A eulogy for our son, Max Steinberg
The parents of Max Steinberg, the IDF soldier from Woodland Hills, CA killed in action during the Gaza conflict, delivered this eulogy at a public memorial service for their son on August 12, 2014 at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, CA.
Evie, Paige, Jake and I want to thank Haim Saban for graciously sponsoring this memorial for our son and brother Max. Like so many kids of Max’s generation, Max grew up with Power Rangers. We still have all the Power Ranger toys and DVDs he, Jake, and Paige played with and viewed for tireless hours. Evie is convinced our grandchildren will love them. To me, it is a reminder of how we helped pay for this amazing venue. Max was the most non-materialistic person you ever met. But even he would have to admit how cool this is. Thank you Mr. Saban for helping us celebrate the life of our beloved Max.
Last Sunday Cantor Nathan Lam organized and led Max’s memorial service for our family and friends at Stephen S. Wise. Thank you again Cantor Lam, Stephen S. Wise Temple, and Jay Sanderson president of the Jewish Federation for their friendship and support.
Tonight, we want to thank Rabbi David Baron of Temple of the Arts, Cantor Nathan Lam of Stephen S. Wise Temple for again volunteering to share his beautiful voice with us, Cantor Marcus Feldman of Sinai Temple, Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, Jared Stein and the Nashuva Band, Cantor Netanel Baram of Young Israel, Rabbi Marc Blazer, David Suissa of the Jewish Journal, and our dear friend David Siegel, Consul General of Israel. Mr. Siegel and his local team have invested tireless hours offering support and helping us navigate through unfamiliar terrain. We also want to express our deepest appreciation to Israel’s Knesset member Rabbi Dov Lipman. Rabbi Lipman flew in from Israel by our request to be here tonight to pay tribute to Max and to help bring the love and admiration the Israeli people have demonstrated for Max here. We also want to thank the many other people and organizations that reached out to offer support and lend a helping hand, including but not limited to the FIDF, Lone Soldiers, Dr. Larry Platt of the Lone Parents, Israeli Scouts, and the Jewish Community Foundation.
We are grateful to our immediate family that were able to attend tonight and those afar, our many treasured friends, the Jewish community, and our new family, the people of Israel. We have gained strength from all your love during this very trying time.
We learned as soon as we arrived in Israel that many people wanted to know about Max and why he made this amazing choice to leave a home that was comfortable and safe, to join an army over 10,000 miles away. We told his story as we believed it to be. But it was not until after we experienced Israel that we truly had an understanding, a personal appreciation of the beauty of the land and the people, the people Max was willing to fight for, to die for.
We told the people of Israel something about Max that many of you here knew because you were a significant part of his life. You knew of his humor, his love, his compassion, his smile, and you knew of his pain.
We are not the most religious family by any stretch of the imagination. That being said, there is no doubt in our minds that our son, our brother, our grandson, our nephew, our cousin, our friend was put on this earth for a mission, a purpose. There is also no doubt in our hearts that in his so very short life, Max fulfilled it.
Max, our first born, was welcomed into this word on November 27, 1989. My mother-in-law, Donna, had just succumbed to cancer six weeks prior. We chose Donald as Max’s middle name to honor her and to help him always remember the grandmother that so much wanted to hold him, to love him. Max’s birth resulted in helping heal our family of the pain stemming from our loss.
Max was surprisingly strong for his size. I remember Max lifting his head and looking over at me the day he was born. He was already demonstrating his strength and determination. Max grew up to be a very good athlete. His size never stopped him from competing at the highest level. In soccer, he was known as Mighty Max, and in baseball he was always feared once he got on base.
He was quick and fast resulting in stolen bases and scoring almost at will. And what he lacked in size, he more than made up in heart, grit and determination. He loved playing football and always made his mark on the defensive side of the ball.
Max was a devoted Patriot’s fan. When Patriot’s owner Robert Kraft learned of Max’s passing, Mr. Kraft sent us a letter stating he had seen a picture of Max wearing a Patriots cap. He wrote “he represents the consummate patriot and I am forever grateful for the sacrifices he made to keep our beloved Israel safe”. Yesterday we gave permission to Steve Leibowitz, President of American Football in Israel, for the National team traveling to the world championship next month to wear the letters M A X on their jerseys in memory of Max. Max would be so happy to know that the Patriot’s and Israeli’s National team of American Football have reached out to honor and commemorate his life.
