Before Miami's Steven Sotloff Was Executed by ISIS, He Risked Everything for the Truth
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Early the morning of August 4, 2013, Steven Sotloff walked across the border from southern Turkey into Syria. He passed through three security checkpoints, then a no man's land between the two countries, on a road surrounded by olive groves, yellow flowers, and leftover mines. Sotloff, a stocky, bearded 30-year-old journalist and Miami native, was headed to Aleppo, some 40 miles south, to cover the two-year-old civil war. He expected to be back in a few days.
The trip would be his last to Syria. He was thinking of returning home soon and maybe applying to graduate school.
Around 10 a.m., he met his fixer and translator, Yosef Abobaker, just inside the border. Abobaker arrived in a yellow Nissan microbus with his brother and two cousins, who would serve as security guards. The journalist took a seat on the middle bench and the Nissan drove off, but after only ten minutes, the vehicle stopped. Three black luxury station wagons were parked along the narrow highway. As the microbus approached, roughly 20 men, clutching Kalashnikovs and wearing black turbans around their faces, exited the cars and lined up across the road.
"When I saw them," Abobaker tells New Times, "I took my handgun — I'm thinking to shoot. But if I shoot, they will kill everybody."
The men yanked open the Nissan's doors and pulled out the occupants. "Who are you?" Abobaker yelled in Arabic. "What do you want?"
"Us kut!" one man yelled back. "Shut up! Don't talk!"
The militants ripped off the men's shirts and wrapped them tightly around their faces. They ordered Sotloff, Abobaker, and one of Abobaker's cousins into the back of one station wagon and the remaining three men into another. The cars sped off, and the kidnappers demanded that Abobaker and Sotloff keep their eyes shut. When the translator tried to ask a question, a militant smacked him hard in the head with a handgun. "Shut up!"
After an hour, the station wagon stopped. The three captives were ordered out and marched into a building, where their shoes and possessions were confiscated. Then they were separated into small rooms with concrete floors. Sotloff was placed in a room across from Abobaker's. The translator heard one of the militants, apparently after having found Sotloff's computer, demand "password" in English. Sotloff answered with a series of numbers. "And that was the last time I hear voice of Steve," Abobaker says.
For the next 12 and a half months, the Miami journalist vanished. On August 19, 2014, he resurfaced, in a video addressed to President Barack Obama. The masked militant subsequently nicknamed Jihadi John was shown sawing into the neck of American journalist James Foley; later the screen cut to Sotloff — kneeling, his hands bound, his head and face shaved, his expression gaunt. Then the London-accented terrorist spoke again. "The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision." Fourteen days later, the Florida journalist was executed on camera. It was ISIS' second murder of an American.
The life and death of Steven Sotloff, a funny, much-beloved middle-class kid from Pinecrest, offers a glimpse of the American connection to the unthinkable tragedy and barbarism still unfolding in the Middle East. Days before her son's murder, Sotloff's soft-spoken mother, Shirley, publicly pleaded for his life. Hours after the video of his beheading surfaced, it emerged that Sotloff was Jewish and a citizen of both Israel and the United States, adding further complexity to his captivity and execution and prompting rumors — not proven — that he was an Israeli spy. He had graduated from a suburban Tel Aviv university and written for Israeli newspapers. He also spoke Hebrew and was the grandson of Holocaust survivors. Sotloff's Jewish identity, by all accounts, was concealed from his terrorist captors, but he was killed anyway.
"He was a good talker," Sotloff's rabbi, Terry Bookman, tells New Times. "I think he felt that, with both his goodwill and personality, he could get in or out of any situation... But in the end, he met the Devil, who couldn't be talked out of anything."
Miriam Ajzenkajt, Sotloff's maternal grandmother, was born in 1921 in Otwock, Poland, a small city just south of Warsaw. She and her family were Hasidic Jews. When the Nazis invaded in 1939, young Miriam was forced into the Otwock ghetto and then passed among five concentration camps and subcamps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau; she survived by hiding in sewers in Warsaw and Prague before finally being liberated by the Americans in 1945.
