The annual transition from Memorial Day to Independence Day is jarring for many in Israel. One moment, the country is standing still and singing mournful songs about young lives lost; the next, everyone is partying in the streets, hitting others over the head with plastic toy hammers and spraying foam. For no one is this transition more complicated than the thousands of families of the fallen, for whom every day remains something of a Memorial Day.
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For Southern Californians Stuart and Evelyn Steinberg, this was the first time they experienced that sharp transition. It was the first time they were in Israel at this time of the year, and, in fact, only the third time they were visiting the country at all.
The couple – one a real estate company COO, the other an event planner and personal assistant – had no connection to Israel for most of their lives. They had no family here and did not, and still don’t, speak Hebrew. In the last year though, they say, they have honestly come to love this country. But still, they would rather not have been here now. For the Steinbergs were in Israel to commemorate the death of their son, Max - a young man who came to this country on his own, joined the army and was killed last summer during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.
“We spent the morning of Memorial Day at the military cemetery on Mt. Herzl, where we had our first glimpse at what Memorial Day means here. We were sandwiched in between all the tens of thousands of mourners who had come to embrace us and each other,” says Stuart Steinberg, 58, describing the nation’s main official commemoration event at 11 A.M., when a siren wails throughout the country for two minutes and Israel’s soldiers and victims of terror are collectively remembered. That total now stands at 23,320 men, women and children, with 116 added to the list since last Memorial Day – including Max Steinberg.
Stuart and Evelyn Steinberg later attended the torchlighting event at Mt. Herzl, the ceremony that leads into Independence Day by celebrating of Israel and its accomplishments. “Conceptually, it's amazing,” Stuart says.
“Of course, there is no healing,” he adds. “It’s just a ‘new normal.’ We have a constant feeling of grief in the gut – but being here, as opposed to being in Los Angeles, felt validating in some way.”
Max Steinberg was 24 when he died last July. He grew up in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, an all-American kid who only came to Israel for the first time at age 22 on a Birthright-Taglit trip, with his two siblings Jake and Paige. With the exception of a high school friend's uncle living in Be'er Sheva, he had no family or friends here. He did not speak the language. But still, he felt an immediate bond with the country, say his parents. Three months later, he packed up his life in the United States, made aliyah and joined the army – pushing to be accepted into the hard-core Golani Brigade.
More than 30,000 mourners showed up at Max’s funeral last July 23 – wanting, it seemed, to show their deep appreciation for the so-called “lone soldier” who left everything behind and signed up to become one of them. His parents, as they later admitted, had initially thought to have their son’s body flown back to the United States, to be buried near them. But at the Jerusalem funeral, they said they had come to understand that he was buried exactly where he belonged.
Now, nine months later, like all the other members of the family of bereaved parents they have been forced to join, the Steinbergs are looking for ways to come to terms with the "new normal" and find some peace moving forward.
One way forward for the California family has been to team up with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva – the city where their son spent his weekends out of the army – to set up an academic scholarship program in Max’s name.
Stuart explains that the family hopes to raise $1.8 million for a perpetual fund – the Max Steinberg Memorial Scholarship Endowment Fund. Preference for the scholarships – which will be chosen by the university, in consultation with the Steinberg family – will be given to lone soldiers, like Max, and those who served in Golani or other combat units.
“Max left college when he came here to join the army,” says his father. “And it’s hard to say what he would have done after finishing his service. But I am sure he would have appreciated the opportunity to continue his education.
“And Max loved the soldiers he was with. To him, the Israel Defense Forces was an intrinsic part of his being. So, this is an opportunity to give back to those he loved most. That’s the deal: We were looking for a legacy that would connect Max to the soldiers, and give others a chance to put their lives together after serving their country – and move forward,” says Stuart. “It’s a really good fit.”