It was just three days prior to the date his wife was expecting to deliver their second child — Aug. 20 — when Gregg Roman saw a news video depicting a member of the Islamic State beheading journalist James Foley. Even more shockingly, at the end of the video, Roman saw that the next victim in line to be gruesomely slaughtered by the Islamic terrorists was his friend, Steven Sotloff.
Roman, the director of the Community Relations Council at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, knew immediately what he had to do: purge the Internet of any references to the fact that Sotloff was Jewish, that he had studied in Israel and that he was an Israeli citizen, having made aliyah in 2005.
If the murderers were to discover Sotloff’s background, Roman feared, his safety would become even more compromised.
Through a Facebook group, Roman enlisted the help of about 100 friends of Sotloff from around the world, who worked tirelessly for two weeks scrubbing the Internet.
“We covered 20 different languages, and there were over 4,000 references to him that we removed,” Roman said, including references found everywhere from interviews to dating sites.
“The Internet became devoid of information about him,” Roman said.
Roman, 29, first met Sotloff in 2005 when they were both students at the Raphael Recanati International School at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. Both men were members of the school’s formal debating society, shared common friends and socialized often.
Roman remembers Sotloff as a committed journalist, even when he was first starting out in the field.
“He was the only student journalist to cover the Palestinian elections in 2005,” Roman recalled. “He was at the top of his game, even at a young age. He was intuitive, adventurous, but also cautious. And he always went to the sources, rather than just digging up a wire story. He would immerse himself in the culture he was writing about.”
It was on a balcony in Roman’s high-rise apartment building in Herzliya where Sotloff charted his career path, Roman said.
“He looked into the distance, seeing Lebanon, and said he had done coverage there,” Roman said. “Then he looked east and saw the Palestinian territories, and said ‘I covered there.’ Then he looked south, in the direction of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and said, ‘I’d like to go there.’”
“That discussion turned into his reality,” Roman noted.
The paths of Roman and Sotloff continued to cross, including several years later, when they both served as television pundits at Al Jazeera in Israel during the Arab Spring.
After that, they kept in touch via Facebook.
In his effort to cleanse the Internet of references to Sotloff’s Jewish and Israeli identity, Roman notified a “senior Israeli security official,” who up until that point was unaware that Sotloff was an Israeli citizen. That official was then successful in ordering all Israeli media to refrain from publishing anything referencing that the journalist was Jewish or Israeli.
During the two weeks prior to Sotloff’s ultimate beheading, Roman worked 20 hours a day contacting all authors or owners of sites referencing Sotloff and persuading them to remove those references from the Internet.
As serendipity would have it, Roman’s wife was two weeks late in the delivery of his son, allowing him the time and energy to devote to saving his friend.
Immediately following the birth, Roman found out Sotloff was murdered.
“I think if you believe in God, the way my son’s birth coincided with Steve’s death — God put off the birth so I could work on this,” Roman said.
His colleagues at the Federation supported him in his efforts, he said, and allowed him to take the time he needed to try to help Sotloff.
“This is the kind of organization we are,” Roman said of the Federation. “We don’t just try to improve people’s lives, we also try to save lives.”
While his efforts ultimately failed to keep Sotloff alive, Roman maintains that those efforts nevertheless did accomplish something very important.
“We prevented ISIS from using his Judaism and his being an Israeli as a tool of fear against Jews and Israelis,” he said.
On Sept. 6, Roman was recognized by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as one of 10 “Jews who inspired us in 5774.”
But for Roman, it is Sotloff who is the inspiration.
“Steven provided the guidance, and insight and piety toward his work,” Roman said. “I’m not trying to turn him into a martyr, but he was honest to his profession, and honest to himself, and most importantly, honest to his friends and his family.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.