Joel Haber
Tour Guide, Comic, Foodie, Israel-Lover

Today I Am Israeli

After making Aliyah almost 5 1/2 years ago, I began making my way as a new Israeli, an oleh chadash. By virtually any account, I have had a very smooth klitah (absorption) into my new home country.

I have tons of new friends. My Hebrew skills, while far from perfect, are advanced enough that I can have long conversations with only the occasional “eich omrim… (“how do you say…”) thrown in. I’ve successfully established myself in a new career that I love. And as a professional tour guide, I feel that I also am providing a service to Israel — a service I failed to provide as a soldier, having made aliyah when I was too old to join the IDF.

And yet, it was only today, on a bucolic hillside in Jerusalem, that I felt my klitah was complete. Joining a crowd of around 30,000 other Israelis at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery, I went to pay my final respects to Max Steinberg, a chayal boded (lone soldier) who tragically had his life taken from him this past Sunday in Gaza.

Israelis of all stripes come out to pay final respects to fallen Lone Soldier Max Steinberg
Israelis of all stripes come out to pay final respects to fallen Lone Soldier Max Steinberg

I decided to attend the funeral because I wanted to at least pay my respects to one of the soldiers who gave their lives to defend my country. And somehow I felt a certain connection with Max. He was a native of Los Angeles, the city from which I made aliyah. And knowing he had no family here, I felt a further sense of obligation. I knew of course that thousands of others would turn up, but I still knew I had to be there personally.

And as I stood there today, surrounded by my people — Israelis of all ages and backgrounds — I listened to the kaddish, the el maleh rachamim, and the various eulogies in English and Hebrew. The first tears to well up in my eyes followed a distinct thought in my mind: that could have been me.

Not that many people know this, but when I came to Israel to study in yeshiva for my gap year before university, I at one point called my parents to tell them I’d made a serious decision. “I’ve really given this a lot of thought, and I know how serious a decision it is. But I think I want to do machal next year.” I explained that Machal was a program for foreigners who wanted to serve in the army. Though my parents maintained outward calm (or was it shock?) on the phone, in reality they were (to put it mildly) freaking out. They convinced me to give it a day or two before I made any final decisions, and promised to call me back.

Long story short, they convinced me not to enter the army at that time, saying I could always do it later if I really wanted to. And I guess the fact that they convinced me so easily meant that I wasn’t serious enough about it.

But today at Max’ funeral, I couldn’t help but think that if I hadn’t heeded their pleas, I would’ve entered the army, and could’ve easily been counted among Israel’s fallen Lone Soldiers.

Then an even more horrible thought came to mind. I thought of my dear nephew Moshe, the oldest of my nephews, who is studying right now in a Yeshivat Hesder, and who will be entering the army next winter. He will be the first member of our family to serve in the army, and while I will be immensely proud of him (and already am, as I am of his sisters who performed national service), I also know the seriousness of what it means that he is entering Tzahal.

And then, once the Steinberg family began talking about Max, the tears began streaming down my face.

It was then, as I stood there crying alongside so many other mourners, that I finally felt like an Israeli.

I kept hearing more and more points of connection or overlap between Max and I. He was born in November 1989, just a few months after I graduated high school, and just months after I began my gap year program. Everyone spoke of his smile and his “big” personality, things that I suspect most would say about me as well. His decision to move here and join the army came on a Birthright trip, particularly when hearing the story of another fallen chayal boded, Michael Levin, buried just a few rows away from where Max was laid to rest today. I, as a tour guide, have brought tourists to that very grave, and told over the story of Michael Levin, trying to inspire in them a connection to Israel.

A sign hanging at the cemetery today, it reads, "Max Steinberg of Blessed Memory: Your death commands us to live. The Nation of Israel loves you. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life."
A sign hanging at the cemetery today, it reads, “Max Steinberg of Blessed Memory: Your death commands us to live. The Nation of Israel loves you. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life.”

Many incredibly moving things were said by many people at the funeral today. But one that sticks out in my mind came from Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who pointed out that Max (an American immigrant) was buried between two other soldiers who fell during this operation, one who was Moroccan and another who was Ethiopian. And later today there was to be another funeral for a fallen soldier of Russian descent. And there I stood, an American immigrant myself, surrounded by Israelis of all types. Old and young. Sabras and immigrants from all over the world. Religious and secular. We all came out because we all recognized that Max was literally part of our family. (And when I say literally here, I mean it truly literally, not figuratively.)

Max, so many of your eulogizers mentioned your love of Bob Marley. And so I feel I too should include a quote. I imagine you in shamayim looking down at us surrounded by two other little birds, singing, “This is my message to you: Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing is gonna be alright!”

And Max, I don’t only want to thank you for the service you gave to our country. You gave the ultimate that anyone could give, and I am certain you died with no regrets about your decision to come here and defend us. But I also want to thank you for being a part of my family, though I never met you personally. I am sure we would have gotten along wonderfully, and listened to lots of Bob Marley songs together. And I finally want to thank you for doing something you probably never imagined you could have done.

Thank you for making me an Israeli.

About the Author
Joel Haber (aka Fun Joel) is a licensed Israel Tour Guide. Born and raised in New Jersey, he spent many great years in NYC, and a few more in LA before making Aliyah in 2009. Interests include Israel, food, and making people happy.