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For Steve Sotloff: My personal tribute to my friend and collaborator

At a memorial service in Miami, we remembered Steve not for how he met his death but how he conquered life
Journalist Steve Sotloff, far right, in Yemen, 2011. (photo credit: Facebook/Oren Kessler)
Journalist Steve Sotloff, far right, in Yemen, 2011. (photo credit: Facebook/Oren Kessler)

Steven Sotloff and I grew up miles apart in Miami and immigrated to Israel in the same year, but our first encounter took place in a smoky bar in Beirut, while on assignment covering the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon. We both loved the Middle East and the Arabic language and had an intense desire to reveal to the world the injustices that common citizens on the ground were facing as a result of radical Islamic terror.

It was a tumultuous time in the region and Lebanon was flooded with a slew of demonstrations triggered by the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, and honestly there was no other place we would rather have been.

I’ll never forget his smile and the mischievous twinkle in his eye. We shared a bottle of single malt whiskey and a Cuban cigar and joked (even reveled) about how two American Israeli Jewish journalists were inconspicuously camping out in a remote watering hole, in Lebanon of all places, and how dangerous and even illegal it was.

He shared his war stories from covering the uprisings in Egypt, where he was briefly arrested, to his adventures in Syria, where he realized that, “I have to believe there is good somewhere in this world of darkness that we live in.”

Steven Sotloff, an appreciation
Steven Sotloff, an appreciation

He shared with me that it was never about breaking the big story or getting to hard-to-reach officials. “I learned Arabic, so that I could speak with the common people,” he said. “I want nothing more than to share the stories of the untold to the people of the West.”

And so he did, with articles in TIME, The Jerusalem Report and Foreign Policy magazines: “Latakia’s Lament”, “Syrian Purgatory” and other fitting bylines.

As we spoke further, we realized that we had much more in common than we could ever imagine. We both studied journalism, were affiliated with the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, loved Dave Matthews Band and Pink Floyd, but more importantly, we figured out what our respective callings were earlier than most and decided to pursue them with vigor. All we wanted to do was write stories and travel to places others wouldn’t dream of, to lend a voice to those who had none, and to serve as their lifeline to the world.

As we all know, Steve lost his lifeline when he was beheaded by ISIS terrorists in a video released Tuesday, after being held captive in Syria for a year.

Steve’s 2013 August capture reads like one of his nail-biting articles, with only bits and pieces recently being revealed to the world. Following his kidnapping, a small group of his friends and associates raced to systematically remove any reference online to his Israeli and Jewish roots. The US and Israeli media agreed to cooperate in concealing this information, in order not to further jeopardize his life.

Sources in this inner circle have hinted that much more of Steve’s story is yet to come.

Today, at a memorial service in Miami, we remembered Steve not for how he met his death but how he conquered life

Yet, today came some relief for those that knew and loved him. At a memorial service in Miami, we remembered Steve not for how he met his death but how he conquered life. He would have been so proud. There were seven homeland security units, the world media, two governors, one mayor and a senator.

Who would have thought, Steve, that after all the stories you chased in your career that you would end up being THE world story of the moment, and even more so that you managed to share your voice even in death?

The most poignant moment in the service was when Steve’s aunt read a letter Steve had written in May, smuggled out of captivity by a former cell mate before his death.

“Please know I’m OK. Live your life to the fullest and fight to be happy. Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.”

He went on to write, “I hope to see you soon. Stay positive and patient. If we are not together again, perhaps God will reunite us in Heaven.”

A sheet printed with lyrics from the song “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd was handed out to guests. “We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year … wish you were here,” reads part of the song. Sotloff’s sister, Lauren, chose the song and played it for the congregation to hear. Poignant doesn’t begin to describe the moment.

The rabbi reminded everyone that life is how we spend that dash between our birth year and our death date.

Steve, your dash may have been shorter than we had hoped, but to me it was an Olympic sprint. You were committed to the truth. You chose to venture to the most dangerous places on the planet because sharing the story was worth the risk of your own mortality. You unmasked the evils of our world today and you stared at it straight in the face. And you truly loved doing it. Today, I say goodbye to you, my old friend, and I am so amazed how you have lived on so powerfully in death.

We will always have Beirut. Rest peacefully, and know I will continue to lend a voice to those without one. For you.

About the Author
Leah Stern is currently Global Communications Partner at OurCrowd, promoting the world's leading venture investment platform to the world media, as well as OurCrowd's 240+ portfolio companies. Stern is also founder of London based "Stern Power Limited," a full service tech PR and communications agency made up of ex-journalists that deliver high quality media relations, press strategy and storytelling. Stern served as producer and anchor for the Israeli Government Press Office News in Jerusalem, and continues to act as a multimedia journalist and content producer for Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and Miami Herald. Stern was formerly the SE Regional Director of NPH USA, a non-profit organization that responds to the plight of orphaned and abandoned children in Latin America. Stern has spent the past ten years as an international correspondent in the Middle East as a TV reporter, anchor and editor for IBA News in Jerusalem, Israel's only local English language news program. Stern frequently directed, produced, and filmed news features in Israel for CNN's World Report Program. Stern was embedded with the Israel Defense Forces during Israel's disengagement from Gaza; broadcasted live war reporting during the second Lebanon War from Israel's north; Conducted Inside coverage of Pope John Paul II's Funeral in Rome; Documented a two-day journey in Ethiopia with the Falash Mura. From 2010-2012, Stern was based in Rome, serving as a liaison between the Israeli government and the Vatican, producing content for the world media and social networking avenues, including Vatican TV co-productions. Stern is fluent in Hebrew, conversational in Italian, proficient in HD video shooting, SLR photography and editing. Stern graduated with honors, from the University of Miami with a degree in film production and Political Science and studied abroad at the renowned Film, Arts, Music University in Prague.
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