President Obama took time Wednesday to remember Steven Sotloff, the American journalist and South Florida native recently murdered by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
During his visit to Estonia, Obama called Sotloff a “devoted and courageous” Middle East correspondent.
But in South Florida, the emotional blow following the death of Sotloff, a journalist who devoted his career to telling human stories in war-torn conflict zones in the Middle East, was more pronounced.
“This is a wound. It’s a deep wound,” said Rabbi Terry Bookman of Temple Beth Am. “If this was a physical wound, we’d be laid up in the hospital for months, maybe even in a coma.”
Bookman knew Sotloff since he was a young boy. He officiated at Steven’s bar mitzvah. And as an adult, he counseled Sotloff before reporting trips to places like Yemen.
“He didn't just take surface for an answer. He was always challenging and digging deeper and trying to find out the truth,” Bookman said.
In his mission to tell stories about the people and conflicts in the Middle East, Sotloff made a conscious decision to keep his personal story quiet.
He didn’t want his faith to compromise his safety as a journalist or his ability to get the human tales he was travelling to tell.
An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman posted on Twitter Wednesday that Sotloff had dual citizenship. He was American and Israeli.
Ishaan Tharoor, now a Washington Post writer, was one of Sotloff’s editors at TIME Magazine. He says what stood out about Sotloff was his ability to empathize with the people he was reporting on.
“You see sometimes that correspondents get very caught up in the larger geopolitics of a crisis,” said Tharoor. “But Steven was always talking to locals around him, was always more concerned by issues of systemic failures in society and governments, cared very much about the common man.”
One story of Sotloff’s in particular stood out to Tharoor. Late in 2012 in Aleppo, Syria, Sotloff stood in line for rations with people whose communities had become war zones.
The result, says Tharoor, was “this kind of really haunting portrait of life in the middle of a civil war.”
Sotloff was abducted a year ago in Syria.
Last month, when ISIS beheaded American journalist James Foley, the militant group threatened to do the same to Sotloff.
Last week, Sotloff’s mother sent a video to Steven’s captors pleading for his release .
“I ask you to use your authority to spare his life and to set the example of the Prophet Mohammed, who protected people of the Book,” Shirley Sotloff said in the video.
Her plea went unanswered.
On Tuesday, a video appeared online showing a masked man standing next to Sotloff, who wore an orange robe while on his knees in the desert sand.
In a rehearsed statement to Obama, Sotloff said in the video: “Your foreign policy of intervention in Iraq was supposed to be for the preservation of American lives and interests, so why is it that I am paying the price of your interference with my life? Am I not an American citizen?”
A short time later, the masked man clad in all black addressed Obama.
“You, Obama, have but to gain from your actions but another American citizen,” he said in a British accent. “So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”
The video shows the masked man cutting Sotloff’s throat with a knife.
In another clip, Sotloff’s severed head is shown on screen.
Rabbi Bookman says Sotloff’s family and friends are trying to cope with his death.
“At this moment in time where the grief and the wounds are so raw, we don’t talk about big, grand theological plans,” he said. “We reach out and hold out each other and weep together."
At 1 p.m. Friday the family will hold a memorial service at Temple Beth Am, where Steven Sotloff grew up spiritually -- where his family sought solace after he was kidnapped and where his community will share their final memories of him.