Within a few years, Miriam had relocated to South Florida, where she lived for decades with her husband, Max Pulwer, another Holocaust survivor. In 1980 the Pulwers' daughter Shirley married Arthur Sotloff, a Philadelphia native. Steven was born in May 1983. A daughter, Lauren, followed three years later, and eventually the family settled into a 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom Pinecrest home with a pool and brick patio. (The Sotloff family declined to speak with New Times.)
Steven attended day school at Temple Beth Am on the synagogue's sprawling 140,000-square-foot campus. When Steven and Lauren were little, Shirley began substitute-teaching their preschool classes (she later became a full-time educator and still teaches there). Steven was sweet and goofy. In a photo of his first-grade class, he stands in back in a white polo shirt. One of the bigger kids, he beams a wide, innocent grin, and his brown hair is uncombed, with a tuft sticking up in the middle.
Sotloff, who grew up in Pinecrest, spent years studying and living in and the Middle East.
Photo via Facebook
As an adolescent, Steven loved reading and told his parents he wanted to travel the world. He was bar mitzvahed at Beth Am in a ceremony officiated by Rabbi Bookman. But Steven was also mischievous and enjoyed challenging authority, so much so that Arthur and Shirley eventually sent him away.
He attended Valley Forge Military Academy & College in Pennsylvania — he ran away from the school at least once — and then transferred to Kimball Union Academy (KUA), a picturesque boarding school in rural New Hampshire with an alumni roster that includes nine congressmen and one governor.
"I always tell people: 'There are two reasons why kids go to boarding school,'" Bookman says. "Either it's a family lineage... or they're not making it in local school. His was the latter. He was creative, thoughtful, but he also [liked to] push the envelope."
In tenth grade, his first year at KUA, Sotloff struggled. He often failed to turn in assignments on time, spoke out in class, and provoked teachers. "He was one of the kids who would always ask, 'Why do I need to know this?'" says Gino Riffle, Sotloff's math teacher and adviser at KUA. "'Why do I need to know what a parabola is? Where is this going to take me?'"
Paul Mountcastle, Steven's English teacher that year, remembers a difficult student who was also endearing. "He was kind of a classic underachiever," Mountcastle says. "He didn't pretend to care that much, and he also never bullshitted." Sotloff would get caught late at night playing videogames and ask Mountcastle if he wanted to join him, or he would flatly admit he hadn't done his homework. He got in trouble often but never made excuses. "And it was for that I really kind of liked him."
In class, Mountcastle also saw glimpses of an extremely promising young mind. Steven's attention was piqued when topics centered on underdogs. When it came times to read The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies, Steven, who otherwise appeared disinterested, read the assignments far ahead of schedule. "He'd come in and start talking about the end of the book, and we're on Chapter 4," Mountcastle says. "It was really exciting to be his teacher — you never knew what you were going to get."
But the troublemaker was also a devoted friend, especially to Haruki Fukuhara, a Japanese student who lived down the dorm hall. Fukuhara struggled with English and often asked classmates to help him interpret homework assignments or polish papers. Others grew annoyed by the requests, but not Sotloff. "Steven was the only one... who helped me with fixing the pitiful essay from the beginning to the end," Fukuhara says.
Steven could be reserved, but he was also a natural storyteller and class clown. At the Halloween dance his first year, he insisted on climbing through a window to pick up his horrified date. During study hall at the library, he drew laughs by performing an Oompa-Loompa dance and rolling down the stairs. In the yearbook he mockingly anointed himself "class thug."
He played football for three years and rugby for one. He wasn't a great athlete but established himself as a key teammate through his outsize energy and enthusiasm.
