Members of the American expatriate community are mourning the death of freelance journalist Steven Sotloff, whom insurgents belonging to Islamic State beheaded this week.
The grandson of Holocaust survivors, Sotloff came to Israel in 2005 and studied at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya until 2008, later taking on Israeli citizenship and eventually becoming a contributor to The Jerusalem Report, a sister-publication to The Jerusalem Post.
He had also worked for Time, Foreign Policy, The Media Line and other outlets.
The 31-year-old from Florida was kidnapped in Syria in August 2013. A video showing his beheading at the hands of Islamic State was released on Tuesday and subsequently authenticated by the United States.
Sotloff hid his Jewish identity from the Islamic extremists imprisoning him but continued to try to practice his religion secretly while in captivity, fasting on Yom Kippur and observing other Jewish rites, one of his fellow prisoners told Yediot Aharonot.
“He told them he was sick and didn’t want to eat, even though we were served eggs that day. He used to pray secretly in the direction of Jerusalem. He would see in which direction [the guards] were praying and then adjust the angle,” he told the Hebrew-language daily.
Rebecca, a causal acquaintance of Sotloff’s from Miami who asked that her last name not be published, said Sotloff was “really looking to find an authentic meaningful connection to Judaism and that’s why he moved to Israel.”
“He was just a genuine good soul,” she told the Post. “He was someone who was seeking meaning and direction in his life and brought a lot of integrity to that search.”
Fascinated by the Middle East, Sotloff, a fluent Arabic speaker, cared deeply about the people of the region, his mother said in a video message pleading for Islamic State to release her son.
Sotloff worked hard to report on the “suffering of Muslims at the hands of tyrants,” she said.
In a statement on Wednesday, the IDC expressed sorrow over the death of the alumnus, vowing to continue educating against the hate and extremism that motivated his capture and murder.
Michael Sapir, who played rugby with Sotloff during his time in Israel, said, “Basically, Steven created this career being an ‘action journalist.’” Fascinated by the region, Sotloff “went out in the field to explore it and write about it and by that he became a reporter. He went out in the field, lived it and started writing about it and telling his stories,” Sapir told the Post.
While some of those who studied with Sotloff told the press that he had been critical of the Jewish state, he “never made any sort of anti-Israel type comments to me,” Sapir continued, adding that while the reporter had taken on Israeli citizenship, he “never struck me as someone that was a Zionist.”
“He never said, ‘Hey I’m making aliya, I’m making Israel my home.’ To me it seemed more like ‘I’m a Jew, Israel is my ancestral homeland,’ that sort of thing. When I spoke to him in 2013 Israel was a stop on his way.”
Sotloff was an extrovert, Sapir continued, describing him as someone who could “walk into a situation and make friends with people.”
Avi Hoffman, the managing editor of The Jerusalem Report, called Sotloff a “very good, active reporter” who was “fearless” and “knew his way around.”
Over a period of three years, Sotloff contributed regular features to the magazine, filing stories from Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, covering the Arab Spring and the revolutions embroiling the region.
“The last piece he wrote was published in August 12, 2013, which was when he was captured. He was already probably in the hands of ISIS [Islamic State],” Hoffman recalled.
His editors in Jerusalem would frequently worry about him, trying unsuccessfully to establish contact, only to find out that he was in places such as the Libyan desert with no phone or Internet access, Hoffman said.
“He was a very on the spot, colorful reporter,” he said.
According to Media Line CEO Felice Friedson, Sotloff “sounded the unanswered alarm about ISIS.”
In a piece about Sotloff on her news agency’s website, Friedson wrote that “if [he] could express his frustrations, no doubt atop the list would be that the world that, postmortem, is hanging on every word he wrote, failed to read his stories and heed his warnings several years before.
“As a freelance journalist, Steven Sotloff was in the Middle East by choice rather than by assignment.
Driven there by his fascination with the region and affection for its people, Sotloff, who was fluent in Arabic, quickly developed an uncanny sense not only of what was, but what was going to follow as well. He traced the evolution of the jihadi takeover of Syria and Iraq; the spawning by al-Qaida of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State; all while chronicling the early steps toward the carving- out of the ISIS caliphate and the dangers it presented to the Western world,” she wrote.
During his captivity, Friedson wrote, “our utmost concern beyond Steven’s ultimate safety was that it not be discovered that he held dual US-Israeli citizenship.”
According to Israeli media reports, Sotloff also took pains to hide his Jewish identity before leaving to cover the Arab world, deleting all references to his connection to Israel from his social media accounts.
“I don’t really share my values and opinions,” Sotloff said in an email exchange with former Post journalist Oren Kessler, who wrote about their longtime email correspondence.
Asked by Kessler if he was nervous reporting in Arab countries while sporting a Jewish name, Sotloff replied that he tried to “stay alive” and that “Google definitely isn’t my friend.”
“In Yemen it’s the first question everyone asks. “I ‘converted’ in my first week so I wouldn’t have to deal with all that rubbish. LOL ,” Sotloff wrote.
Back in Florida, neighbors and members of the Jewish community were in shock at Sotloff’s death.
“It’s devastating, there are no words. You can’t describe what’s going on inside their home, what they’re feeling,” neighbor Chris Haddock said of the slain reporter’s family.
Robert Hersh, the executive director of Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, South Miami-Dade County, Sotloff’s synagogue, asked the public to pray for his family, while Sotloff’s friend Danielle Berrin said that she remembered him as “a completely fun-loving, beautiful spirit, really joyful, kind of goofy [and] sometime mischievous.”
“We know that all people of goodwill join with us in condemning ISIS for this horrific act and call on the international community to bring Steven’s murderers to justice,” the local Jewish Federation said in a statement.
Reuters contributed to this report.