In what has been reported as the largest turnout for an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) funeral since the beginning of Israel’s current war in Gaza, around 30,000 Israelis swarmed Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on July 23 to pay their respects to Los Angeles native Max Steinberg.
“He gave everything for us, so it’s the least we can do to be here,” said Avital Schenkolewski, a young Jerusalemite sweating in the heat.
Max, a 24-year-old who graduated from El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills and whose parents live in Encino, set his mind on joining the IDF’s elite Golani combat brigade after a trip to Israel with his younger brother and sister, via the Birthright program, in 2012. It was during the Birthright tour of Mount Herzl — where he is now buried — that Max noticed the grave of U.S. Lone Soldier Michael Levin, and began considering a career in the IDF.
“Max was raised in Los Angeles,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said at the funeral. “But, as we’ve heard, he was driven by a faith and a conviction that brought him here to Israel, bravely moving across the world on his own and arriving here as a Hayal Boded [Lone Soldier] who served valiantly as a sharpshooter in the Golani Brigade.”
The soldier’s parents, on the other hand, took their first trip to Israel this summer on a surreal mission to bury their son among IDF greats. The Steinberg family — Stuart, Evie, Jake and Paige — was escorted around Israel by a team of attentive IDF personnel, and surrounded by Israeli citizens overflowing with condolences.
“We now know why Max fell in love with Israel — it was all because of its people,” Evie said in her speech at the Mount Herzl ceremony. She wore a black baseball cap with the Golani emblem; tears had smudged her mascara beneath her eyes.
Before a crowd of thousands, Evie replayed the morning that three members of the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles showed up at her door and “shared the horrific news that Max was killed during his mission into Gaza.”
The family initially wanted to bring Max’s body home to Los Angeles for burial, Evie said. However, “after further thought, we came to realize that was our selfishness. I wanted him near me and wanted to be able to see him every day 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 would remain in Israel — no longer the Lone Soldier, forever at his home.”
In his speech for Max, the soldier’s younger brother Jake, 22, included various quotes from Max’s role model, Bob Marley. “These insightful quotes could be titles of chapters in your book of life,” he said. “Unlike most people, Max, you didn’t just admire a hero — you became one yourself.”
The funeral was an implosion of emotions. Attendees could hardly hold back their tears as Max’s coffin was lowered into its slot and covered in dirt by seven uniformed Golani soldiers. And by the time Max’s sister Paige, 20, broke down at the podium, so did thousands listening.
“Maxie, I will miss you from the bottom of my heart. You are a hero to so many people, and my guardian angel forever,” Paige said, barely forming the words through her tears.
The crowd’s collective grief was deepened by an awareness that at that moment, other young IDF soldiers were still in Gaza, still in danger.
“Today, not a long drive from here by American terms, thousands of Israelis are fighting and risking their lives so we can remain a free and proud people in our country,” said former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, a trustee for the Lone Soldier Center, in his speech at the funeral.
After the ceremony, as dozens of bright floral wreaths were laid on Max’s grave, members of the crowd told the Journal that their sorrow was laced with fear.
“You don’t want to wake up in the morning and look at your phone and see the names [of the dead],” said Meytal Blumenthal, 23. “We all have friends there. Even the ones you don’t know, somebody does.”
As of press time on July 29, more than 1,000 Palestinians and more than 50 Israeli soldiers had been killed in three weeks of fighting in Gaza. And the night Max died, at the start of Israel’s ground operation, was one of the deadliest for both sides. About 60 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers were killed when the IDF met unexpected resistance in the streets of Shejaiya, a dense residential neighborhood in east Gaza filled with Hamas infrastructure, and responded with heavy artillery fire.
Of the IDF’s 13 casualties that night, Max and six others were killed when their tank hit an explosive in the road.
Evie pressed Max’s fellow soldiers for details on the incident at their family’s shivah, held at the Crowne Plaza Jerusalem hotel in the hours following the Mount Herzl funeral.
“He didn’t feel any pain, did he?” she asked.
A young Golani soldier sitting shivah assured her that the explosion would have taken the soldiers’ lives in an instant.
Another member of the Golani brigade told Evie a story from better days: He said that during the most intensive week in their training, “the week where we play out the war,” Max — at just 5 feet 3 inches — got stuck carrying about 130 pounds of gear. “Nobody wanted to switch him, so for 15 kilometers he walked with it,” the soldier said. “I thought, ‘This guy’s crazy.’ ”
When he moved to Israel in 2012, the IDF originally told Max he couldn’t serve in Golani because his Hebrew wasn’t strong enough. But he was persistent: At the funeral, Stuart remembered his son saying, “If it’s not Golani, it’s jail, or it’s home.”
Max’s friend Eric Weiss, 21, a Lone Soldier from the U.S., called him “a fighter that never stopped giving ... an Energizer Bunny.”
In addition to Max’s army buddies, a lineup of world leaders stopped by the shivah to pay their respects and assure the Steinbergs that their son had not died in vain.
“I am in awe of your son, truly,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Israel to attempt to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza. “And I think you know, I served in the military, and I have great respect for anybody who ... puts themselves willingly in harm’s way. And as an American, we’re so proud of the affection that he felt, just the love he felt, and the roots he found in this country.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sat shivah with the Steinberg family at their Jerusalem hotel.
As Kerry left, he urged the family to contact him if they needed anything, and even promised to help Jake and Paige with college applications.
Tamir Ilan, 27, a former IDF soldier sitting shivah during Kerry’s visit, commented to the Journal: “I don’t think soldiers that fought in Iraq get this kind of treatment. It’s weird, and amazing.”
With just two days left in his term, Israeli President Shimon Peres came by the hotel to speak with the Steinbergs as well. “His brigade saved the lives of others, maybe thousands of people,” Peres said of Max.
Shimon Peres, then-president of Israel, praised Max Steinberg’s “depth, seriousness, devotion and courage,” at the Steinberg family shivah.
He commended the “rare” bravery it took for Max to return to the battlefield just one day after he had emerged, shaken, from a minor tank accident. “He could very easily not have gone back,” Peres said, calling Max “a young man of great depth.”
Peres also took some time to explain to the family that after withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, Israel had left behind millions of dollars in housing and farming infrastructure to give the Gazan economy a push, but only got rockets in return. “It’s blindness. It’s nonsense. Their language is not ours,” he said.
At the shivah, Peres was followed by Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, and Sara Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister’s wife. Their visits lasted deep into the evening. Surrounded by love and commotion, and fed bottomless cups of coffee by their IDF hosts, the Steinberg family found the strength to smile. But in moments of downtime, a look of realization would sometimes flash across their faces.
“I still can’t wrap my head around it,” Evie said into the hushed hotel conference room between visits from dignitaries. “It just doesn’t seem possible.”