The last game of his senior year, KUA played Vermont Academy, an archrival the school hadn't beaten in years. Sotloff was a lineman. "He probably played two snaps the entire game," says Riffle, who was an assistant coach. With seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, KUA was down by less than a touchdown, and the offense decided to run something like a triple reverse — "a ridiculous play," Riffle says.
It worked. KUA scored a miraculous 60-yard touchdown, Vermont Academy failed to convert on its last possession, and the KUA bench erupted. Steven rushed the field frantically waving his arms, screaming, and hugging everyone in sight. "He celebrated like we had won the Super Bowl," Riffle remembers.
By Sotloff's junior year, he began taking academics more seriously and writing for the school newspaper, the Kimball Union. But the paper was published only sporadically, so the following summer, Sotloff and another student, Chelsea Leonard, decided to revamp it. They met with faculty and eventually worked out a plan — and funding — for the Union to be printed by the same press that turned out the Valley News, the local newspaper. "[Steven] was really excited about it," Leonard says. "He took it really seriously."
The next fall, Sotloff and Leonard, serving as co-editors, launched an entirely new Kimball Union. The first issue was published October 1, 2001, with a letter from Sotloff about the September 11 attacks. "The World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks opened the doorway to a new era of fear in the world," he wrote. "As a Jew," he continued, "I cannot help but establish an immediate connection between the September 11 attacks and what happens to Jews in Israel."
Sotloff, in addition to covering school news and sports, would go on to write about the U.S. response to the Taliban, the American student visas granted to September 11 pilots, and tensions in India and Pakistan. He frequently sympathized with the plight of Israel and warned of the threat of radicalism, although in one op-ed he took a provocative stance toward John Walker Lindh, the American notorious for joining the Taliban: "I think that Walker is doomed to a maximum sentencing sought by the prosecution because the American people will be too closed-minded about the subject," he wrote. "I hope that you are a little more open-minded about Walker and his dilemma."
That year the paper was widely read and earned high praise from the school's headmaster and teachers. This isn't the same kid I knew as a sophomore, Mountcastle thought.
At the school's graduation concert in spring 2002, Sotloff and Fukuhara performed a rap, incorporating Japanese music and a dance routine. But Sotloff was also becoming more serious about his journalism — and his roots. Tired of the long New Hampshire winters, he enrolled at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando, where he quickly established himself as a top writer at the Central Florida Future, the school's large independent newspaper.
By his third year at the paper, he had earned a position as a senior staff writer. Leading up to the 2004 elections, he wrote a front-page piece about the U.S. Senate primary, and he also dissected rental insurance after a fire ripped through a UCF student's apartment building.
But Steven's real interests were more global. "He was always pushing to cover international stories and political stories," says Heidi Barley, Steven's managing editor at the Future and now a new-media director with ABC Action News in Tampa.
Sotloff enjoyed American college life. He played on the rugby team, spent late nights in videogame football battles, and partied with friends. But in his conversations with Barley, it also became clear he felt constrained. "School felt like a roadblock to him," Barley says, "like he had to get through school and then he could start life."
And for Sotloff, life was happening in the Middle East.
During his sophomore year at UCF, Sotloff traveled to Israel through Taglit-Birthright. The ten-day trips, paid for by the Israeli government and private donors, are intended to reconnect 18-to-26-year-olds with their Jewish roots. Growing up, Sotloff had always been close to his grandmother. His family maintained strong ties to the synagogue, and Steven was bar mitzvahed at age 13 and confirmed at 16.
After visiting his ancestral homeland, though, something clicked. In summer 2005, Sotloff left UCF and enrolled at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC), a private suburban university north of Tel Aviv named for Theodor Herzl, the brain behind the modern Israeli state.
Critical thinking was encouraged, and the South Florida native fit in well. He studied government and foreign affairs and impressed classmates as thoughtful. "He was a straight shooter," says Gregg Roman, who knew Sotloff at the school. "He spoke to the point. He didn't bullshit."
