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Israeli sinkhole victim made huge impact in Cape Town



Israeli marketing guru Klil Kimhi (32) was enjoying a swim at a party in Karmei Yosef (central Israel) on 21 July when the unthinkable happened: a giant sinkhole opened up in the pool, sucking him to his death. Rescuers took four hours to reach Kimhi in a hole that was 13 meters deep, and the pool owners were detained on suspicion of negligent manslaughter.

Now, people from all walks of life are mourning the senseless loss of a person who made an impression wherever he went – including Cape Town. He visited the Mother City as part of a StandWithUs delegation in 2016. In pictures, one can see him enjoying all that the Cape has to offer, including a trip to Robben Island and the warmth and hospitality of the Jewish community.

“I was devastated to learn of the tragic passing of Klil, who came to South Africa to assist SAUJS [the South African Union of Jewish Students] for Israel Awareness Week in 2016,” says South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) Chairperson Rowan Polovin. “I was chairperson of the SAZF (Cape Council) at the time, and we were seeking to bring talented young Israeli activists to the University of Cape Town to help fight the antisemitic hate fest held there each year that SAUJS bravely stands against.

“Several months before, I was sent an impressive resume of an individual named Klil Kimhi. He had an outstanding record with the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. He then became a student at the IDC [Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya, now Reichman University] and joined its public-advocacy unit. Klil established a Facebook page making the case for Israel, which quickly grew to 50 000 followers from around the world. He was known as a design genius and expert on social media. It was obvious that his talent and passion would make a huge impact. We brought him to South Africa without hesitation, alongside Israeli journalist Lital Shemesh.

“Klil made an immediate impression on everyone,” Polovin remembers. “He was generous with his skills and had an obvious desire to share Israel’s true story with students. Klil produced powerful designs and videos in almost real time, and dramatically bolstered the campaign. He left a mark on South Africa, and helped shape numerous students’ perceptions of Israel.”

“He deeply cared about Israel and the Jewish people,” says Jono Levi, who was SAUJS Western Cape chairperson at the time. “He was always calm and never lost his cool in intense, aggressive situations on campus. When he left, I remember saying, ‘Thank you for coming out here and doing this.’ He looked back and said, ‘No, thank you.’ It was a really meaningful moment of appreciation. He really cared.”

This is clear from the hundreds of messages on Kimhi’s Facebook page from people grieving his passing. He had 3 400 Facebook friends. He was known as a thought leader, and many shared the posts he had written, filled with insights and ideas. In one piece, Kimhi wrote about how people define themselves by their achievements.

“I really love to challenge people,” he wrote. “One of the games that I play when I meet new people is to ask them to introduce themselves without any facts: without telling me their job, where they live, their age, etc. Recently, this game became real to me. One of the businesses I was emotionally invested in was in danger. Why did I feel like my whole world was caving in on me?” he asked prophetically. “I understood that this business became what defined me.

“Are the loved ones in your life going to love and accept you even without all of these things?” he went on. “Before we set out to conquer a mountain or achieve a goal, we must feel like we’re worthy – even without that achievement. John Wooden, one of the greatest basketball coaches, told his players, ‘The day you come home from a game and people cannot know based on your behaviour if you’ve won or lost, then you’ll know you’ve won.’”

Kimhi thought a lot about being human in the 21st century, as can be seen in his Facebook ‘bio’, in which he wrote, “In an era where machines do everything better than humans, be the only thing it can’t. Be creative.” On Instagram, his “bio” was “I create, meaning I exist.”

One friend wrote that Kimhi was supposed to be the best man at his wedding the day after the tragedy. Other friends shared a video of themselves talking about Kimhi, sobbing on live television. Another wrote of the time she helped him dress up as a pineapple for Purim, showing that Kimhi clearly had a sense of humour.

“The guy with the blue eyes, outstanding in sports, studies, the one who has knowledge about every subject in the world … Klil, you are the one who introduced me to Matan and who was the witness at our wedding, who lifted us up on your shoulders in every celebration,” wrote another woman. “Whenever I mention the city of Kfar Saba [where Kimhi was born and grew up] they will ask me, ‘Oh, so do you know Klil?’

“You passed all the difficult stages of life: combat service in a superior unit, bachelor’s degree, studies for personal and professional development, you got hired and very quickly understood that it wasn’t for you and became independent,” she continued. “You opened a number of businesses and [I can] just imagine how you [would] build your empire from your apartment. You’ve done so much in so little time.”

Describing the funeral, another friend wrote, “It’s crazy how many people loved him, the amount of people and tears I saw, the crazy traffic jam, the stories about all the good deeds he did.”

Roughly 50 people were at the pool party, but only six were in the pool. A second person escaped the sinkhole with light injuries. The couple who owned the pool are suspected of renting their home, operating a business without a license, and money laundering. They regularly hosted such gatherings, Hebrew media reported, but they didn’t apply for a permit before building the pool. A report claimed such a permit wouldn’t have been given due to known infrastructural problems at the site.

At a hearing the day after the tragedy, Sergeant Rami Desta accused the couple of “a very large contribution to this tragic outcome”. The couple were released on house arrest to their daughter’s home.

Izzy Goren, the chairperson of Karmei Yosef’s council, noted that the home was located within 50m of an underground cave. Rescue services said the search was complicated by fears that tunnels branching out of the sinkhole could cause a secondary collapse. They built a support structure to prevent the pool’s surface from further collapsing on them before they were able to locate Kimhi’s body. Police dispatched a helicopter to ensure there were no additional sinkholes nearby.

“What an absolute tragedy that he passed at such a young age, with all his talents and what he had to offer the world,” says Polovin. “May his memory be a great blessing, and may he inspire a generation of future activists for our beloved Israel.”

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