PINECREST, Fla. (AP) — Letters slain journalist Steven Sotloff wrote to his family before he was beheaded by Islamic State militants were read at his memorial service Friday, with him telling them to be happy and stay positive and that if they didn't meet again, he hoped they would in heaven.
"Please know I am ok," he wrote. "I love you, miss you, pray for you and hope to see you soon."
In a service punctuated by tears, Sotloff's parents, sister and friends spoke of his gentle demeanor and unwavering commitment as a journalist toward putting a face on suffering in the Arab world, despite the personal risks.
"I'm so proud of my son for living his dream," said his mother, Shirley Sotloff.
Her husband and Steven Sotloff's father, Arthur Sotloff, wiped tears from his face after she spoke and then took the microphone.
"I want to speak from my heart," he said, his voice quiet and solemn. "But my heart is broken."
Several hundred mourners dressed in black gathered for the service at Temple Beth Am in suburban Miami, where Sotloff's mother teaches and he attended school as a child. There was heavy security, with officers stationed at the front gate and entrance of the building in Pinecrest.
Robert Hersh, the temple's executive director, said the service was arranged as quickly as possible, in keeping with Jewish custom, even though Sotloff's body is not there. The family will sit shiva, the Jewish mourning period, beginning Saturday.
"Our job is to help them grieve, and that's what we're here to do as a family," he said.
Several dignitaries were in the audience, including Sen. Marco Rubio. He told the gathering that Sotloff unmasked "the true nature of what we are dealing with" in the final moments of his life, and seemed to suggest more should be done.
"I hope that in so doing, has woken us up as a people and a world to confront it and defeat it before it's too late," Rubio said.
Sotloff, a 31-year-old who freelanced for Time and Foreign Policy magazines before he was captured in Syria a year ago, also was an Israeli citizen. That fact was not widely known before his death — in part because Israel's military censor apparently kept it secret for his safety.
Sotloff's killers are not believed to have known about his background.
Rabbi Solomon Schiff said Friday that Sotloff was the grandson of Holocaust survivors who "knew after their bitter experience that only education can change hearts." Sotloff was close to them, and developed an interest in social justice issues. He became fluent in Arabic, read passages of the Quran and "felt the suffering of those who live under despotic dictatorships, which is why he wanted to tell their stories," Rabbi Terry Bookman said.
Sotloff visited Israel in the summer of his freshman year of college at the University of Central Florida, and later decided to pursue a counterterrorism study program there, despite his family's fears, Shirley Sotloff said.
"Though aware of the danger, his confidence in the goodness that lies in each person's core helped him overcome his anxiety and fear," Bookman said.
Sotloff's sister, dressed in black and wearing sunglasses, read a short letter she wrote for her brother. In it, she described how he was her best friend and how they could be happy together "doing absolutely nothing."
"You were the one who brought music into my life," Lauren Sotloff said before burying her hands in her face in tears.
She then played a recording of a song that reminded her of him: "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd.
As the song played, many in the audience sang along.
Sotloff is one of two American journalists the Islamic State has held captive and beheaded for what militants called payback for more than 120 U.S. airstrikes on its assets in northern Iraq since Aug. 8. Journalists James Foley and Sotloff were two of what the State Department has described as "a few" Americans still being held hostage by the group. The Islamic State also had threatened to kill a British man it is holding hostage.
Before he died, Sotloff managed to get two letters to his family, a cousin said.
"Everyone has two lives," he wrote in one. "The second one begins when you realize you only have one."
He urged his family to hug one another, eat dinner together and surround themselves with strong and wise people.
The last letter was sent in May. Four months later he was killed.
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