I’m an American kid with shaky Hebrew

The fallen soldier Max Steinberg is a Taglit-Birthright success story, but not because he moved to Israel

“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?” said Stuart Steinberg, at the funeral of his slain son, IDF Lone Soldier, Max Steinberg. “The answer is an unequivocal no.”

“There is no doubt in our minds that our son was put on this earth for a mission” added his mother, Evie. “We are in awe of what Max achieved from the moment he said, ‘I am returning to Israel.’ As parents we are filled with joy and pride for the man that our son became and the life that he lived.”

I did not know Max Steinberg. Yet his life has touched me, and tens of thousands of others, deeply. His life of pride, achievement and heroism is at once familiar and unique.

I am an “American kid with shaky Hebrew,” living in Jerusalem. My first time here was on Taglit-Birthright Israel in 2002, during the second Intifada. I don’t remember much about that trip but I do recall a sense of belonging and a desire to discover more and dig deeper.

Today, 12 years later, as Director of Marketing and Social Media at Taglit-Birthright Israel: Mayanot, I spend my time campaigning for more young Jewish people to come to Israel and experience their homeland and their culture. We introduce them to the “crossroads” of their Jewish past, present, and future. I can only hope that they find the same sense of belonging, the same desire to dig deeper, that I did.

Last week, I read with deep disappointment Allison Benedikt’s article in Slate Magazine partially blaming Taglit-Birthright Israel for Max Steinberg’s untimely death. She inaccurately painted the program as a recruitment division of the IDF and suggests that any American (or ‘foreigner’) that chooses to join may have emotional issues and beyond.

Perhaps Taglit-Birthright Israel introduced Max Steinberg to a world of young, excited, and possibly even good-looking Israeli soldiers who were passionate about wearing the uniform for their people and their country. But, Benedikt’s attempt to paint these encounters with Israelis, and the entire Birthright Israel journey, as a ten-day “pitch” for anything more than its stated goal, is simply incorrect.

To be honest, I agree with most of the things Benedikt wrote about Taglit-Birthright Israel. However, I view them as the organization’s merits, not weak points. For instance, thank G-d, Birthright Israel alumni “are more likely to view Israel’s military conduct as justified.”

Benedikt writes, “Though most trip alumni do not join the IDF (Birthright’s spokeswoman told me they don’t keep track), to do so seems like the ultimate fulfillment of Birthright’s mission—the ultimate expression of a Jew’s solidarity with Israel is to take up arms to defend it.”

I certainly agree that joining the IDF is a very strong – if not the strongest – show of solidarity with Israel, yet, being in the business, it hardly paints the “ultimate fulfillment of Birthright’s mission.”

For those who missed it, Birthright Israel’s mission is declared, in simple English, on their website:

The vision of Taglit-Birthright Israel is to strengthen Jewish identity, Jewish communities and solidarity with Israel by providing a 10-day trip to Israel for young Jewish people.

If the “ultimate fulfillment” was bringing people to live in Israel, “strengthening Jewish communities” would not be a stated goal. Birthright Israel would be a vastly different program, and outcome would speak for itself. Birthright Israel is a highly professional and results-oriented organization. Trust me. If moving the participants to Israel was goal number one, there would be thousands more making aliya. Clearly, it’s not.

With Taglit-Birthright Israel’s wide array of trip organizers with a unique approach to Israel, Judaism, and life of their own, each of the hundreds of thousands of alumni are guaranteed to have walked away with something different. Some return to life as it was. Some begin to light Shabbat candles after experiencing the unique bond they had with other Jews on their journey. Some get involved with their home and campus Jewish communities through Hillel or Chabad. Others choose to volunteer their time, while thousands more participate in alumni events.

And yes, many choose to return to Israel. Some for a semester, some for a year and some for life. Some even make the leap and join the IDF. Most of them don’t.

I can guarantee Max Steinberg saw great reward in (as Benedikt suggests) “serving and protecting the Jewish people” and he clearly felt “the best way to accomplish it was to go fight for the Jewish state.”

No, this did not make Max Steinberg “especially lost, or especially susceptible,” as Benedikt offers. It made Max Steinberg proud and determined. It gave his family honor and will serve as their comfort in the future.

Max Steinberg was indeed, as Benedikt questions, “just looking to do some good” and I’m certain he was convinced that “putting on an IDF uniform” was the way to do it. His Birthright Israel journey may have even had something to do with it.

However, he wasn’t the “ultimate fulfillment” of Taglit-Birthright Israel’s stated goals because he was “an American kid with shaky Hebrew that decided he is ready to die for another country.” Rather, because he was a passionate soul wanting to give back, a talented young man who chose to make the Jewish people — his people — his calling.

That made him a hero. Not, moving to Israel, joining the IDF or even his death. Those are just the events that made him known.

Had he not made the ultimate sacrifice, we may have never known he was a Jewish hero.

Indeed, Max Steinberg is a Taglit-Birthright Israel success story.

About the Author
Levi Margolin was born and bred in Norfolk, VA and is now living it up in Jerusalem! Director of Marketing and Social Media at Taglit-Birthright Israel: MAYANOT, he loves Israel, Judaism, people, politics, sports, world travel and hanging out. Standing at five-feet, Levi has been described by those who know him as the definition of “Short and Sweet.” He is the middle child of seven. He can be reached at