'This is our life’s work'

Family of slain South African immigrant starts global drive to complete Torah scroll

Project to commemorate Eli Kay, who was murdered by a Hamas gunman in Jerusalem, seeks to create portable memorial for trekkers and tour groups in Israel

Eliyahu David Kay, killed in a terror attack in Jerusalem on November 21, 2021. (Instagram / HaShomer HaChadash)
Eliyahu David Kay, killed in a terror attack in Jerusalem on November 21, 2021. (Instagram / HaShomer HaChadash)

The family of a South African immigrant killed by a Hamas gunman in November 2021 launched last week a global project to complete a Torah scroll in his memory.

The initiative, titled “The Eli Kay Unity Sefer Torah,” enlists Jews around the world to fund and write the scroll, which will be used in Israel to educate groups in Kay’s memory.

Kay, who was shot in a terror attack in Jerusalem’s Old City, moved from South Africa to serve as a paratrooper in the IDF. His death touched many immigrants and native-born Israelis, and drew thousands of people to his funeral in Jerusalem.

The project invites the public to sponsor anything from a single letter to an entire Torah portion, which will be written by a scribe in Israel. The project raised $13,000 from hundreds of individual donors on its first day alone.

The organizers hope to have the scribe begin writing this month.

The Kay family plans to take an active part in the memorial Torah project, before and after its completion. Parents Devorah and Avi Kay and brother Kasriel, and his wife Shani, plan to travel with the first two sections of the partially completed scroll, as local scribes fill in the letters outlined by their Israeli counterpart. They will also follow the completed Torah as tour groups take it with them in their travels around Israel.

Mourners react during the funeral of 26-year-old Eliyahu Kay a day after he was killed by a Palestinian gunman in a terror attack, in Jerusalem on November 22, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Kasriel Kay told The Times of Israel last week that he wants the Torah to foster unity amongst Jews in his brother’s memory, and form a link connecting Diaspora Jewry to Israel. “Eli stood for settling the land and unity amongst people,” he said, “and he loved traveling the land. The goal is that this is a touring Sefer Torah – to take the people who participated in writing the Sefer Torah, and journey to the ends of Israel with it.”

The Torah will be made available to backpackers, retreats, and tour groups. A custom carrying backpack has also been commissioned, lightweight and waterproof, to enable the scroll to be taken on all terrain.

The Kays hope that opening the Torah for use by youth tours will be an entrée for groups such as Birthright to incorporate Eli’s memory into their trip programming.

“This is Eli Kay’s Sefer Torah,” said Kasriel. “Who was Eli Kay? What’s his story? And that can be a lead for coming to teach them about Eli, talk about Eli.”

Detail from the Torah scroll writing project in memory of Eli Kay, murdered by a Hamas terrorist in November, 2021 (courtesy)

Kasriel envisioned himself and his parents joining tour groups and sharing Eli’s story with participants, allowing young Jews visiting Israel to “connect with” victims of terror like Kay, “who in 20 years time will still be relevant.”

“It’s not just pizza and shawarma, there’s depth to it — imagine them coming and having an opportunity to use Eli’s Sefer Torah, or go to Eli’s tomb, going to other different projects people are doing in Eli’s memory,” Kasriel continued. “It gives a whole other level of connection to Israel.”

For the Hachnasat Sefer Torah, the celebration that traditionally marks the completion of a Torah scroll, the family plans a “massive” gathering, extending an invitation to the Israeli public. “Everybody will tell you that Eli was so full of life,” said Kasriel. “We have to celebrate Eli’s life.”

Eli Kay was known for his magnetic personality, and his ability to reach people allowed him to make connections with even the most distant of strangers, said longtime friend Zimra Sherman. He had “a heart so full and ready to be there for his friends,” Sherman said, a fact that drew many to him.

The event is slated to take place around the anniversary of Eli Kay’s death in December.

Kasriel (L) and Shani Kay (courtesy)

The family said they’ve been encouraged by the outpouring of support across Israeli society, and from the people moved to engage with Kay’s memory. Thousands attended the funeral, and many more visited the family during the Shiva mourning period. “They came from near and far,” said Kasriel, “and said, ‘We don’t know you, but we heard about you and we want to connect.’”

Recent projects carried out in Eli’s memory have similarly drawn many to participate. “Beit Eli LeChayalim,” a home primarily for IDF lone soldiers that opened in June in Kfar Chabad, enlisted the participation of dozens of daily volunteers, said initiator Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef Cohen.

The family hopes to engage a maximum number of participants in their project of Jewish unity. “It’s about getting as many people around the world to donate a letter,” says Kasriel, “It’s about the reach.”

Kasriel said that further memorial projects are in the works. The family has set up a foundation that will financially support young Jews who want to join an Israel tour program like Birthright or the South African Encounter program, “where Eli’s journey started as an oleh,” or immigrant to Israel.

“The next big project is a museum for victims of terror,” Kasriel said. He envisioned an institution similar to Yad Vashem, that would allow visitors to connect to the stories of terror victims, and give solace to their families.

The Kay family is committed, they said, to make something positive out of an overwhelming tragedy, and to give to others despite what’s been taken from them.

“We’ve been given this opportunity, as painful and as sad as it is,” said Kasriel, “so much good can come out of it.”

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