Just over two years ago, two brothers and a sister – Max, Jake and Paige Steinberg – returned to Los Angeles from a whirlwind tour of Israel.
The trip, which was sponsored by Taglit-Birthright, impacted all three. But none more than Max, who was 22 at the time, and the trio’s oldest. Then a student at Pierce College, Steinberg wasn’t finding what he wanted in school and was unsure of his path. But he was sure of at least one thing—Israel was where he was meant to be.
So, only three months after returning to California in July 2012, Steinberg went back to Israel in September, but this time to become a solider in the Golani infantry brigade of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), one of the IDF’s most decorated units.
And just after 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 20, as he and his unit—Golani’s 13th battalion—made their way down a Gaza City street in the neighborhood of Shejaiya, a Hamas stronghold, their armored personnel carrier (APC) was struck multiple times by either rocket propelled grenades or anti-tank missiles. The explosions killed either six or seven soldiers, including Steinberg, who died with the rank of corporal, but was posthumously promoted to sergeant. Hamas claims to have kidnapped one of the unit's soldiers, Oron Shaul, but the IDF cannot yet confirm whether or not he was killed in the ambush.
That attack sparked what, so far, has been Israel’s deadliest day in its two-week operation to weaken Hamas’s ability to indiscriminately fire rockets at Israeli towns and cities. Shejaiya has been used as a launching pad for rockets and as a starting point for several underground tunnels, which Hamas uses not only to smuggle and hide weapons within the coastal enclave, but also to sneak terrorists into Israeli communities with the goal of killing and kidnapping civilians and soldiers.
Later Sunday morning, six more Israeli soldiers were killed in gun battles and in a building fire.
In their Encino apartment, Jake and Paige, along with their parents, Stuart and Evie, were absorbing the devastating news that Max – who had called home just 36 hours earlier to say he was doing fine – was gone.
“Although he was American he truly connected,” his father said, seated around a coffee table with his wife and two children. “He belonged there.”
The day before, at 4 a.m. on Saturday, Max called home to say that his armored vehicle had been run into from behind by another Israeli military vehicle. Some of his fellow soldiers broke some bones, but he was in one piece – just some achiness in his back.
“He said that he’s fine, that he’s a little sore, but he’s ok and that he’s going back in,” recalled his father. “He said, ‘My friends are there and I’m going back in.’”
A sharpshooter, his family said he was likely on the verge of being promoted to the rank of sergeant. His desire to be in a combat unit, his parents said, was so strong that he would rather have sat in a jail cell than work a military desk job.
“I’m not here by requirement, I’m here by volunteering and I have a purpose,” Max’s father remembers him saying.
Evie Steinberg fought back tears as she said with a smile how Max made light of his inability to speak Hebrew well despite being an Israeli soldier.
“My Hebrew’s sh**ty but I know ‘Army Hebrew,’” his mother recalled Max saying, adding with pride how deft a negotiator her son was, particularly at making clear to the IDF that he was only interested in being in a combat unit and that he expected nothing less if he is to serve as a volunteer.
She said that at one point during training, while being questioned about what position he’d like to fill in the army, he stressed that he wanted to be trained as a fighter. Apparently not entirely convinced that a short, scrawny kid from Los Angeles should be in combat, Evie said the questioner repeated the same question two more times.
“[Max] finally said, ‘You’ve asked me that question, ask me another question. I’ve already answered that, you’ve asked me three times what I want to do. This is what I want to do.”
“As far as fear,” she continued, “He doesn’t have a lot of fear. He said to me, ‘I’m not worried about me, I’m fine. I’m most worried about you. I’m so scared for you.’”
Both Jake, 22, and Paige, 20, sat quietly as they listened to their parents describe Max. Paige, sitting on the sofa and browsing her computer for pictures of her older brother, said that whenever she and Max would get into a fight, it would bug her how intent he was on not staying mad at her. Jake, sitting quietly, spoke admirably of his brother’s “deep emotional connection” to Israel.
“He found himself there,” Jake said. “He saw some sort of calling for him and he jumped on it.”
As phones buzzed and rang with friends and relatives calling to offer their condolences, several of Max’s best childhood friends came in, with tears streaming down their faces as they embraced each of the Steinbergs.
Still in shock, they were more than happy to share their fondest memories of their late friend. Ben Gaudioz, who was friends with Max since they were 2nd graders, said that the two had spoken on Wednesday—they were planning Max’s 25th birthday celebration, which, as it happens, would have fallen on November 27th, just days after Max was scheduled to return to the United States following the completion of his 18-month commitment to the IDF.
“[He was the] closest friend I ever had,” Gaudioz said. “He was my brother, the brother I never actually had.”
Another friend, Michael Pesin, was actually one of the first people to whom Max confided that he wanted to be in Golani. When Max expressed doubts that the IDF wouldn’t want him—he didn’t know Hebrew and he wasn’t Israeli—Pesin pressed him to try and even connected him with cousins in Be’er Sheva, where Max often stayed when he wasn’t with his unit.
Standing around the living room and breaking into loud laughter as they honored Max, his friends threw out bits and pieces of his personality and taste—he was energetic, tough, not afraid to speak his mind, and in love with junk food, sometimes eating ice cream for all three meals of the day and opting for French fries from McDonalds when prodded to eat something nutritious.
When people owed him money, one friend said with a big grin, he viewed it not in terms of dollars, but in terms of how many chicken nuggets that money could buy from McDonalds. He loved the New England Patriots football team and couldn’t get enough of Bob Marley’s music, his mom said.
Paige, jumping in, said that her last communication with her older brother was on Facebook. She said he simply wrote, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
A skilled virtual soldier in the video game “Call Of Duty” (his alias was “Maximus Prime”), Max’s friends said, only half-jokingly, that he credited his ability to excel in Golani with, in part, having so much background training in the video game.
And at just five feet and three inches, he took on nicknames like “Mighty Max” and “Little Dynamo.”
Prospering in one of the IDF’s most elite units, his mother said, helped him “earn respect for himself.”
Additionally, added his father, he viewed military service as an obligation were he to ever make aliyah to Israel.
“If he ever ultimately decided this was going to be his new home, not serving was just not an option for him,” Stuart said. And if he was going to serve, he wanted to be a Golani infantryman. “Anything less than that would been not as meaningful for him.”
With no relatives in Israel, Max called home almost every day to check in with his parents and share with them, Jake and Paige his progress in basic training and how he fared within Golani. Previously serving at a base on the Israeli-Syrian border, Max’s unit was called down to the Gaza border several days ago once it became increasingly clear that Israel was preparing for a ground incursion.
“He knew that the Golani unit was potentially the first unit in,” said his father.
Max’s funeral will be held Wednesday at 11 a.m. at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl National Cemetery. The Steinbergs arrived Monday. The decision to keep Max in Israel is fitting, said Larry Miller, a family friend who came Sunday afternoon with his wife to be with the Steinbergs.
“That’s really where his head was. He had found a calling, he had found his direction,” Miller said. “He was following his heart and that’s where it took him.”
Before he went into Gaza with his brigade on Sunday, Evie Steinberg said, Max’s final phone conversation was with his father:
“The last thing he said to my husband was, ‘Tell my mom I love her.’”
Follow Jared Sichel @thesichel.
At the request of the family of Max Steinberg, the Jewish Journal will forward letters and emails of condolence. You can email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send to Steinberg Family: Tribe Media Corp. 3250 Wilshire Blvd. Suite 1250 Los Angeles, CA 90010.