A day before his death, St.- Sgt. Max Steinberg, 24, awakened his parents in their Los Angeles area home at 4 a.m. to say he had survived a tank accident in Gaza but was heading back into the Strip to continue fighting with his Golani unit.
“We told each other how much we loved each other, and we wished him a safe return,” his father, Stuart, recalled as he eulogized his son on Wednesday. He and his wife Evie stood just a few feet away from their son’s freshly dug grave in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl Military Cemetery.
Speaking in English, they tried to explain to more than 10,000 mourners how their son – an all-American kid from the Golden State with a winsome smile who loved Bob Marley and was skilled at stealing baseball bases – had turned into an Israeli military hero.
“We want to answer the question on the minds of many people: Do we have any regrets that Max enlisted in the IDF as a lone soldier?” Stuart said. “The answer is an unequivocal no.”
Evie added: “There is no doubt in our minds that our son was put on this earth for a mission.”
Until they flew from Los Angeles for the funeral, most of their knowledge about Israel had come from Max, who himself arrived for the first time only two years ago, after his younger siblings Jake and Paige cajoled him into joining a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.
Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman told the mourners he believed that during a Birthright visit to Mount Herzl, Max decided to change the course of his life and link his destiny with that of the Jewish people. Max was moved to do this, Lipman said, “specifically while standing here, on this mountain, when he came across the grave of a fallen soldier who came from America to fight in the IDF.”
Upon arriving back in California, Max told his parents that the country was beautiful, that he loved its people, would likely immigrate there and therefore wanted to voluntarily join the IDF, even though he didn’t know Hebrew.
“We are in awe of what Max achieved from the moment he said, ‘I am returning to Israel,’” Evie said. “As parents we are filled with joy and pride for the man that our son became and the life that he lived. Once Max set his sights 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.”
The army accepted him, but was reluctant to grant his wish to join Golani’s 13th Battalion, where knowledge of Hebrew was important. It asked where else he wanted to serve.
“Max told them there was no other place to serve,” said Stuart. When they refused to heed his request, “he finally came to them and said, ‘if it’s not Golani, it is jail or it is home.'”
Max’s friend, Michael, recalled how his sister tried to teach Max Hebrew during that time, and would yell at him for not studying enough.
He said all he needed to know were commands, Michael recalled, but he did sit down and study, afterwards jokingly saying, that he still knew “kloom,” the Hebrew word for nothing.
Eventually he was accepted into Golani’s 13th Battalion, where he became a sharp shooter.
Max was strong from birth, Evie recalled. When he was an infant, lying near her in a bassinet in the hospital, he tried to raise his head and look around, even though newborns can’t typically do that.
“I looked and said, ‘wow, this is one strong kid,’” she recalled. Her son was an all around athlete, excelling in soccer, football and baseball, Evie said.
“What he lacked in size, he more than made up in heart, grit and determination.”
So it was, “not surprising that Max excelled in combat training, helping qualify him for the Golani unit,” Evie told the mourners.
In the spring and into the summer, his unit was stationed near Syria but was relocated to the Gaza border in anticipation that ground forces, such as their unit, would enter the Strip.
In his last phone call home, Max described some of his activities in Gaza.
“He told us a tank had collided with a tank he was riding in, there were injuries and that he, along with other soldiers in his unit, returned for medical treatment,” recalled Stuart. “Max told us that some of the soldiers had broken bones. He said he was sore but he needed to return to action. He had to get back to his friends.”
The next morning, at 8 a.m. on Sunday, three representatives from the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles knocked on Evie and Stuart’s door.
“They shared the horrific news that Max was killed. They embraced us and provided us with as much comfort that was humanely possible under the circumstances,” his mother said.
Immediately, her instinct was to fly his body back for burial in California, Evie said.
“I just wanted him near me. I wanted to see him everyday, I needed to. But after being in Israel and seeing all the love and support and how he is treated and remembered here, we decided that Max needed to remain in Israel,” said Evie.
From under the black baseball cap that she wore, she looked out at all the mourners and said: “We now know why Max fell in love with Israel. It was all because of its people, he was embraced with open arms and treated like family and for that we are grateful.”
Stuart ended their joint eulogy by uttering the phrase, “Am Yisrael Chai” (the Jewish people live).
US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told the family that Max’s contributions to both of his countries, Israel and America, had resonated in Washington, DC.
“We stand here today, thousands strong, to honor and commemorate the life of your beloved Max, your brother, your son and a hero to everybody here,” Shapiro said. “These past few days Israel has lost far to many heroes. There are no adequate words to describe the pain of losing Max to you, his beloved family.
“Your pain is our pain. We know Max’s death leaves a void that can not be filled. On behalf of [US Secretary of State John] Kerry and [US President Barack] Obama and the United States people, I bring a message of support and consolation,” Shapiro said.
Max’s siblings and friends spoke of a fun, humorous young man, who knew what he wanted and was true to all those he cared about.
“You were the strongest little guy I have ever met and the best big brother I could ever ask for,” his sister, Paige, said. “As I talk to you right now my heart feels heavy, because I can’t explain to you how deeply I already miss you. I know you are in each and every one of our hearts.”
His last words to her were from the famous Bob McFadden song, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
“It made me smile,” she said. “Maxy, I will miss you from the bottom of my heart. I will continue to love you endlessly.
You are a hero to so many people and my guardian angel forever.”
Max’s brother, Jake, recalled one of the “best moments” of his life, during Max’s last visit home, as they sat and watched a Bob Marley documentary.
“We were like young kids again. We were sitting right next to each other and we were just enjoying each other’s company,” he said. To Max, he said: “You set the bar to a height I cannot reach, but I will do the best I can.”
Max’s friend Matan recalled how they would talk about everything over coffee: Bob Marley, their families and of course, girls.
“In every conversation between us we had a ritual. I would say, ‘I love you bro’ in English, and he would respond ‘I love you my brother’ in Hebrew,’” recalled Matan.
Max’s friend Michael said: “You are our Lion of Zion. We love you man. If you were here, you would tell us, ‘Don’t worry. Be happy.’”