I never met Max Steinberg. I assumed I would only read and hear about the spirit and heart of this heroic lone soldier from California who died while fighting in Gaza during last years Operation Protective Edge; I was proven wrong.
While staffing a Birthright trip a few weeks ago and after reading about him endlessly, I visited Max’s grave.
Knowing that I would be telling Max’s story to the Birthright group I was staffing, I wandered off and sat by his grave alone. Behind me, a mother rubbed her daughter’s hot Jerusalem stone grave and began to cry. The mother poured water on her daughter’s grave to water the plants onto of it and cool the burning Jerusalem stone.
I apologized to Max for not having water with me that day; I never was the model Birthright staff member.
And I sat next to Max and his grave; examining the mounds of rocks and items laying on his grave. I recalled the now-famous story how on his own Birthright trip many years ago, Max visited Har Herzl and declared that he too would serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. I kissed a tiny rock and layed it on his grave. A small rock, which could only juxtaposed with the enormity of how big of a contribution Max made to Israel, the Jewish People and the dream pursued by the dreamers he now lays alongside.
The number so often associated with Max is 30,000 as 30,000 Israelis attended his funeral just to ensure and just to double check again, that Israel’s newest warrior wasn’t alone as he lay in his final resting place among the founders, pioneers, sustainers and warriors of the State of Israel.
When I think of Max Steinberg however, I don’t think of 30,000. Instead, I think of 500,000.
I saw Max Steinberg in my 39 participants out of the larger 500,000 young Jews who have now been on Birthright since its establishment.
I saw Max Steinberg as I watched the pale faces of Jews who were the first in their families in dozens of generations to be blinded by the Old City’s summer glare.
I saw Max Steinberg in the laughs that bonded friendships while rafting on the Jordan River.
I saw Max Steinberg in the breathtaking hikes that solidified the bonds between our land and our souls.
I saw Max Steinberg on the participant who didn’t believe me- that, yes- the Dead Sea is that salty.
I saw Max Steinberg in the roar 350 Mayanot Birthright buses singing Am Yisrael Chai at the Kotel for their first, though surely not last, time ever.
I saw Max Steinberg in the pride and dancing which always ensued when Israel’s Eurovision 9th place winner’s song “Golden Boy” was blasting on the bus.
I saw Max Steinberg in silence after Yad Vashem where we collectively realized the irregularity of Jewish history upon which we live- and thrive in.
I saw Max Steinberg as I watched 39 lives transformed not because of what divided them, but what Birthright showed them united them.
Max is the product of the greatest Jewish endeavor since the establishment of the State of Israel itself; that is,Taglit Birthright.
While telling Max’s story on top of Israel’s national cemetery to an oddly silent group of 39 college students and seven Israeli soldiers, my tour guide handed me an enlarged booklet with pictures of Israel’s most iconic leaders.
On the verge of tears, and eventually succumbing to those tears, I peered through the massive booklet as I spoke to distract myself from my inescapable emotion as I continued to tell Max’s now-iconic story.
While looking through this booklet, I saw a large picture of Herzl. I saw Ben Gurion. I saw Golda Meir. I saw Yoni Netanyahu. I saw Michael Levine. And then, so appropriately, on the other side of the Ben Groin’s picture, I saw Max Steinberg; our Birthright brother, our fighter and our defender of Israel.
When I think of Max Steinberg, I don’t think of the number 30,000. I think of the approximately 500,000 college students who as of a few weeks ago have traveled to Israel with Birthright. Though he is no longer with us in the physical world and though I will never meet him in the conventional sense; Max Steinberg lives on in the mountains of Birthright lanyards left by his grave daily; in the crowds of Birthright groups gathering around Max’s grave; in the faces of 39 Birthright participants in awe of Israel, in awe of her history and in awe, and in search, of each of our individual places in it.
Max found his place, and died for his place, among Israel’s dark yet triumphant history and the graves that tell the story of Israel.
Let us not forget Max’s light that lives on in the first 500,000 Birthright participants- even those before his time- and the light, personified by Max’s heroic story; the light that is yet to be lit for the next 500,000 or 1 million or 5 million Jews who too are destine to be forever molded by Birthright.
Last summer, Max Steinberg rose to Mount Herzl, the highest mountain, both figurate and literally, in Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital.
I will never meet Max Steinberg; I’ll never meet Menachem Begin or David Ben Gurion either, but I still think of them, their stories, their lessons and their legacies, and now Max’s too, every time I sing Hatikvah — and I’ll sing Hatikvah even louder next time thinking of Max’s heroism.
May Max Steinberg’s memory forever be a blessing.
Justin B. Hayet is a graduate student at Binghamton University and can be contacted at email@example.com