Mother of Max Steinberg, an American killed fighting Hamas, tells his story


In this June 2012 photo courtesy of his family, Max Steinberg, right, poses while on a trip to Israel with his siblings Paige Steinberg and Jake Steinberg. (Courtesy of Stuart Steinberg via Associated Press)

Max Steinberg never wanted to step foot on Israeli soil.

In early 2012, Steinberg's siblings, Jake and Paige, were planning to take a free 10-day trip to Israel sponsored by a private foundation, but Max wasn't interested.

"Max didn't want to go at first," his mother said in an interview Monday, adding that when her son made up his mind about something, it was usually hard to convince him otherwise.

Still, the family tried; it was a free trip to Israel, relatives told him, so why not go? Eventually, he changed his mind — and his life would never be the same.

By the fall of 2012, Steinberg would move to Israel and become a sharpshooter in one of the Israel Defense Forces' most elite units, the Golani Brigade. On Sunday, he was killed — one of two Americans to die on the deadliest day of the ongoing Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Evie and Stuart Steinberg, his parents, are now preparing to take their own first trip to Israel, in some ways retracing their son's steps. Just as Max did, they will go to Israel's national cemetery at Mount Herzl. There, they will lay their son to rest with Israel's war dead.

"We feel it will be the right place for him," Evie Steinberg said Monday from Los Angeles, where the family was finalizing plans to fly to Israel. "Now, when other people come to visit, he's there. Maybe he'll touch someone."

It was in that place, among the flower-lined memorials and meticulously maintained graves that Max saw the resting place of an American "lone soldier" who died fighting for Israel. It was there that he decided that Israel was where he wanted to be.

"When he was there, he was very moved by it," Evie Steinberg said. "He fell in love with the state of Israel."

When he returned from his birthright trip to Los Angeles, community college couldn't hold his attention, and his "free spirit" chafed against the constraints of city life, his mother recalled.

So Max left for Israel, where he had no family or friends. (He also didn't speak Hebrew well, his mother said.) There, he joined the military — creating anxiety back home.

"As a mother, you're fearful; I was hesitant because it was such a volatile place," Evie Steinberg said, recalling speaking to her son on Skype and hearing bombs explode in the background during Israel's 2012 Gaza offensive. "We just kind of weren't sure."

But, she said: "When Max wants something, you can't change his mind. He's a go-getter — doesn't take no for an answer."

At 24, Steinberg was inexperienced but eager. In just two short years, Evie Steinberg said, he went from sheltering in the hallways as bombs fell nearby in Gaza to being on the front lines of a new conflict. He was passionate about serving in the Golani forces, his mother said — more than he'd ever been about academics back home.

Still, this was his first war.

"We don't know what the impact of serving in this particular war would have done with regards to his future," his father said. "It's a whole other situation when you're actually in combat."

Max called home for the last time Saturday, in the dead of the night. He was returning to combat after an accident took his unit off the front lines for a short time.

"He told me he loved me and he's going back in but he'll be home," Evie Steinberg recalled. "He went in, came back out and went back in because he felt that's where he belonged."

[RELATED: How can Americans be fighting for Israel in Gaza? Some background.]

Abby Phillip is a general assignment national reporter for the Washington Post. She can be reached at abby.phillip@washpost.com. On Twitter: @abbydphillip
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