While our family was sitting Shiva in Israel, commanders and fellow soldiers that trained with Max shared stories illustrating how he was a great soldier. This is not to say Max was a saint. Max didn’t join the IDF to change himself, he joined the IDF to serve.
Max was always respectful but he also knew how to pursue his own agenda. His commander told us that Max had difficulty getting back to base on time when he had free weekends. Max had to travel 4 to 5 hours to and from the Kibbutz on connecting busses. The commander told us at one point that he assigned a vehicle on a regular basis to pick Max up somewhere in his route back to the base. Max would greet his commander, light up a cigarette, with a straight face, a little grin, and while he was being reprimanded for being late he would tell his commander that he didn’t understand Hebrew. The commander told us that they were all aware Max knew more than he led on to. He said they were willing to let much of it slide because he more than made up for it in dedication, work ethic, and leadership. They expressed how they knew that they could always depend on him to have their back. They said Max was the hardest working soldier in their unit. Max was street smart, he always knew how to work the system.
To the joy of our family, Max shared a B’Nai Mitvah with his brother Jake on August 5, 2005. Like his birth, once again Max’s life was linked to a death in the family. This time it was his beloved Grandpa Sandy, who passed away in May, just a few months before this memorable event. Once again, true to his calling, family and friends were reunited in celebration of Max’s life while the healing from our loss was underway.
Max graduated from El Camino High School with exceptionally good grades. But it was during his senior year that Max began to lose his compass. After graduation, Max attended some college courses at a local junior college but he was struggling with his self-identity, self-esteem, and for the first time began distancing himself from family.
Fortunately at this time, Jake and Paige were making arrangements to go to Israel through the Birthright program. They reached out to Max and he agreed to join them. To our delight, our three children, now young adults, departed on a journey in June 2012 for what turned out to be a life changing experience for all of them, but particularly Max.
It was through Birthright that Max formed a bond, a true friendship with Mattan, one of the soldiers in our kids tour group. Mattan spoke at Max’s funeral with such passion and love for him. He had embraced Max like a brother and we embraced Mattan, we welcomed him into our family.
We have the utmost admiration and praise for Birthright. David Fisher, President of Birthright is here tonight, and we want you to know that we will continue to support you and the Birthright program unconditionally. Thank you for all that you do, every day.
During the Birthright trip, one of the experiences that impressed Max in a profound way was his tour of Mount Herzl. It was there that he learned of the fallen Lone Soldier from Pennsylvania, Staff Sargent Michael Levin, and the Lieutenant Commander Roi Klein that gave his life lying over a grenade to save the lives of his fellow soldiers.
Days after Max was laid to rest, we returned to Mt. Herzl to retrace Max’s footsteps. We visited the gravesites of these two heroes, listened to their stories as told to us by the same tour guide that enlightened Max two years prior. We felt a certain calm and pride knowing that Max was buried amongst these special souls.
Before returning to the United States in July, Max had already made up his mind that he planned to quickly return to Israel. He shared with us how he connected with the country in a way he could not have imagined. He told us how he loved her beauty but mostly he loved the people. Max was 22, and he believed that he may one day choose to make Israel his permanent home. He also believed that he had a responsibility to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces while he was still of the acceptable age for enlistment. Max told us that he could not in good conscious consider becoming a citizen of Israel without first serving.
Once Max set his sight on a course, his competitive juices started to flow. Within weeks of his return, he had made contact with the IDF and put the wheels in motion. Max began initiating the enlistment process and spent as much valuable time as he could with family and friends before returning to Israel in September 2012. Max understood that every young Israeli man and woman mandatorily served in the IDF and he strongly felt that it was his duty to serve as well.
Max’s good friend from Woodland Hills, Fred Pesin, introduced Max to his uncle and cousins living in Be’er Sheva. Their home became Max’s home for a few months awaiting the commencement of training. We are extremely grateful to Fred for the introduction to his wonderful family in Israel and for his family accepting and welcoming Max into their home. They provided Max with food and shelter, but mostly they embraced him as part of their extended family.
Michael, Fred’s cousin, became a very close friend of Max. Max spent quality family time at Michael’s home with his dad and sister but he slept at Michael’s grandmother’s home about one block away. Michael’s dad spoke Russian and Hebrew but not a word of English. His grandmother only spoke Russian. We visited both homes when we travelled to Be’er Sheva. His grandmother showed us his room and for a brief time we were able get a sense of his home away from home. Even though they never spoke, Max loved her and she loved him.
