in Basic Training in August 2013 after he had completed the language course, said that he has known many immigrant enlistees. Generally, they have a hard time integrating into the group; age and language are a constant barrier. For a platoon commander, always striving for unit cohesion, this can be a problem. With Steinberg, he said, it was “just the opposite.” Even though he didn’t know Hebrew and didn’t know much about the army, and was older than his peers and all of his commanders, Steinberg was in on the jokes and made himself part of the platoon “within the first second.”
At 5’3” and 135 pounds, he was hardly the classic infantryman. But Roisblat described a fit soldier who looked to carry the heaviest packs and from whom you could never hear complaints like “It’s heavy” or “It’s too hard.”
During standard infantry drills, though, Steinberg’s Hebrew was so bad that he had to have one of the squad leaders write down the Hebrew commands in English letters in a little notepad so that he could memorize them. The instructions he gave during those drills in broken Hebrew were a constant source of levity for the guys, Roitblat said.
Evie Steinberg said her son would call home often, sometimes three times a day. He’d call when he wasn’t allowed to and, Evie recalled over his grave last week, he would send pictures of, say, a pair of cows and write, “Here’s what I am guarding today.”
Max understood, says his father Stuart, that he could not make Israel his home ‘without protecting her’
Several months into his combat service, upon completing the 70-kilometer march that earned him the Golani brown beret, he wrote to his parents, “I have come so far from what I was one year ago.”
Roisblat agreed, noting that by the start of the war in Gaza last summer, Steinberg’s Hebrew had improved and he had become a highly professional sharpshooter and soldier.
The ground operation in Gaza began on July 17. On the 19th, a Friday, Roisblat was ordered to give up his Namer APC and to move the platoon, which was still waiting with the rest of the Golani Brigade to enter the fray, into an M-113. They knew the Vietnam War-era armored personnel carrier was less safe and less familiar, but Roisblat told the guys, “We’ll win with what we’ve got,” and as far as he could recall the grumbling from was kept to a minimum.
On the night of the 20th they rode into Gaza. Steinberg was in Roisblat’s APC. The commander had his head out of the turret, guiding the driver. He described the incoming fire that night as constant. The whistle and concussive boom of mortar rounds mixed with bursts of machine gun fire. From below, though, Steinberg and the other guys were singing.
And then, Roisblat told Channel 2’s Uvda investigative news program several months ago, after overcoming several mechanical glitches the motor of the APC emitted a feeble sigh and fell silent. The two accompanying tanks, leading the steel and aluminum APCs into the combat zone, churned on toward Shejaiya, leaving the platoon alone.
Roisblat ordered the men out of the vehicle. He ran over to the rear APC, which wasn’t answering his radio calls. As he looked back, at the lone house and the citrus grove, at their situation alone in the field, he saw Steinberg on his stomach, as he should be, looking through the night-vision scope on his rifle. That was his last image of him. Several moments later, he and his radio operator returned to the stalled vehicle just as the missiles hit, wounding Roisblat and killing seven others, including Steinberg and Sgt. Oron Shaul, whose remains were snatched.
A grave constantly tended
The military cemetery in Jerusalem, with its long, low horizon of identical graves and somber pines, has played a crucial role in the family’s bond to Israel. It was there that Steinberg was first struck by the sacrifices of men like Maj. Roee Klein, a deputy battalion commander in Golani who jumped on a grenade during combat in Lebanon in 2006 to spare his troops, and there that the family first felt the immensity of Israel’s gratitude, when 30,000 people showed up in homage at Max’s funeral.
Since then, the family has never seen the grave orphaned of visitors. There are moms who tell Evie that they light a candle by his grave each time they visit. Another woman comes regularly to keep the grave site clean and tidy. “My son is their son,” she said.
There are Israeli school trips and Birthright groups. Last week, the commander of the Golani Brigade, Col. Ghassan Alian, speaking over Max’s grave on the Hebrew calendar’s anniversary of his death, said he had no words to assuage the family’s pain, but what he nevertheless could offer was a vow that “the covenant signed between us in blood will be an eternal covenant.”
Alian’s choice of words was telling. Generally, that phrase is one Israeli leaders use when speaking of the bond between the Jewish state and the Druze community in Israel, of which Alian is part. He, however, chose to use the phrase to speak about the bond between Israel and the Diaspora.
To be sure, there are American Jews who do not support the blood bond. One disillusioned former Zionist, Allison Benedikt, wrote on Slate magazine, before the Steinbergs even had a chance to bury their son, that “Birthright shares some measure of the blame” for Max’s death. You spend hundreds of millions of dollars convincing young Jews to support Israel, she wrote, and “this is what you get.”
The family found the charge despicable and said it represented a minority view that they very rarely encounter.
Speaking to The Times of Israel shortly after Memorial Day in Israel and again over his son’s grave earlier this month, Stuart Steinberg wanted to be very clear about the delineation between Birthright and Max’s decision to enlist: Birthright introduced Max to Israel. Max fell in love with Israel. And he understood, subsequently, that he could not make Israel his home, Stuart said, “without protecting her.”
Since Max fell fighting for Israel, his sister, Paige, moved to Israel and is a student at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, while his parents have visited the country four times and are considering spending more time here. Evie said she “dreads going home” after her visits and that she will have moments during the day, perhaps while shopping in a store in California, where she will look at a storekeeper and think to herself, You don’t know my son died. You don’t know the sacrifice he made.
That sacrifice is articulated on the stone plaque at the foot of Steinberg’s flower-strewn grave. “Live for yourself and you will live in vain. Live for others, and you will live again.” That quote may be the only Bob Marley reference on this deeply Israeli patch of earth, and it represents, alongside the Israeli and American flags planted at the headstone of the grave, the nature of the bond that this unlikely family has forged with this harsh land.
Luke Tress contributed to this report.