Eventually, Sotloff decided to make aliyah — a relocation from the Jewish diaspora to the homeland — and became an Israeli citizen. He joined a local rugby club, built a core group of friends, and found work in the kitchen of a local bar. He joked with buddies about struggling to find a girlfriend and embraced his scruffy appearance. "He would wear like a tie-dye shirt with a stain on it," says Benny Scholder, Sotloff's best friend in Israel, and then mockingly challenge people to criticize his lack of fashion sense. "'You have a problem with my shirt? Fuck you.'"
In Israel, Sotloff always had questions but was firm in his conviction of Israel's right to statehood — "a skeptical Zionist," Roman says. He grew to consider the country his home, but like many repatriated Jews, he was motivated more by ethnic identity than religion.
He didn't keep kosher or attend synagogue, except sometimes on holidays with friends. Like other IDC students, he openly criticized the Israeli government, often in animated late-night debate. He believed in a two-state solution and was adamant that the government owed better treatment to its non-Jewish population. "Steven was a pluralist," Scholder says, "who felt that more should have been done to advance the peace process and to advance the status of minorities in Israel."
He joined the school's rigorous debate society and gained an uncanny grasp of the region's future. "Steve worried that time was running out," Alisa Peled, Sotloff's adviser at IDC, would later write for a university memorial service, "pointing out that extremism was rising in the region and that Arab society is a pressure cooker waiting to boil over."
After graduating with honors in 2008, Sotloff remained in Israel for several months and then returned to Miami. One day in 2010, he walked into Rabbi Bookman's spacious office at Temple Beth Am. In an hourlong conversation, the younger man said he planned to move back to the Middle East to study Arabic and advance his journalism career. "He talked about his interest in the Muslim world," Bookman says. "He was interested in people, really telling people's stories and giving voice to the voiceless."
With Bookman's blessing, Sotloff moved to Sana'a, Yemen, and enrolled in an Arabic course for foreigners. He grew his beard long, sipped mint tea with tribal elders, and earned a reputation among friends for his prodigious knowledge of the city's street vendors. "Yemen has about a 20-person expatriate community; you go there for full immersion," Ann Marlowe, a writer who befriended Sotloff in that country, told the Australian. "He loved being in a traditional society."
But Sotloff's Jewish heritage posed a safety risk, so he began fibbing that his last name was Chechen and that he had grown up in a secular Muslim home. He also consented to an improvised "conversion" ceremony to continue the ruse, he wrote to his friend Oren Kessler, another Israeli-American journalist. "In Yemen, it's the first question everyone asks," Sotloff wrote. "I 'converted' in my first week so I wouldn't have to deal with all that rubbish. LOL."
In October, after traveling to nearby Bahrain, Sotloff published a piece in the Christian Science Monitor on that country's Shiite majority. The next month, he wrote "What Yemen Wants," a geopolitical analysis in the National Interest.
But just as Sotloff had predicted, the Arab world was about to boil over. On December 18, 2010, a young Tunisian set himself on fire, igniting the Arab Spring. Sotloff quickly departed for Tunisia. Soon he was headed for Cairo after protests erupted there. Then he traveled to Libya.
On a boat between Benghazi and Misrata, Sotloff met Thierry Portes, a seasoned French journalist. The boat was carrying doctors and aid into a war zone, but Portes remembers Sotloff as funny and strikingly comfortable. "He was cool," the French reporter says. "He was not impressed."
Within a few days, Sotloff was on the frontline. Like other reporters, he often jumped into the beds of rebel pickup trucks to hitch rides. Unlike most others, he sometimes stayed overnight. He and Portes had a running joke about Sotloff's uncanny ability to find food at the camps. Once, during the NBA playoffs, Sotloff told Portes he was going to leave their hotel in the middle of the night to find a way to watch the Heat game. "And that's what he did," Portes says.