Max started training in December of 2012. Although he did not speak Hebrew, Max was committed to joining the Golani unit 13. Max was earning recognition for his combat and leadership skills. In early 2013, Max was called in for an interview for Golani. Max was told that he would not be accepted in the Golani unit because he did not speak Hebrew well enough to advance. When asked where else would he be willing to serve, Max told them there was no place else. When they persisted, asking him to offer an alternative, Max said ask me another question, if it is not Golani, it is jail or home. Max was sent home with the understanding that he could re-apply upon his return in one month. To our benefit, we got to spend some time with him. To Max’s credit, he returned to base to resume training.
In addition to improving his Hebrew, which Max told us was “Army Hebrew” one of the requirements for him to be accepted to the Golani unit 13 was to climb over a wall with full gear and substantial weight on his back. Even the tallest guys could not reach the top of the wall without jumping to grab the top and pull themselves up and over. But Max was only 5’3” so for him to climb over the wall he had to run hit the wall with his feet first, and extend his arms as far as possible to reach the top. Max’s commander told us that he would try over and over again during regular training exercises and fail repeatedly. He spoke of how Max would plead with him to return to the wall where he could resume attempting to make the climb. Max would go on Saturdays on his own because the commanders could not tell him what he could or could not do on Shabbat. Max eventually climbed that wall, the final hurdle to being accepted into Golani. More important to Max, he got accepted into Golani unit 13, his goal from day one.
During training Max was elevated to sharp shooter due to his proficiency. One of the many military personnel that came to comfort us and offer their respects was Lieutenant Colonel Mikey Hartman. He was the founder and former commander of the Marksmanship and Sharpshooting school of the IDF. He told us that only a select few of all the soldiers advance to this training. He also said that Max earned the highest scores and honors in his class. He told us he was the first non- Russian soldier in 14 years to achieve this recognition. We didn’t want to break the Colonel’s heart and tell him that Max’s grandparents were descendants of Russia.
Max earned a trip home in April of 2014. We took advantage of his homecoming and enjoyed a wonderful family winter vacation in Mammoth. We immediately recognized the growth and maturity Max was gaining from his experience while serving. Our lasting memory will be there with Max. All of us at peace, happy to be together, a family. Max then returned to fulfil his final months of service on the Syrian border when the war broke out in Gaza. His unit was repositioned outside Gaza awaiting instruction for ground troops to move in.
Separation from Los Angeles and the army regimentation were very helpful for Max. It enabled him to mature and grow as a person, providing him with new skills and personal time to regain his appreciation for family. He called us nearly every day while serving.
On Saturday July 19th at 4 AM PST, we got a call from Max saying that they actually were in formation heading into Gaza when his armored personnel carrier (APC) he was riding in had collided into another APC. There were injuries and he along with other soldiers in his unit were administered medical treatment. He told us that some of the soldiers had broken bones. He said that he was sore but that he was going in, he needed to return to action to be with his friends.
During that final conversation Evie told Max that her biggest fear was that he may be captured. Max told her that would not happen. He said that he had a pact with his soldiers and they agreed that they would sooner shoot themselves versus give Hamas the opportunity to take them captive. Max told Evie that he was not afraid for himself but rather for her. As Max did at the end of every conversation, he told us he loved us and we told him that we loved him too. This time we selfishly asked Max not to be a hero for we knew he would put the safety of his fellow soldiers ahead of his own. And, of course, we wished him a safe return.
On Sunday at approximately 7:30 AM, July 20th, three wonderful, respectful, and kind representatives of the Israeli Consul of Los Angeles arrived at our home. They shared the horrific news that Max was killed during his mission into Gaza. They embraced us and provided us with as much comfort as was humanly possible under the circumstances. We initially said that we wanted to bring our son back home to Los Angeles. But after further thought, we came to realize that was our selfishness. Max needed to remain there, no longer the Lone Soldier, forever at his home, Israel. We concluded that the Israeli people would honor him for his service, his sacrifice, and provide him with the lasting respect he deserves.
That evening Max’s friends spearheaded a vigil at Lazy Jay Park in West Hills. It was attended by hundreds of friends and neighbors. There were many men that served in the Golani unit 13 that came that night to show their support. It was heartwarming and gave us the strength to catch the plane the next day to Israel.
As you all know from watching the news, reading the newspapers, and the social media, Max was honored by being buried in the presence of over 30,000 mourners at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, the only exclusive military cemetery in the State of Israel. Max is resting in peace with Theodore Herzl, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister Golda Meir, and tens of thousands of heroic soldiers that defended the formation and ongoing existence of the State of Israel.
