Steven Sotloff and I grew up miles apart in Miami and immigrated to Israel in the same year, but our first encounter took place in a smoky bar in Beirut, while on assignment covering the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon. We both loved the Middle East and the Arabic language and had an intense desire to reveal to the world the injustices that common citizens on the ground were facing as a result of radical Islamic terror.
It was a tumultuous time in the region and Lebanon was flooded with a slew of demonstrations triggered by the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and honestly there was no other place we would rather have been.
I'll never forget his smile and the mischievous twinkle in his eye. We shared a bottle of single malt whiskey and a Cuban cigar and joked (even reveled) about how two American Israeli Jewish journalists were inconspicuously camping out in a remote watering hole, in Lebanon of all places, and how dangerous and even illegal it was. He shared his war stories from covering the uprisings in Egypt, where he was briefly arrested, to his adventures in Syria, where he realized that, "I have to believe there is good somewhere in this world of darkness that we live in." He shared with me that it was never about breaking the big story or getting to hard-to-reach officials. "I learned Arabic, so that I could speak with the common people," he said. "I want nothing more than to share the stories of the untold to the people of the West."
As we spoke further, we realized that we had much more in common than we could ever imagine. We both studied journalism, were affiliated with the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, loved Dave Mathews Band and Pink Floyd, but more importantly, we figured out what our respective callings were earlier than most and decided to pursue them with vigor. All we wanted to do was write stories and travel to places others wouldn't dream of, to lend a voice to those who had none, and to serve as their lifeline to the world.
As we all know, Steve lost his lifeline when he was beheaded by ISIS terrorists in a video released Tuesday, after being held captive in Syria for a year.
Steve's 2013 August capture reads like one of his nail-biting articles, with only bits and pieces recently being revealed to the world. Following his kidnapping, a small group of his friends and associates raced to systematically remove any reference online to his Israeli and Jewish roots. The U.S. and Israeli media agreed to cooperate in concealing this information, in order not to further jeopardize his life.
Sources in this inner circle have hinted that much more of Steve's story is yet to come.
Yet, today came some relief for those that knew and loved him. At a memorial service in Miami, we remembered Steve not for how he met his death but how he conquered life. He would have been so proud. There were seven homeland security units, the world media, two governors, one mayor and a senator.
Who would have thought, Steve, that after all the stories you chased in your career that you would end up being the world story of the moment, and even more so that you managed to share your voice even in death?
The most poignant moment in the service was when Steve's aunt read a letter Steve had written in May, smuggled out of captivity by a former cell mate before his death.
"Please know I'm OK. Live your life to the fullest and fight to be happy. Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one." He went on to write, "I hope to see you soon. Stay positive and patient. If we are not together again, perhaps God will reunite us in Heaven."
A sheet printed with lyrics from the song "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd was handed out to guests. "We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year ... wish you were here," reads part of the song. Sotloff's sister, Lauren, chose the song and played it for the congregation to hear. Poignant doesn't begin to describe the moment.
The rabbi reminded everyone that life is how we spend that dash between our birth year and our death date.
Steve, your dash may have been shorter than we had hoped, but to me it was an Olympic sprint. You were committed to the truth. You chose to venture to the most dangerous places on the planet because sharing the story was worth the risk of your own mortality. You unmasked the evils of our world today and you stared at it straight in the face. And you truly loved doing it.
Today, I say goodbye to you, my old friend, and I am so amazed how you have lived on so powerfully in death.
We will always have Beirut. Rest peacefully, and know I will continue to lend a voice to those without one. For you.