In August 2012, Sotloff began regularly contributing to Time. In September, he reported on the attack at the American embassy in Benghazi. Days later, he called his friend Sattar Hatita, an Egyptian journalist, to say he had found a security guard from the consulate. Sotloff and Hatita arranged to meet the guard at night on a beach outside the city. The journalists feared they could be walking into a trap. But after an hour, the guard, along with two others, materialized on the beach, and Sotloff and Hatita interviewed the men for two hours. In late October, Time published a blockbuster 2,500-word story written by Sotloff: "The Other 9/11: Libyan Guards Recount What Happened in Benghazi."
By the end of 2012, the civil war in Syria had emerged as the region's worst conflict, and Sotloff traveled to Aleppo to report on the city's humanitarian crisis. In early 2013, he called Scholder, his old friend from IDC. Steven said he sensed this war was different — more intractable, more dangerous. For the first time, Scholder says, Sotloff also expressed fear.
After more than a year in captivity, Sotloff appeared in an August 2014 video of journalist James Foley’s beheading. On September 2, ISIS released a second video (top), showing Sotloff’s murder.
That spring, Sotloff was back in the United States. In May, while visiting Washington, D.C., for a few days, he emailed James Denton, the editor of World Affairs, a right-leaning foreign-policy magazine, and proposed a meeting. Denton agreed to coffee that same afternoon at a place a few blocks from Capitol Hill.
As they sat outside in the sun, Sotloff said he would be traveling to Egypt and Syria and proposed writing a regular blog for the magazine. Denton declined, although he encouraged Sotloff to pitch once abroad. "He wanted to get the story," Denton says. "He really was interested in talking to the ordinary person in the region."
During the meeting, Sotloff was laconic but clearly sure of himself, to the point that Denton was unnerved. "He was very somber," Denton says. "He wasn't giddy about it, but there was a certain sense that 'I know what I'm doing.'"
After 45 minutes, Denton picked up the check and wished the young man luck. "Well, you're a brave guy," he said. Sotloff smiled.
The next few months, Sotloff moved fast. "Hello, James," he wrote to Denton July 8. "I am in Cairo. Would you be interested in a daily blog or some longer pieces, specifically on MB" — the Muslim Brotherhood — "or the Salafists?" Denton agreed to pay $150 for a short piece, and a couple of days later, after spending two days with a Muslim Brotherhood protest camp, Sotloff filed a 600-word blog post.
The next week, he flew to Israel. Scholder was getting married at a kibbutz in Hulda, a centuries-old communal space tucked in a lush forest, and Sotloff had long promised he would attend. He showed up in a navy blue collared shirt and a thick beard while carrying a bottle of single-malt whiskey and an election poster of Mohamed Morsi. "Best wedding gifts ever," Scholder would later say.
But the toll of war reporting was beginning to show. "It was clear that he had not been in happy surroundings for a very long time," Scholder tells New Times.
Finally in a safe environment, an exuberant Sotloff partied until 5 a.m. "Every time you looked at Steve, he was out there dancing," Scholder remembers.
Three days later, Sotloff flew to Turkey. He stayed with Barak Barfi, a Detroit native and Middle East policy expert who in recent years had become his closest friend. The two often traveled together to hot spots and shared a spartan apartment in the south of Turkey between trips. "It was just enough to get the work done," Barfi says. "We had a table, we had a couch, a TV to watch the Arabic news channel."
At the apartment, Sotloff read voraciously. That summer he was immersed in academic volumes about Syria. "Steve wasn't a very flashy guy," Barfi says. "He just liked to do his work."
His work, however, was becoming increasingly dangerous. "It's easy to feel invincible, even with death all around," Sotloff wrote that summer to Janine di Giovanni, a friend and the Middle East editor at Newsweek. "It's like... I'm not gonna die."
