Yom Yerushalayim and beyond: the legacy of Eli Kay
After Eli Kay was brutally murdered at the hands of a terrorist in the Old City of Jerusalem in November 2021, his brother, Kasriel, made stickers with the message, “Love without condition … in memory of Eli Kay”. Recently, someone sent Eli and Kasriel’s father, Avi Kay, a picture of one of the stickers on a mountaintop in Peru.
“That’s how far Eli has reached,” says Avi, who was recently in South Africa at the invitation of Mizrachi South Africa and Sydenham Shul. His son’s death was a brutal blow to his family and the South African Jewish community, where the family lived before making aliya. But not for a second since the tragedy has Avi, his wife, Devorah, and their children stopped being hopeful that Eli’s life could continue to spur positive change in the world.
Jerusalem was the place where Eli was coming into his own as a Kotel guide, a passionate young man, and an Israeli. Yet it was also there, on those ancient streets, that his blood was spilled and he lost his life. So as a Jew, an Israeli, and a father, the city holds a special place in Avi’s heart.
He was in South Africa to talk about Yom Yerushalayim, the diversity of the city, and the importance of its unity. “Ultimately, Eli loved Yerushalayim. He respected everyone there, and he was respected in return. He was unyielding in that it was the capital of Israel. He told stories of the many people he interacted with there, and how friendly everyone was. But at the same time, he said he was always cautious and never turned his back. And that was where he was killed.”
And the City of Jerusalem did everything its power to make Eli’s yahrzeit as meaningful as possible, erecting a plaque in his memory near the place he died. Guests included the mayor of Jerusalem and the chief rabbi of the Kotel. They also dedicated a motorbike ambulance in Eli’s name. For those who want to visit the place where Eli lost his life, Avi says it is called Chain Gate Street or Rehov Sharsheret. However on Google Maps, only the Arabic name is written.
Another very special moment during the yahrzeit was that Avi’s father, Cliffy Kay, was able to fulfil his lifelong dream of planting an olive tree in Jerusalem. He wasn’t well, but made the trip to Jerusalem from South Africa, and the city pulled out all the stops to allow him to fulfil his wish. The tree was planted near Jaffa Gate, with all the family in attendance. Just two months later, Cliffy passed away in South Africa. The tree is a place that keeps his memory alive.
Avi returned to South Africa when his father passed away in January, and then again in May. “It’s always amazing to be back. It’s so familiar and comfortable. There may be loadshedding and potholes, but there’s so much warmth in this community. And there’s something special about being back in Africa.”
He says his family is doing well. “We’re connecting with other families who have loved ones who were victims of terror. We had a seder with a number of these families, which was incredibly special. We also had a Shabbaton. It’s been life-changing. I’ve also taken it upon myself to visit every family who has lost loved ones to terror. I remember the support we got, and people feel like they can relate to us.”
Yom Hazikaron was a meaningful day for the family. Devorah spoke at a Mizrachi event, and then they went to Jerusalem where the mayor asked Avi to say Kaddish. They then went to Eli’s grave during the siren period. “There were so many people at his grave: Eli’s army and kibbutz friends, playing guitar and singing Eli’s favourite songs. There were even strangers I have never met. Eli’s unit was there, and then they and their families spent Yom Ha’atzmaut at Beit Eli in Kfar Chabad,” a home for soldiers to stay while they are off base, brought to life by Avi and others.
In the afternoon the Kays were visited by a delegation from the state and by shlichim who had been working in Melbourne and brought notes that children had written to Eli. “It was an uplifting and meaningful day,” says Avi. “We could celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut because we had marked Yom Hazikaron with such meaning. One just leads into the other. We spent Independence Day with friends.”
The family knows how important it is to celebrate every simcha, and are gearing up to for their son and brother, Chanan’s, wedding on 5 June. The couple waited until after Eli’s yahrzeit to get engaged, which was also the day before Cliffy passed away. The bride, Eliyana Rubin, originally from Manchester in the United Kingdom, and her family made aliya about 10 years ago. The families are close friends. The chuppah will take place in Nes Tziyona.
Meanwhile, the Unity Sefer Torah in Eli’s name is almost complete. “I took a portion to South Africa to allow people to buy letters, and it was incredibly successful, so much so that I left that part to be completed and it will be brought back when family come for the wedding.” They were hoping the Torah would be complete in time for Shavuot and Eli’s birthday, but if not, it will be ready soon afterwards.
Avi is now looking at projects in agriculture, another area Eli was passionate about. “Eli is keeping us busy!” he quips. “Last week, I was at the airport and saw a friend who told me he was visiting the place where Eli died and happened to meet the person who was injured when Eli was killed. Eli’s spirit is with us all the time.
“South Africa gave Eli his moral compass, and taught him to be a passionate Jew and Zionist,” he says, pointing out that he believes that Eli would have looked past the current political turmoil in Israel, and would have emphasised that we need to get on with what’s important.
Avi feels the same. “My overwhelming message is that clearly, Israel is going through challenging times, but it’s been like that since the very beginning. Our responsibility is to not lose focus, and continue to build a country that belongs to Jews all over the world. We’re privileged to live in an era of a free and democratic Israel.”