Max Steinberg hadn’t intended to set foot on Israeli soil.
In early 2012, his younger siblings Jake and Paige were planning to take a free 10-day trip to Israel sponsored by a private foundation, but Steinberg wasn’t interested.
“Max didn’t want to go at first,” his mother, Evie Steinberg, said in an interview Monday.
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 an elite Israel Defense Forces unit, the Golani Brigade.
On Sunday, Steinberg, 24, was killed — one of two Americans to die on the deadliest day of this year’s Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip.
The other was 21-year-old Sean Carmeli, a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who was also known by his Hebrew name, Nissim.
“To me, he had a gentle soul — he didn’t seem like a fighter,” said Rabbi Asher Hecht, co-director of Chabad of the Rio Grande Valley Texas, who first met a 10-year-old Carmeli at a summer camp. “He was a soldier who was trained well and prepared for the worst, and he also had a very gentle side of him.”
Sunday brought more tragedy and bloodshed for both sides of the conflict: More than 100 Palestinians were killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, and the Israel Defense Forces lost 13 soldiers in four separate incidents.
The IDF has not released specific information about the circumstances of Carmeli’s and Steinberg’s deaths.
There is a long history of Americans serving in the IDF, both with and without Israeli citizenship.
Steinberg, a Los Angeles native, had no family in Israel and didn’t visit the country until the birthright trip, which reconnected him with his Jewish heritage. Texas-born Carmeli had Israeli-born parents who traveled between the United States and Israel for work. He moved from South Padre Island to Raanana, Israel, to finish his high school education, then joined the army.
Israelis older than 18 are required to serve in their military, so young Americans living in the country with dual citizenship must do so as well. Being conscripted or volunteering for service isn’t illegal under U.S. law.
“Can’t believe I’m joining the army in 7 hours. . . . Good bye freedom see u in 3 years,” Carmeli wrote on Facebook.
He died Sunday with only about eight months of his three-year army commitment remaining.
“We were always talking about taking trips after the army, about going to South America, and we had just spoke about it two weeks ago,” said his close friend Seth Greenberg, who took the same high school class for new immigrants in Israel.
Greenberg wrote to Carmeli on Thursday, “once I knew they were going to be sent into the field. I told him I loved him and told him to be safe. He wrote me back on Friday morning saying he loved me, too, and that he would do his best to take care.”
That was the last time Greenberg heard from Carmeli.
In Los Angeles on Monday, Evie and Stuart Steinberg were preparing to take their own first trip to Israel, where they will lay their son to rest with Israel’s war dead at the national cemetery at Mount Herzl.
“We feel it will be the right place for him,” Evie Steinberg said. “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 Steinberg saw the resting place of an American “lone soldier” who died fighting for Israel. It was there that Steinberg decided that Israel was where he wanted to be, his mother said.
“When he was there, he was very moved by it. He fell in love with the state of Israel,” she said.
When he returned from his birthright trip, community college couldn’t hold Max’s attention, and his “free spirit” chafed against the constraints of city life, his mother recalled.
So he left for Israel, where he had no family or friends, and joined the military — creating anxiety back home.
“I was hesitant because it was such a volatile place,” Evie Steinberg said, recalling talking with her son on Skype and hearing bombs exploding in the background during Israel’s 2012 offensive.
Steinberg was passionate about serving in the Golani forces, his family said. 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,” said his father, Stuart Steinberg. “It’s a whole other situation when you’re actually in combat.”
Max called home Saturday, in the dead of the night. He was returning to combat after an accident took his unit off the front lines. It’s where he belonged, he told his parents.
“He told me he loved me,” Evie Steinberg said, “and he’s going back in, but he’ll be home.”
Eglash reported from Jerusalem. Dan Lamothe and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.