On July 31, Sotloff was pepper-sprayed by riot police while attending a demonstration in Antakya, in southern Turkey. The next night, he checked into the Hotel Istanbul, room 303, in Kilis. The hotel, long popular with foreign journalists crossing in and out of Syria, is only about three miles from the border. From its top floors, it was sometimes possible to see billows of smoke from distant airstrikes.
Sotloff arrived in the evening. At the hotel, he met Ben Taub, a young American journalist, and the two decided to head to a nearby bar. Sotloff told Taub he had just stopped in the city to pick up a flak jacket and planned to cross the border the next day. They lingered for hours, downing beers and trading stories. With characteristic dry humor, Sotloff relayed how he was almost killed on an earlier trip to Aleppo. He had been staying with rebels in a house near the frontline when he had to visit the toilet. As he sat on the can, he lit a cigarette. A sniper saw the glow and fired a shot that barely missed. "He was laughing about that," Taub says. "He was like, 'I almost died on the shitter.'"
An Italian journalist who was also at the bar that night, Stefano Stranges, found Sotloff to be impressively calm. "He was like a guy who's used to being in this situation," Stranges says. "He was very relaxed — more than us."
Sotloff mentioned the trip would likely be his last into a war zone. "He'd been beaten up and shot at in Yemen and Egypt and Libya. He'd had issues in Syria," Taub says. "I think he was kind of done with it all."
Sotloff didn't cross the border the next day, as he had planned. Instead, he crossed two days later, the morning of August 4. He met with Abobaker, the fixer, and then immediately checked in with Barfi by phone. But he didn't check in again later that day, as scheduled, and Barfi's repeated attempts to reach him failed. Late that night, Barfi called Arthur Sotloff. Within 24 hours, Barfi says, "it was quite clear" Steven had been taken against his will.
"His father is a very calm person. But everybody is in denial... It's hard to accept your kid has been kidnapped by jihadists."
Once in captivity, Abobaker recognized the building where the men were being held as an old textile factory. From the first room, the fixer was moved to a larger space, and from that room's small window, he could make out a mountain range on the horizon. He guessed they were being held near the city of Hryatan, north of Aleppo.
Twice a day, Abobaker was given a plate of food — boiled potatoes, cucumber and tomato salad, sometimes chicken — and after a week, he was taken to another room and interrogated. The militants asked which media outlets he worked for and if he had worked with women. They accused him of "providing information about the mujahideen" to the FBI and the CIA.
After 12 days, Abobaker, his brother, and cousins were blindfolded and loaded into a car. Abobaker was told that if he were ever caught working with a journalist again, he'd be killed. Then he was released. His nightmare with ISIS was over. But Sotloff's was only beginning.
Although much of the journalist's year of captivity remains unknown, some details have emerged. On Yom Kippur, in mid-September, he lied to his guards, telling them he didn't feel well, so he could secretly observe the traditional Jewish fast. Later that fall, he was taken to a prison beneath the Children's Hospital of Aleppo, and then for a short period moved to a factory outside the city.
By late 2013, ISIS was transferring all of its foreign prisoners to the same impromptu prison underneath the hospital, Rukmini Callimachi reported for the New York Times, and by January 2014, at least 19 foreign men, including Sotloff, were held together in one 215-square-foot cell. Four women, including the American Kayla Mueller, were held in an adjacent cell.
For months the hostages were regularly beaten and tortured. Several converted to Islam, but Sotloff held close to Judaism. He prayed regularly, figuring out the direction toward Jerusalem by watching his captors pray toward Mecca and adjusting the angle. He recited the Shema, the central Jewish prayer. Hear, o Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
Shirley Sotloff, Steven’s mother (bottom), appealed to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, on August 27, 2014.
The terrorists initiated contact with their captives' families by email. Sotloff's disappearance was kept secret outside of a core group of insiders, and allusions to his Judaism — including his mother's bio on the synagogue website — were scrubbed from the internet. Rabbi Bookman, who met regularly with Arthur and Shirley, pressed politicians for a stronger State Department response. "But the U.S. policy is not to negotiate," he says. "There was no way of getting around that."
