“I am the mother of Steven Joel Sotloff, who was brutally murdered Sept. 2, 2014, by ISIL. The anniversary of his death is coming up and we would like to write an obituary.”
Since their son was beheaded in a video broadcast to the world, the Sotloff family has grieved privately, working quietly on memorials and scholarships in their son’s memory.
They haven’t spoken much about their son or their own lives after the horror of his murder by an Islamic State executioner. But with the pain and anger still raw, Shirley and Arthur Sotloff feel the U.S. government didn’t do enough to bring Steven home alive.
As the milestone of his death approaches, the Pinecrest couple reached out to the Miami Herald to tell the story of their son, a freelance journalist who covered the Middle East, and the work they have undertaken to honor his life.
They remember Steven as a creative boy who grew up to be independent and passionate about his craft. They have shared his eloquent and subtle farewell to his family. They spoke of his important work in the Middle East. They described their determination to help others. And they told of their pain over the past year.
The couple, along with family friends, created the 2Lives Steven Joel Sotloff Memorial Foundation to endow scholarships to students seeking careers in journalism. In mid-September, the Village of Pinecrest, in partnership with the Miami Foundation and Home Depot, will open the Steven Sotloff Memorial at Pinecrest Gardens.
Steven Joel Sotloff worked so hard, for so little — “my son didn’t even make enough money to do a tax return; he was making $150 an article,” his father says — that his life and passion for telling stories had to be honored in some way. And so, the foundation, the memorial, the conversation.
Few can comprehend what his family has gone through since Sept. 2, 2014.
Said Steven’s father: “He was my best friend. We were very close. We understood each other. Instead of father and son, we were more like brothers and friends. We knew a lot about each other. I confided in him, he confided in me, which, at the time, I didn’t think that was that normal to do.”
But that, he says, was Steven Sotloff, a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, who often had to hide his Jewish identity as he traveled through some of the world’s harshest places.
“Whenever he went into a place ... he was looking for the story of the people who were suffering there. He wasn’t reporting about anything else; he was reporting about the bread lines,” Arthur says from a small dining room table, tucked off the kitchen, and once the site of many conversations between father and son.
“A lot of correspondents couldn’t connect to people and he would sit with them, one on one, and they’d open up to him. He was very good at that,” Arthur says.
Steven Joel Sotloff, born at South Miami Hospital on May 11, 1983, became a household name on Sept. 2, 2014.
On that day, a video of Sotloff, 31, grandson of Holocaust survivors, freelance writer for various publications, including Time and The Christian Science Monitor, was posted to the Internet by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The grisly footage opens with a taunt directed at President Barack Obama and then reveals Steven, kneeling, as he is beheaded by a shrouded member of the radical al-Qaida-inspired militant group. The murder happened less than two weeks after American journalist James Foley was decapitated by the group.
Steven, who spoke fluent Arabic, was kidnapped 13 months earlier at a false government checkpoint near Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Steven had crossed into Syria from Turkey to cover the Syrian civil war; the Islamic State had set up the checkpoint.
His last Twitter post to his 1,500 followers, about his beloved Miami Heat, was posted on Aug. 3, 2013, a day before his kidnapping: “How much of an impact with [sic] big man #GregOden have with #MiamiHeat next season?’’
For a year, aside from one phone call in December 2013, and a smuggled letter in June 2014, the Sotloffs never heard from their son again.
A year after his death, family members remember Steven’s spirit in the Pinecrest home where he grew up with his parents and younger sister, Lauren.
As a boy, Sotloff wrote horror stories and drew monster books.
“He had a lot of imagination,” his father says. “He talked about Steven Spielberg a lot. He always wanted to meet Steven Spielberg. I just think he found pleasure and sanction in writing stories.”
“We realized we had a complex child on our hands,” Arthur says, chuckling softly. “He was very mischievous,” Shirley says. “I was very proud of him.”
Steven’s parents figured boarding school would be best to instill discipline during his formative years. He went to Rumsey Hall School in Connecticut and then to high school at Kimball Union Academy, a New Hampshire prep school where he played on the football and rugby teams.
“It was good for him to go away to school,” says Shirley. “That’s what made him independent, going to all those schools.”
He threw himself into socializing and school activities. He joined his school’s theater group and revamped the school paper, Kimball Union.
“His nickname was The Brain in high school and college,” Arthur says. “He was very big on sports and sports statistics, very knowledgeable. He was on the debate team. If he said something, he always knew that it was right. If you went to look it up, it would be there.”
After Kimball, Steven enrolled in 2002 at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. There, he wrote for the student-run weekly newspaper, Central Florida Future.
Like many Jewish college students, he took an educational trip to Israel sponsored by the Taglit-Birthright Israel Foundation in 2005. After that trip, he told his parents he was dropping out of UCF, just shy of 15 or so credits, to move to a Tel Aviv suburb to major in counterterrorism and government studies at the Interdisciplinary Center Hirzliya.
“I always told him to follow his dream, whatever he wanted to do. Of all the things he studied, journalism was the least thing he wanted to pursue and yet, later in life, that’s what he did. He became a profound writer. He touched places that a lot of people didn’t touch,” Arthur says.
Steven graduated from IDC in 2008, cum laude, and returned home to Pinecrest.
Back home, Steven engaged in 20-something pursuits with friends and family. He followed the Dave Matthews Band, Phish, the Grateful Dead, O.A.R.
“He would watch Jeopardy with my mother and he knew all the answers,” says Shirley.
