He belonged here. There's no explaining it. But this was where he belonged.
Max Steinberg, 24, was a consummate kid from Los Angeles' West San Fernando Valley, a place so far removed from here that the figure of 9,000 miles does not begin to describe the true nature of the distance involved.
Yet, when he first visited Israel on a Birthright trip in 2012, something profound and unexpected happened to him. Israel happened to him. Not the Israel people see on television. The Israel that cannot be conveyed, only experienced. It has everything to do with the people here, and the sense of family that is the country's one truly invincible secret weapon.
So powerful was its grasp, that Max Steinberg decided to move to Israel and join its army. Though recently injured, he returned to his unit in the Golani infantry brigade, which was ordered late last week to cross into northern Gaza. Last Saturday night in Gaza, he was killed.
"On behalf of our entire family, we want to answer the question on the minds of many people," his father Stuart began a eulogy Wednesday, as tens of thousands of Israelis who had never known Sgt. Max Steinberg, listened in a rapt, strikingly respectful silence.
The question: "'Do you have any regrets that Max enlisted in the IDF as a 'lone soldier' (in his case, one whose family lives abroad)?"
Stuart Steinberg continued without hesitation. "The answer is an unequivocal No. " An outpouring of support, love, gratitude, and appreciation, first for Max in life, and then for the family "helped to erase any possible doubt."
"We now know why Max fell in love with Israel," his mother Evie told the mourners, thanking them for honoring their son. "It was all because of its people. He was embraced with open arms and treated like family," she said, "and for that we are eternally grateful."
It was the parents' first visit to Israel.
Only a handful of the some 30,000 mourners had even heard of Max Steinberg prior to his death. But in ceremony that was at times stunning in its quiet intimacy, by the end of the funeral, they had become in some peculiarly Israel way, family.
"There is no doubt in our minds that our son was put on this earth for a mission," Evie Steinberg said. "We lost our first child due to a miscarriage." Max was later born just six weeks after Stuart's mother had succumbed to cancer, she said. "Max's birth resulted in healing our family of the pain stemming from two losses."
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro called Max Steinberg "a hero to everybody here. These past few days, Israel has lost far too many heroes."
On behalf of of President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and the American people, Shapiro said, "I bring a message of support, consolation, and what comfort we can bring."
"A son of the United States, a soldier of Israel, he represented the best of both of our countries," Shapiro said. "Max selflessly gave his life to protect and defend this country, honoring both Israel and the United States of America with his courageous service."
Max Steinberg's brother, sister and friends described him in adoring detail, quoting liberally from singer-songwriter Bob Marley, a hero of Max's.
"Unlike most people, Max," his brother Jack said, "you didn't just admire a hero, you became one yourself." He cited Marley's words in vowing that Max would live forever in the hearts of all those he left: "Live for yourself and you will live in vain, live for others and you will live again. "
The mourners were unaccustomed to the Hebrew in which Max's father and brother said the Kaddish memorial prayer, but in respectful, unstated concert, supported them through it. The one outburst during the more than two-hour ceremony came from one American, who followed a eulogy by U.S.-born MK Dov Lipman by shouting "You should tell Obama we 're not going to restrain ourselves." Mourners immediately restrained the man.
Eulogies were also given by former Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, close friends of Max, and his commanding officer.
"As I look around right now, I am overwhelmed by the impact you had on so many lives," Max's sister Paige said. "It is unbelievable to see how many people are here in your honor."
"We come from a very small family," she said. "But that seemed to quickly change after meeting people in Israel, who made it feel like one big family."
'Max was a part of the family of Israel'
Jonathan Lis adds: During the day preceding the funeral, calls were made on Facebook to attend Steinberg’s funeral. Notices were put up on the walls of cafes and stores in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood inviting the public to attend the funeral.
“His family is coming all the way from California,” the notices read. “Let’s show them that Max was part of the family of Israel, and not a lone soldier.” Just like tens of thousands of people attended the funeral of Staff Sgt. Nissim Sean Carmeli in Haifa’s military cemetery earlier this week, a similar number attended the funeral of Max Steinberg in Jerusalem.
“It’s the least I could do,” said Yedidia, a resident of Jerusalem, who stood in the blazing sun at the cemetery entrance. “I wanted to pay my last respects to Max, but also to show all the soldiers who are fighting now in Gaza how much we, the ordinary people, are with them and stand behind them.”
“Look around you. Thirty thousand people are here to tell you that you are among friends," Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said.
Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, delivered a eulogy for Max and was touched by the tens of thousands of people standing around him in silence. “This hill has many thousands of citizens who came to pay their last respects. Many of them never met Max. They came because he promised them that we would be a free people in our land,” Oren said.
Dan Shapiro, the American ambassador to Israel, said at the funeral that Israel had lost too many heroes in recent days. He added that he brought a message of support and condolence in the name of President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and the American people.
Max was a great fan of Bob Marley, and his family and friends wove many quotes from his songs into their eulogies. His brother Jake said that since Max was a volunteer, he could have returned to Los Angeles when the operation began and stayed safely there, but chose to live in Israel. He added that when Max decided to enlist in the army, it made his family prouder than they had ever been. MK Dov Lipman’s voice broke when he addressed Max above his grave, saying,
“Thank you for protecting us and showing us that a ordinary American boy from California could become an Israeli hero.”
Michael, one of Max’s friends, said: “You always reminded me of the boy in the story about the emperor’s new clothes, who said that the emperor had nothing on. You were never silent when you felt something wasn’t right. In the army, too, you always cared about your brothers of the unit, even though sometimes that got you into trouble.”
An honor guard from the Golani Brigade fired a salute at the grave, and by the end of the ceremony the grave was piled high with dozens of wreaths.
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