Abobaker also did his best to inquire about his friend but learned little. From the prison beneath the hospital, the prisoners were moved to Raqqa, a midsize city about 100 miles east of Aleppo that now serves as the capital of the Islamic State, where they were held together in a 20-square-meter cell in a building outside an oil installation.
Throughout the spring, some European governments ultimately agreed to pay multimillion-dollar ransoms. Three Spanish journalists were freed, then four French journalists, then a Dane. One Russian prisoner was dragged outside and shot when no ransom could be secured. The militants filmed the murder and showed the video to the other captives as a warning.
Early the morning of July 3, several American Black Hawk helicopters were deployed, the New Yorker reported in September 2014, and the special forces launched a raid. Two ISIS fighters were killed, but no hostages were found. Sotloff and the others had already been moved.
After eight months of captivity, two letters from Sotloff were smuggled out with a freed prisoner. "Please know that I am OK," he wrote to his family in one. "I love you, miss you, pray for you, and hope to see you soon. If we're not together again, perhaps God will be merciful enough to reunite us in Heaven."
In the other letter, he wrote, "Love and respect each other. Don't fight over nonsense... Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you have only one."
The video showing James Foley's beheading, threatening that Sotloff would be next, appeared August 19. Eight days later, Shirley Sotloff released her own video. In a black suit jacket and glasses, with her auburn hair uncovered, she addressed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. "You, the caliph, can grant amnesty," she said. "As a mother, I ask your justice to be merciful."
Six days later, ISIS released its second video. President Obama is shown declaring his commitment to fighting the Islamic State. Then Sotloff appears, again kneeling in the desert, wearing a tight orange jumpsuit, while Jihadi John stands over him. "I am back, Obama," the militant taunts, raising his knife to the camera. "And I'm back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State." He clasps his hands around Sotloff's neck. In the next shot, Sotloff's body is shown, beheaded.
More than 1,000 people attended the funeral on September 5 at Temple Beth Am. "I'm so proud of my son for living his dream," Shirley Sotloff told mourners. "He will always be in my heart and my memories."
After she spoke, Arthur kissed her forehead. "I want to speak from my heart, but my heart is broken," he said, his voice cracking. "He's not suffering anymore."
On September 11, the Orthodox Synagogue of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills held another memorial service. Sixty or so synagogue members filled the spacious auditorium, and Arthur Sotloff appeared on a large projection screen, connected via Skype from the Sotloffs' Pinecrest living room.
The elder Sotloff wore a black sports coat and narrow glasses. His thin face was weary and sallow — "a father in such terrible pain that you almost had to look away," Suzanne Davidson wrote the next day in the Jewish Journal. As part of a moderated discussion, he spoke "of his son's love for reading as a small child and his desire to see the Seven Wonders of the World."
He explained that some of the escaped prisoners had relayed how Steven would pray inside his cell. But then Arthur had to stop. "I really can't do this," he told the moderator. "It's too soon." He began to speak again but then stood up and walked out of view. In the background, Arthur Sotloff could be heard sobbing.
In the following weeks, the Sotloffs established a foundation to support brave journalists. The Village of Pinecrest announced plans to build a memorial at Pinecrest Gardens. Donations and goodwill poured in from around the world. But for those close to Steven, the grief has been consuming, and so has the anger. "They let my brother rot and die," Lauren Sotloff wrote in one Facebook post, referring to the U.S. government. "I fucking hate you, Obama!" she wrote in another. "You killed my brother."
Arthur and Shirley have returned to work. Since their son's murder, they've kept a low profile, trying to slowly pick up the pieces of a life irrevocably wounded.
"Are they doing great?" Rabbi Bookman said in late January. "Yeah, they get up in the morning and they walk out of their house... Given what they went through, that's great."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.