“I’m humbled by my son,” says Devorah Kay on Eli’s life work
“We will be ok, we will get through this,” is the mantra that gets Devorah Kay through each day as she mourns the death of her beloved son, Eliyahu (Eli) Kay, the South African oleh who was shot dead by a Hamas terrorist in the Old City near the Kotel where he worked as a tour guide.
She repeats it over and over as she wakes with renewed vigour to continue the work her son started but wasn’t able to finish.
“And we are ok,” she told the SA Jewish Report this week from London, where she and her husband, Avi, have chosen to mark their first Yom Hazikaron since Eli’s passing by addressing hundreds of children and young adults.
One would expect the Kays, still mourning their son who was taken from them at the age of 25 last November, to be in Israel as the country commemorates its fallen soldiers and victims of terror.
But, although they are very much there in spirit, having conducted numerous interviews and video presentations before leaving for the United Kingdom (UK), the Kays felt it right to take the story of their son to the world in person and actively continue his work in his absence.
“What does it really mean to be ok? I mourn my son deeply every day. I miss him like crazy. I miss what our family was before and will never be again. However, Eli left us with a big job. The tragedy would be even more tragic if my family and I had fallen apart – that would be the tragedy of Eli’s death. So, we push on, continuing with worthy projects that he couldn’t finish,” she said.
Eli’s untimely death caused a groundswell of grief the world over. By all accounts, he was the embodiment of the Israeli spirit, dedicated to the ideals of a thriving Jewish homeland.
“I’m humbled by my child. I have learnt more about my child at his death than I knew about him in his life. We have made the choice to be strong, to move forward, and to take the lessons he has taught us about tolerance, peace, and diversity and bring them into our lives,” Devorah said.
“It will never be normal. It’s a different kind of normal. I will still allow myself to mourn. I’m still working through the loss because it’s huge and will be with me forever. But I won’t be a victim.”
The Kay family have made a choice, she said, “a choice to continue Eli’s passion for Israel and life’s work, and to move forward in this way through our grief.”
This week, her three children, sons Kasriel, Chanan, and daughter, Na’ama, together with their grandparents in the UK and South Africa, have attended numerous events commemorating Eli’s life and other fallen soldiers and victims of terror. Her children joined hundreds of thousands of diaspora Jews during Masa’s Yom Hazikaron ceremony. The ceremony, held alongside Israeli government officials and Jewish community leaders commemorates Israel Defense Forces soldiers and victims of terror in Israel and throughout global Jewish communities, with a special emphasis on lone soldiers who have died and immigrants killed in hostilities and terrorism.
Against the backdrop of international flags representing Jewish communities around the world, members of Masa’s global community and Jewish leaders laid memorial wreathes and lit candles. Chanan lit a torch in uniform to honour his brother.
While this has been a sad week for Jews worldwide, for the Kays, it has been purpose filled and affirming.
“Eli left us, and we intend to dedicate our lives to continue his legacy. There’s a lot of work to do, especially in areas that Eli was passionate about such as land, education, and agriculture. This is what we plan to spend our lives doing, playing a vibrant role in Israeli society and contributing to the Jewish state, honouring his memory,” she said.
“Our dream is to create a new yishuv because he dreamt about unity and living life on a mixed kibbutz.”
The family and Telfed have recently come together 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 his memory.
Eli grew up in South Africa, and was a beloved member of the Jewish community. After school, he attended yeshiva, and was adamant that he wanted to live and work in Israel, so made aliya. He went on to serve as a squad commander in the paratroopers, became a kibbutz manager, and was loving his life touring the country, educating others as a guide, and building a spiritual life in the Jewish homeland.
Though he wasn’t able to finish building that life, his family is now 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,” Avi said.
“Eli’s birthday is on Shavuot, and this is when they will officially open the home. Our family has set up a non-profit organisation called The Eli Kay Project, an umbrella for all the non-profit projects we plan to do to. We will launch a Sefer Torah in Eli’s name on his birthday,” he said.
“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 UK, 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. It will have its own waterproof backpack, and will be small enough to carry.”
“These projects are how we as a family continue to stay positive, concentrating on doing things in the areas that Eli loved. The support of the community in Modi’in, wider Israel, and South Africa continues to be a huge source of comfort.”