Murdered Miami freelance journalist Steven Sotloff sent messages to his family from inside his year-long captivity held by Islamic radicals in Syria and studied Spanish and Italian to remain hopeful, speakers revealed at his memorial service Friday.
“Please know I’m OK,” Sotloff told his family around the time of his 31st birthday through fellow prisoners who got out. “Live your life to the fullest and fight to be happy.”
The ceremony at Temple Beth Am in his home town of Pinecrest, attended by about a thousand people, was more of a celebration of his life than a meditation on his death. It was a two-hour service that functioned as a funeral for the Miami man who was shown beheaded on a videotape released Tuesday by the Islamic State in Syria. His remains have not been recovered.
“Steven believed deeply that all people were created in the image of God, the One God of all humanity,” said the synagogue’s rabbi, Terry Bookman, who ministered to the Sotloff family mostly in secret during his hidden year of captivity. “We may call him Adonai, while others call upon him as Jesus or Allah. But Steven knew we all have one Father, which makes us one family on earth.”
The large Reform synagogue expanded its sanctuary to nearly triple its typical Sabbath accommodation, with most of the 1,000 seats filled with congregants, politicians, family friends and journalists who remembered the freelance writer for the Jerusalem Report and Time magazine as drawn to the victims of conflict.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who a family friend said helped during the dark year when Sotloff’s kidnapping was a secret, said his death demonstrated that, even seven decades after Sotloff’s grandparents survived the Holocaust, “Evil is still here.”
Bookman eulogized Sotloff as a “an idealistic young man whose only desire in his journalistic efforts was to bring a human face to the conflict.”
Synagogue preschool teacher Shirley Sotfloff, the slain man’s mother, looked less like the haunted woman who had appealed in a videotape to “the Caliph” of the Islamic State to spare her son’s life.
“I’m so proud of my son for living his dream,” she said. “He will always be in my heart and my memories.”
She recalled him as an “extremely inquisitive” child who went on Birthright, a pilgrimage trip to Israel, after freshman year at the University of Central Florida.
The experience drew Sotloff back to the Middle East, first as an Israeli citizen and also as what the rabbi called “an Islamophile,” by honing his skills with a bachelor’s degree in government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, a private college where his mother said he studied counterterrorism.
Her husband, Arthur Sotloff, gave her a peck on the forehead before paying his own respects, his voice cracking with emotion. “I know that his passing will change the world. He’s in God’s arms now. He’s not suffering anymore.”
Halfway around the world, the elder Sotloff’s prediction seemed to be coming true. In Wales, where NATO officials were conferring at a summit meeting, President Barack Obama said the United States would join with nine other nations in a coalition to battle the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, the jihadist quasi-state that killed Sotloff.
Worshipers sniffled and sang along to Sotloff’s kid sister Lauren’s selected music, Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. And there were gasps from the audience when a cousin read excerpts of what she described as passages from a letter Sotloff wrote in May in captivity, smuggled to his family from escaped cellmates:
“Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one,” said one.
“If we’re not together again perhaps God will be merciful enough to reunite us in heaven,” said another.
People familiar with the case and the yearlong struggle to save Sotloff would not explain after the service how that happened, or how the family got insight into the kidnapped Israeli-American’s conditions.
But Barak Barfi, a friend of Sotloff’s, mentioned in his eulogy that his friend, who “ached when others suffered,” had impressed other hostages in the “dark cells” with his “psychological strength” that “helped others cope with their challenges.”
Rabbi Bookman explained later that Sotloff learned Spanish and Italian because he was held with Italian and Spanish journalists. Barfi elaborated: “He was always intellectually trying to learn more.”
It was a wrenching ceremony that did not once mention the manner of his murder or the message his captors had him recite in the videotape that disclosed his death to the world.
Instead, speaker after speaker provided descriptions of a fun-loving man, the one who popped up at a cousin’s Bar Mitzvah at Jerusalem’s Western Wall in 2009 — and was a diehard Miami Dolphins fan.
Several people said Sotloff dreamed of one day coming home to Pinecrest, opening a restaurant, marrying and giving his parents grandchildren.
Rubio told the crowd he never met Steven Sotloff. But, the senator said, “He was one of us. He lived on our streets. He shared our common pain that was the Dolphin pain.”
Many of the mourners were clad in black and spanned the generations. Few wanted to talk to journalists; those who did expressed an ineffable sadness.
“I just hope he didn’t die in vain,” said one, Rona Kritzer of Miami, whose children went to pre-school with Sotloff at the synagogue where his funeral was held.
Besides Rubio, mourners included former Gov. Charlie Crist, Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart and Gov. Rick Scott, who ordered flags in Florida lowered to half-staff on Friday.
WLRN reporter Nadege Green contributed to this story.