Max Steinberg was, until nine years ago a name most of us were unfamiliar with. He was one of the few thousand of Chayalim Bodedim (“lone soldiers”) in the IDF. Those brave ideologically motivated and selfless individuals who leave the comforts of their homes and family in the western world and come to serve our Jewish homeland in the most meaningful way.
Max was killed in action nine years ago today during “Operation Protective Edge” in the Gaza strip whilst serving in the elite Golani unit protecting the citizens of Israel. He was laid to rest at the Mount Herzl Cemetery, where his family, his parents on their first visit to Israel, were joined by thousands of fellow Jews from across the political, religious and ethnic spectrum from all over Israel and abroad who came to pay tribute to his memory and his heroism. They came to pay their last respects to someone who “walked the walk” of Zionism. Max’s name and deeds will live into eternity. On his tombstone is one of Max’s favourite Bob Marley quotes:
Live for yourself and you will live in vain. Live for others and you will live again.
Max felt that Zionism gave his life meaning. It was something for which he had a whole-hearted enthusiasm. It made him proud to be a Jew and it makes us proud. In Judaism, it is not important how long one lives but rather what does with the life one lives. Max Steinberg packed more meaning into his 24 years than most people manage in a lifetime. As Billy Joel wrote, “only the good die young.”
Much has been made of the fact that Max went on a Birthright trip and that is where he found what he believed in and acted on it. As a guide for Birthright since its inception (and a former lone soldier in a combat unit) I can say that the only “agenda” of Birthright is to try and foster the participants with a positive connection to their land and heritage. Most participants come away from a Birthright experience and realize that is not a burden to be a Jew but rather a privilege. Max and his two siblings travelled together on their first Israel trip on Birthright. As his mother, Evie recalled:
Max fell in love with the land of Israel and it’s people. He loved how casual it was, as that was Max. He could care less about material things. If he could live in jeans, shorts and t-shirts, he was a happy camper. He loved the land. Israel had mountains, beaches and deserts. He really connected. Every picture I saw of him was with that infamous smile. The kids really bonded with their tour guide and counselors. There were also a few IDF soldiers on their trip that Max especially bonded with.
One of the ways this connection is made is through the Mifgash. “Mifgash” is the loosely translated Hebrew word for a “meeting,” that is in this case a direct physical encounter between Israeli and American peers during the Israel trip. The Mifgash enables Israelis and Americans an opportunity to spend time getting to know one another in both formal and informal settings. This is seen as a crucial aspect of the Birthright agenda. The Mifgash is a uniquely effective pedagogical tool for increasing the participants’ understanding of one another. It is a structured encounter between individuals and also, a meeting of two worlds.
Max, after meeting these special young men and women, and hearing the stories of those who gave their lives for our freedom during the visit to Mt. Herzl decided that passive Judaism is an oxymoron. He realised that “to Jew is to do!” He was inspired by the words of another American Lone Soldier, Michael Levin, who gave his life for the defence of Israel in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War. Michael wrote: “You can’t fulfill your dreams unless you dare to risk it all.”
Max died as he lived, leading by dugma ishit (“personal example”). Zionism gave a meaning to his life and he gave a meaning to Zionism by his life, and ultimately with his life. It does not matter how long one lives, what matters is what one does with ones life. Max lived a full life with no regrets. May his life and memory be for a blessing. His mother Evie wrote:
Max was always my hero, but now he a hero to millions of people in Israel, and to Jews throughout the world. It wasn’t until Max died that we learned what an impact Max had on so many, and that he continues to have on many others. I have met several of these individuals in person, and hear from many, many others be it by letter, email, social media etc… The pain of losing our son and brother will never, ever go away. I think and ache for him 24/7, but I take comfort in knowing that he is a hero and role model for others. He made a difference.
The public is invited to a memorial service for the ninth yarzheit of Max Steinberg this Thursday 20 July, 2023 at 6pm at Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, Section 4 Row 7