We learned of the battle story that took Max’s life, receiving preliminary accounts by the IDF and from soldiers off the battlefield. The day before we returned from Israel, Max’s last commander, Ohad, requested we visit with him at the hospital where he was recuperating from gunfire wounds. Ohad told us that their Golani brigade entered Gaza with their mission to flush out tunnels. While in route, the armored personal carrier (APC) he, Max, and seven other soldiers were riding in was ambushed. Prior to the ambush, the commander and one other soldier responsible for communications exited the vehicle to converse with another commander.
It was at that time that Hamas had ambushed them. The APC that Max and 6 other soldiers were in was struck by a missile. All seven soldiers perished in the explosion. The commander was subsequently struck by bullets while the communications soldier was thankfully unharmed. The commander was helicoptered out to safety.
Max and his fellow soldiers did not die in vain. The IDF subsequently discovered the tunnel that the Hamas terrorists had exited to ambush the brigade. The tunnel was destroyed and it was determined that by doing so, hundreds of Israeli lives would be saved.
The IDF had collected all of Max’s personal belongings and brought them to our hotel. When we were going through them we came across a letter I wrote to Max just prior to his boarding the plane on his first return trip to Israel.
Our family was humbled by the personal visits and phone calls from numerous dignitaries from the United States and Israel. Before leaving Los Angeles, we received a phone call from Congressman Brad Sherman who said “our son paid the ultimate price for defending democracy, the State of Israel and the United States of America.”
In Israel, we got an unexpected visit from Secretary of State, John Kerry. Despite erroneous rumors, he could not have been more respectful and supportive to our family. He spoke about the honor of serving and he offered friendly advice to Jake understanding that he is now preparing for law school.
President Peres met with us to offer his condolences and offered words of wisdom regarding the history of Israel and the current ongoing challenges facing the likes of the Hamas. We met with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Ambassador Michael Oren, Ambassador Dan Shapiro, Rabbi Dov Lipman, Israel Knesset Member, and gracious Sarah Netanyahu, the Prime Minister’s wife.
We were having lunch at the King David Hotel when word got out that we were there. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Justice Minister happened to also be there conducting meetings of her own. She quickly rearranged her busy schedule to make time to greet us and offer her condolences. We were escorted by Mayor Barkat and his wife, Beverly Barkat, to the Western Wall where we were greeted by Chief Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch.
We also toured Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. At the end of the tour, as the tour guides eyes filled with tears along with ours, she told us the story she just shared with us was her story. She was the daughter of parents that escaped from Poland. She said that it was because of soldiers like Max that Israel survives. And she, like so many other Israeli’s we met, thanked us for raising a hero.
We don’t know Max the hero. We only know Max, the beautiful baby, the [little boy dressed as a] bumble bee or devil that went trick-or-treating, the student, the Bar Mitzva, the actor, the athlete, the brother, the friend. We only know the Max we were proud to call our son, the love of our life, the young boy that travelled to Israel to become a brave soldier and became a man.
On our last day in Israel, our family received a call from Prime Minister Netanyahu. His voice was deeper than we remembered but his thoughtful comments further validated our decision to have Max buried in Israel.
As amazing and inspiring as it was to receive condolences from so many influential, powerful people, nothing can duplicate the love showered on our family by the people of Israel. During Shiva, we were embraced by thousands of citizens that drove great lengths and waited in long lines to deliver their condolences, soldiers, policemen, firemen, school teachers, Rabbis, children, Birthrighters, and the list goes on.
As we shared with the people of Israel, we have no regrets that Max made the personal choice to enlist in the IDF. Max was well aware of the risks when he joined as well as when he went into Gaza. Max was a Golani, a trained expert sharpshooter, and he was determined to fulfill his service. Max along the way found his inner peace. He had quickly and methodically developed into a highly skilled soldier and he was happy.
Today is my birthday and I am honored and humbled to share this day with Max. He has inspired me in ways that I could never have imagined. He has left us here on earth but never our hearts. Our family is committed to honoring Max’s life and finding ways to perpetuate his legacy.
As Jews, we are at 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. While he touched so many people in his short life, Max raised the bar as a man and a Lone Soldier for the Golani unit 13 of the IDF.
We extend our sincere condolences to the families of the fallen and for the speedy recovery of all the injured soldiers. We pray for peace. To our beloved son, may your memory burn everlasting in our hearts, your family’s and your friends’ here today, and your new family, the people of Israel. God bless us all and the State of Israel.