LOS ANGELES – The death of a 24-year-old Birthright graduate from L.A. has brought the battles taking place in the Middle East home for many in this Southern California community in a tangible and direct way – a rarity in a conflict that has been fought by proxy here via rallies and divestment votes.
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Max Steinberg, originally from the upscale L.A. neighborhood of Woodland Hills, was killed in action overnight Saturday during Israeli military activities in the Gaza Strip, on a night in which 13 Israeli soldiers died.
Their death brings the total number of Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza in the last two days to 18. Another U.S. citizen, Sean Carmeli, 21, who was born and raised in Texas, was also killed in Gaza overnight Saturday.
Steinberg was a sharpshooter in the Israel Defense Forces' Golani infantry brigade. He moved to Israel in 2012.
Steinberg’s unit was operating as part of an Israeli ground offensive that began Thursday with the stated goal of destroying Hamas’ tunnel infrastructure and reducing the U.S. State Department-designated terrorist group’s capacity to fire rockets into Israel. The tunnels are routinely used to smuggle goods into Gaza and have been used by Hamas in attempts to infiltrate Israel. The action comes after the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens and subsequent killing of a Palestinian teen which led to exchanges of missile attacks between the IDF and Hamas.
'I'm going back in'
Steinberg was a “Hayal Boded,” or Lone Soldier – the term used for soldiers who moved to Israel without any family residing in the country. According to Evie Steinberg, Max's mother, “His last words when I spoke to him at 4 A.M. a couple days ago were 'Mom I’m not scared at all for me, I’m scared for you. I’m fine, I’m going back in.'”
Steinberg will be buried in Israel, according to his mother. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a memorial was held for Steinberg last night at a local park, with hundreds in attendance.
“I want him home with me. However, he did what he wanted to do. He has his friends, his fellow soldiers, his brothers, and I know that he would probably like to be laid to rest with them,” she said.
“I still believe in what Israel is doing at this point," she said. I still support it 100 percent. I am sorry for the children of whichever side … but as far as Hamas goes, that’s another story.”
Max’s father Stuart said his son knew the risks of serving in Golani, that they would likely be the first sent into Gaza.
“He felt that if this was his calling, that being on the sidelines, or even in the backseat, was just not going to work,” he said, adding, “Max was a free spirit.”
Many who attended the L.A. memorial for Steinberg were former members of Golani, including Nati Sror, 28, of Yehud, who arrived in the U.S. last week. He said he came out to show his loyalty to the unit.
“He is one of us. Golani is one big unit, a family. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your religion is. We are always trying to be there for each other all over the world. What we can do for another member, we do, of course,” Sror said.
Speaking about difficulty of the situation, Sror said, “I wouldn’t wish to my enemy to see a mother crying over her son."
'He found some solace'
According to his friends, Steinberg made the decision to move to Israel after participating in Birthright Israel, a free program that brings young Jews to Israel for 10 days.
“He fell in love after Birthright,” said Steinberg’s friend Daniel Derakhshan, 24, of Woodland Hills, California.
“He said he wanted to get away from here [L.A.], from all the bad influences that were going around. He wanted to stay away from trouble, to get his life straight. He thought it would get him away from dangers here.”
“He found some solace going to the army,” said Steinberg's friend Avi Yazdi, 24, of Woodland Hills.
Friends described Steinberg as always joking around and smiling – not someone, they said, they would have expected to join the Israeli army.
“I was very surprised when I found out he wanted to go [to the Israeli army]. I didn’t really understand it, but I obviously supported him in his choice,” said Derakhshan.
Yet in addition to his sunny demeanor, he will be remembered for his conviction, friends said. "Max is the nicest person in the world and he will always stand for what is right," said Derakhshan.
“We all knew [defending Israel] was something he felt strongly and passionately about,” said Hayley Messersmith, 23, who had previously dated Steinberg. She added that Steinberg had plans to return to the U.S. and “settle down” after his IDF service was completed.
Steinberg’s friends describe his love of snowboarding, skateboarding, red Ford Mustang GTs and football, as well as his loyalty to the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Angels. Yet despite his American background, by all accounts, Steinberg adapted well to his new life in Israel.
“He loved it. He loved the people. He loved his unit. He felt like he belonged,” said Derakhshan.
Yazdi noted his surprise and admiration of Steinberg, saying he “always wondered how hard it must be to be the little American in the Golani unit! How did he communicate? But he loved every second of it.”