Steven Sotloff Remembered by Family and Friends

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Steven Sotloff

The Daily Caller/Reuters/Landov

09/05/2014 AT 02:00 PM EDT

Steven Sotloff had always been interested in exploring the world. Intelligent and inquisitive, he had an easygoing disposition and a sharp sense of humor.

While his death at the hands of ISIS militants has horrified the nation, the loss has been devastating to those who knew the 31-year-old journalist. His parents, Arthur and Shirley, and sister Lauren are privately grieving, as are friends who remember him fondly as "someone you'd want in your circle." A public memorial service for Sotloff was held Friday afternoon in his hometown of Pinecrest, Florida.

"Steve was equally torn between two poles," his family said in a statement that was read in a news conference by his friend, Barak Barfi. "He yearned for a tranquil life where he could enjoy Miami Dolphins games on Sunday and a banal office job on Monday that would provide him a comfortable, middle-class existence. But the Arab world pulled him. He was no war junkie. He did not want to be a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia. He merely wanted to give voice to those who had noneā€¦their story was Steve's story. He ultimately sacrificed his life to bring their story to the world."

"Steve was no hero," Barfi continued. "Like all of us, he was a mere man who tried to find good concealed in a world of darkness. And if it did not exist, he tried to create it. He always sought to help those less privileged than himself, offering career services and precious contacts to newcomers in the region. He indulged in South Park but was just as serious about filing a 3:00 a.m. story. He had a fondness for junk food he could not overcome. And despite his busy schedule he always found time to Skype his father to talk about his latest golf game."

A Desire to Learn

Sotloff graduated with honors in 2002 from Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, New Hampshire. After graduation, he headed to Orlando for college. As a journalism student at the University of Central Florida, he displayed an aptitude for international relations, taking several political science electives. Living in a student apartment near the campus, he spent much of his spare time in the library or watching the news. "He was focused," says Christopher Olsen, who lived next to him in 2003. "He'd watch mindless TV, but then he could switch over to C-SPAN. He knew a lot about what was going on in the world, way more than anyone else."

On weekends, Sotloff would go to the movies – he was a big fan of both the Austin Powers and Matrix films. On Facebook, he identified The Big Lebowski and Lawrence of Arabia as other favorites. A voracious reader, "he always had a big thick book on him," says Olsen. "He was serious about learning."

Like any other college students, Sotloff had "epic" video game battles with his roommates. "[He was] someone you want in your circle of friends," his former roommate, Emerson Lotzia, told CNN. "Just a good, good guy."

Although Sotloff left UCF in 2004, his death reverberated around campus. Hundreds of students and staff held a candlelight vigil for him. "Our UCF family mourns Steven's death, and we join millions of people around the world who are outraged at this despicable and unjustifiable act," said UCF President John C. Hitt.

Leaving UCF, he transferred to the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya near Tel Aviv. After graduation, he remained in Israel and was granted dual citizenship.

A Talented Reporter

Sotloff, who was fascinated with politics of the Middle East, reported for several media outlets, including PEOPLE's sister publication, TIME magazine.

Freelancing for TIME in 2012, he reported from Libya and Turkey. His reporting was often very personal, with descriptive stories of the poor and downtrodden.

"We are shocked and deeply saddened by reports of Steven Sotloff's death," TIME editor Nancy Gibbs said in a statement. "Steven was a valued contributor to TIME and other news organizations, and he gave his life so readers would have access to information from some of the most dangerous places in the world. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family."

A Hidden, Devout Faith

While in captivity, he found inventive and secretive ways to practice his Jewish faith. "He used to pray secretly in the direction of Jerusalem," a former hostage who spent time with him in captivity told the Israeli website Yedioth Aharonoth. "He would see in which direction [the Muslim kidnappers] were praying, and then adjust the angle." During Yom Kippur, "he told them he was sick and didn't want to eat," the hostage said, referring to the tradition of fasting on the Jewish day of atonement.

Even Sotloff's family helped conceal his faith. His mother, Shirley, taught at the Beth Am Day School. After Sotloff's capture, she removed an online biography that mentioned that her parents were survivors of the Holocaust.

With Sotloff gone, his parents have resolved to further his work. "Today, we grieve," they said in a statement. "This week, we mourn. But we will emerge from this ordeal. We will not allow our enemies to hold us hostage with the sole weapon they possess: fear."
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