Beit Eli Kay to welcome soldiers home
It’s been almost six months since South African oleh Eli Kay was gunned down in cold blood by a terrorist. Now, his family and Telfed have joined hands to create “Beit Eli”, a welcoming home for soldiers to stay while they are off base.
It’s one of a number of projects that the Kay family has initiated to perpetuate the memory of Eli’s bright light, extinguished too soon.
Kay was killed on 21 November 2021 at the age of 25. He was shot by a Hamas terrorist while walking through the Old City in Jerusalem on his way to work as a guide at the Kotel. He was a beloved son of the South African Jewish community, who attended yeshiva, made aliya, served as a squad commander in the paratroopers, was a kibbutz manager, and was building a beautiful life in Israel.
Though he wasn’t able to finish building that life, his family has invested in building a home for his brothers in arms. “It will be available for any soldier who needs a place to stay for a chag, Shabbat, or while they aren’t at their base,” says Eli’s father, Avi Kay.
“It came about when Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Cohen, a Chabad shaliach in Kfar Chabad [a Chabad-Lubavitch village in central Israel, near Tel Aviv], approached me saying he had assisted soldiers with finding places to stay, but the demand had increased dramatically during the pandemic,” says Kay.
“He had found a place which he planned to fix up, and he was calling to ask if he could name it after Eli. He never expected us to get involved.”
Yet Kay decided to do just that. “It resonated with me, because soldiers often want their own space and a familiar environment. I saw that with Eli.” Soldiers will be able to have Shabbos and go to shul nearby if they would like to.
Kay’s good friend, Dov Newmark, is a director at Nefesh B’Nefesh and he hosts a minyan every Shabbos mivarchim (every Shabbat before the new month). His place has a magnificent view. “It was a minyan that Eli was very comfortable attending,” says Kay. “When he passed away, they renamed it the Eli Kay Rooftop Minyan. When Dov heard about the soldiers’ house, he said, ‘Let’s make this an Eli Kay Rooftop Minyan initiative.’”
Kay, Newmark, and other South African olim got stuck in – literally. “We cleaned the whole place up, got a builder in, and did repairs. Telfed generously came on board to sponsor all furniture and equipment. It’s now a two-bedroom cottage with a bathroom, a kitchenette, a dining room, Astroturf outside, and everything someone would need for a short stay,” Kay said.
He says he’s “absolutely blown away by the generosity of people with time, money, and dedication. For example, today a friend is going over there to meet the damp expert. It’s a 25-minute drive each way and he’s a busy guy, but he has come to the party, like many other people. Another friend’s grandfather had his second Barmitzvah and asked people to donate towards Beit Eli in lieu of gifts. Many private individuals have donated. It’s been special.
“Eli would have been so excited that there’s a place for soldiers to come to where they can be comfortable, and that it’s there for soldiers unconditionally in a time of need. He would also have loved how it’s brought communities together.” This includes the South African Jewish community, and there will be a South African flag along with an Israeli flag on the plaque outside.
Telfed set up the Eli Kay Fund for Lone Soldiers soon after Kay was killed. “Telfed guided and assisted Eli during his pre-aliya planning, his absorption, and Israeli Defense Forces service as a lone soldier,” says Chief Executive Dorron Kline. “Eli planned to study and was in the process of applying for a Telfed scholarship.” The fund has already raised money that is being distributed to needy lone soldiers.
So when Kay approached Telfed to assist in furnishing Beit Eli, “it felt like a natural partnership”, says Kline, pointing out that the organisation is closely connected to the entire Kay family.
Telfed administers more than 100 trust funds, some set up as far back as the 1950s. One of these trust funds, the Goldberg Trust, was specifically set up to support victims of terror. “Eli was a victim of terror, so we approached the Goldberg Trust and it agreed to help fund the cost of the furniture, which was added to funds from Telfed’s Eli Kay Fund.”
Kline says Eli’s birthday is on Shavuot, and this is when they will officially open the home. “We feel a connection to the Kay family not only through our grief, but through rebuilding,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Kay family has set up a non-profit organisation called The Eli Kay Project, an umbrella for all the non-profit projects they plan to do to perpetuate his legacy.
“One we are launching now is a Sefer Torah in Eli’s name,” says Kay. “It will be unique in that it will be a travelling Torah. First, it will be written all over the world – in South Africa, where Eli grew up; in Australia, where he went to yeshiva; in Israel, which he loved; the United Kingdom, where he has family; and in America, which he had a connection to. Then, it will be used by people when they travel and tour Israel. So if a group of guys are coming to hike in Israel for two weeks and they need a Torah, this one is perfect. It will have its own waterproof backpack, and will be small enough to carry. It will allow Eli’s love of travelling in Israel to continue.”
The recent spate of terror attacks in Israel was hard for the family, bringing back memories that are still fresh. “I knew what the victims’ family would be going through. That’s what hurt the most,” says Devorah, Eli’s mother. “We’re proud of our eldest son, Kasriel. Together with his father in law, he visited many shiva houses.”
Looking back on the past few months, Kay says, “It’s been a lot harder than we expected. The reminders of our loss are constant.” Some of these reminders are positive. Just the other day, before Pesach, he visited the place where Eli was killed.
There, an Arab man stopped him, asking if he was Eli’s dad, saying they had been friends. Two young Jewish men then walked up, asking the same thing. One had a key ring with Eli’s photo. “Within 200m to 300m, I met three people whom Eli had a positive impact on,” says Kay. “So we continue to stay positive and are excited for projects that focus on the land, Israel, agriculture, and tourism. The ongoing support from the community in Modi’in, wider Israel, and South Africa continues to be a pillar of strength.”