All my assumptions were false.
I assumed that since Max Steinberg, who had been killed in action in Gaza last Sunday, was a “lone soldier” from California who had no family and few friends in Israel, only a several hundred American-Israelis would show up at his funeral. Wanting to give support to his bereaved parents, my husband and I decided to go to the 11 AM Wednesday funeral at Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery.
When we got on the light rail heading to Mt. Herzl, it was sparsely filled. Of course, lots of people got on at the next three stops. But when the train reached the Central Bus Station, I realized that something strange was happening. Multitudes of people crowded onto the train and seemingly no one got off. At the next stop, even more people pushed their way into the already packed train – old and young, men wearing different kippas representing different religious groups or no kippahs or pony tails, women wearing long sleeves or short sleeves or tank tops and jeans. It dawned on me: All these Jews were heading to Max’s funeral.
In Hebrew, I asked a bareheaded young man standing next to me how he could take off in the middle of the day. He said that he worked in a bank, and many employees had taken off to attend the funeral.
“Why?” I asked, perplexed.
30,000 Israeli Jews came to the funeral of an American they didn't know but who had given his life for them.
He replied that word had gone out on Whatsapp and email that Max’s parents hoped that many people would attend the funeral. Gesturing with his head to the packed train, he responded simply, “So everybody’s coming.”
They came, in the hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands, Israeli Jews mourning a young American man they had never met but who, they understood, had given his life for them. In the end, more than 30,000 Jews came out in the scorching midday sun to pay their respects to Max Steinberg.
I assumed that, because Max’s parents had never before come to Israel, that they were not Zionists, perhaps not even Jewishly affiliated, and therefore, they must be filled with bitter regrets that he had done something as reckless as joining the IDF, which had cost him his young life. Max was only 24. He would never get married, give them grandchildren, or succeed in the ways that Americans value.
"Do we have any regrets that Max enlisted in the IDF as a lone soldier? My answer is an unequivocal, ‘No!’”
Yet the shocking statement of Stuart Steinberg, Max’s father, at the funeral was: ““We want to answer the question on the minds of many people: Do we have any regrets that Max enlisted in the IDF as a lone soldier? My answer is an unequivocal, ‘No!’”
As Stuart and his wife Evie and their surviving children Paige and Jake delivered their parting words, they solved the mystery of how Max, who was raised in the upscale town of Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley, and who apparently had not belonged to any Jewish or Zionist youth group, had decided to dedicate his life to protecting the Jewish People in Israel. Max’s mother Evie described how, although he was short and slight, Max excelled in sports and was a good student. He attended courses at Pierce College, but “in Los Angeles he never found his higher purpose.”
Two years ago, Max came to Israel on a Birthright trip with his younger siblings Paige and Jake. Here, in the Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery, Max noticed the grave of a lone soldier from America who had been killed in action. It affected him deeply. After ten days in Israel, he went home and announced that he was returning to Israel to join the IDF.
What had transformed Max at that graveside encounter? Could it be that he, who was raised in a culture of self-expression and self-gratification, suddenly realized the opposite possibility of self-sacrifice for a lofty cause? Could it be that he, who had been living in the L.A./Hollywood milieu of virtual reality, where Facebook friends are not really friends, super-heroes are not really heroes, and reality shows show the most superficial realities, suddenly encountered the possibility of life lived for an ideal that is truly real?
Max’s soul was like kindling dried out by lack of a meaningful mission. One visit to the Jewish State ignited a flame of exalted purpose in Max, so that he burned with zeal to dedicate himself to a combat unit of the IDF. The army, on the other hand, was reluctant to accept into an exclusive combat unit this scrawny American guy who barely spoke Hebrew. In an army interview, the questioner asked Max three times in what position he would like to serve. Max was resolute that he wanted to be a combat soldier. After all, he insisted, he was not a conscript but a volunteer, and he was volunteering to fight.
The IDF gave in to his determination. He was accepted into the elite Golani Battalion and became a sharpshooter. As his mother declared at his funeral: ““We are in awe of what Max achieved from the moment he said, ‘I am returning to Israel.’ As parents we are filled with joy and pride for the man that our son became and the life that he lived. … There is no doubt in our minds that our son was put on this earth for a mission.”
The Expanded Family
Jake Steinberg, Max’s younger brother, both started and ended his eulogy with a quote from Bob Marley: “Live for yourself and you’ve lived in vain. Live for others and you’ll live again.”
The portrait of Max painted by both Jake and Paige was of a loving, giving, and supportive older brother. Although no one is ever so crass as to admit to sibling rivalry at a funeral, clearly Max’s love for his siblings was genuine and constant. Jake described how “Max was proud of all of my accomplishments and he made sure that I knew it.”
Paige, the “little sister,” with tears referred to Max as her “hero.” She declared: “I never imagined that I would be here at his funeral with so many thousands of people who also regard my brother as a hero.”
Instead of the bitter grief that I had expected, Max’s parents, with a sense of wonder and surprise, repeatedly expressed that they felt embraced by the expanded family of the people of Israel. As Paige remarked: “We come from a very small family. But that quickly changed after meeting people in Israel who immediately felt like one big family.”
Stuart began the eulogy for his son by thanking a long list of Israelis, including officials of the Israeli consulate in L.A., the top brass of Golani, the mayor of Jerusalem, and the many thousands of people, their new family, who had come out for the funeral. Max’s mother declared, “We now know why Max fell in love with Israel. It was all because of its people. He was embraced with open arms and treated like family, and for that we are grateful.”
His parents were grateful that Max had “found his calling” and an ideal worth dedicating his life to.
Soft-spoken Stuart Steinberg, surrounded by death, ended his eulogy for his son with a loud, robust Hebrew declaration: “Am Yisrael Chai.” The nation of Israel lives.
Finding His Mission
The Steinbergs’ sense of appreciation and gratitude was the leitmotif of the funeral. They were grateful, above all, that Max had “found his calling” and an ideal worth dedicating his life to.
This was the opposite of a rancorous article on Slate.com that appeared after Max’s death. It declared:
There are many people to blame for Steinberg’s death. There is the Hamas fighter behind the weapon that actually killed him. There are the leaders, on both sides, who put him in Gaza, and the leaders behind all of the wars between Israel and the Palestinians. … But I have no doubt in my mind that along with all of them, Birthright shares some measure of the blame.
The article’s author, Allison Benedikt, herself a Birthright alumna, goes on to claim:
What makes an American kid with shaky Hebrew and no ties to the state of Israel suddenly decide he is ready to make this sacrifice? Maybe Max was especially lost, or especially susceptible, or maybe he was just looking to do some good and became convinced by his Birthright experience that putting on an IDF uniform and grabbing a gun was the way to do it. That serving and protecting the Jewish people was the moral thing to do, and that the best way to accomplish it was to go fight for the Jewish state. It turns out that it’s not that hard to persuade young people to see the world a certain way and that Birthright is very good at doing it. You spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince young Jews that they are deeply connected to a country that desperately needs their support? This is what you get.
Yes, Allison, this is what you get: A Jew who rejects the vain values of the “Me Generation,” who is not content to sit in an ivory tower and discourse on the ills of the world while eating sushi, but who instead put his life on the line for what he believed in: the right of Jews to live safely in their ancestral homeland.
Rabbi Noah Weinberg used to say: “Find out what you’re willing to die for. Then live for it.” Max Steinberg found out what he was willing to die for. Then he lived for it. Then he died for it.