“You couldn’t talk during Jeopardy,” Lauren, 29, says, remembering her brother’s admonishments. “He was just really a good person, always into music and always there for people. He’s my best friend.”
Time publishes Benghazi story
Steven returned to the Middle East in 2010, yearning to tell its stories. He wrote from Bahrain. Covered the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in December 2010. Filed stories from Cairo. Libya. Benghazi.
On Oct. 21, 2012, Time published his story “The Other 9/11: Libyan Guards Recount What Happened in Benghazi” about the attack on the U.S. consulate.
Steven’s recount begins:
“At around 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2012, the four guards at the compound entrance — Nasser, Ubayd, Abdullah and Anwar — were casually eating sandwiches and talking about a recent soccer game, trying to pass the time on another monotonous night of watch duty. This one seemed no different from the others before: days and nights staring at the high walls that obscured the luxury villas in the posh Benghazi neighborhood where the American mission was located. But on this night, the silence of the secluded streets was dramatically shattered.”
Home, then back
Steven briefly returned home in early 2013, but again went to the Middle East.
A year after his death, Steven’s presence looms large in his boyhood home.
His pictures hang on the walls of the living room, the kitchen and a spare bedroom: Steven at age 8 at the local JCC. A teenager whitewater rafting in Colorado. A young boy posed with retired Miami Heat basketball player Rory Sparrow. A larger framed photograph sticks to the kitchen wall, with a more recent image of a bespectacled adult in a blue shirt. This one contains Steven’s last message to his parents — in a letter he smuggled out to them via hostages from other countries who had been released.
Two Lives message
The Sotloffs received the letter in June 2014.
“Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize that you only have one. Hug each other every day. Don’t fight over stupid things.”
“In that letter he was saying goodbye,” Arthur says. “He knew he wasn’t going to make it out because he was told that every day that he wouldn’t by his captors and he was telling us to go on with our lives. It was kind of a blueprint for the way Jews are supposed to live.”
Today, through the letter and their conversation, the Sotloffs share their son.
“People all over the world seem to know who my son is,” Arthur says as he turns the pages of an album that includes letters from elected officials and world leaders. Sen. Marco Rubio, who shipped the U.S. flag that flew over the Capitol to the Sotloffs. Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Pope Francis.
There’s no joy to be taken from these artifacts or the awards he earned. Arthur and Shirley Sotloff’s son is dead. And no one can say for certain when, exactly, that happened. “There is no closure if there is no body,” says Shirley, a teacher at Temple Beth Am Day School.
“We don’t have Steven,” Arthur, a salesman, adds. “Steven is in a desert somewhere, laying in pieces with thousands of other people that have been killed. We’ll probably never get his remains back, so that means we won’t get the closure most people get when they lose somebody. This has been very difficult.”
When the video was released, days after Shirley released her own video pleading with the Islamic State to spare their son, the couple crashed.
“I was doing 150 miles-per-hour and hit a wall,” Arthur says.
“We were in shock,” Shirley says.
“Shirley comes from a Holocaust-surviving family so we always knew and thought Steven comes from survivors’ blood, that he was going to make it out, and not once did we ever think it would end this way. When he was alive we weren’t allowed to raise money to save my son. But now that he’s gone I can raise as much money as I can for his legacy. I see something wrong with that philosophy,” Arthur says, still angry at the Obama administration.
So they threw themselves into the 2Lives Foundation, hoping to attract volunteers and donors.
“We haven’t stopped,” Shirley says.
“It’s probably a good thing because it’s occupied our minds and our time,” Arthur says.
Pinecrest Gardens Memorial
Soon, their attention will turn to The Steven Sotloff Pinecrest Memorial, which is tentatively slated for a Sept. 12 public unveiling at Pinecrest Gardens.
“This memorial is very important because that will be a place that I will be able to go and pay my respects to my son,” Arthur says.
Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner understands. Her husband Irv’s parents, like Shirley’s, survived the Holocaust. The Lerners and Sotloffs are longtime friends. The Lerners’ oldest daughter, Jill, was a childhood friend of Steven’s, their birthdays a few months apart.
“When Steven was going back and forth and writing these stories, his parents were always very proud of the journalist integrity that he showed and the commitment he showed by being able to write about across-the-world crisis situations,” Lerner says.
The public memorial, Lerner said, will be meaningful for the community.
“The design was something down to the types of plants and colors that Shirley and Art felt would allow for a thoughtful setting to think about Steven. The hope is that who he was and what his life meant to all of us is something that will hopefully inspire others to speak up for some of the tragic consequences of what goes on in the world.”
The Sotloffs have other ideas for the 2Lives Foundation, too. In addition to journalism scholarships, they’re thinking of pairing with Diane Foley, mother of James Foley, to establish a hostage crisis center for families in the United States.
“The U.K. has a crisis place for families to go to. The U.S. has nothing,” Shirley says.
“I want enough money to build an organization,” Arthur says, slapping his hand on the dining table. “I’m 68 years old. How many more years do I have?
“Twenty years from now I want to make sure my son’s name is remembered by doing good things.”
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.
Honoring Steven Sotloff
The 2Lives Steven Joel Sotloff Memorial Foundation was established by Steven’s family to create endowed scholarships to students seeking a career in journalism. To donate or to volunteer visit http://2livesfoundation.org/
Steven Sotloff Memorial: Pinecrest Gardens, 11000 Red Rd., plans to open its public memorial to Sotloff on Sept. 12. Call 305-669-6990.