Ari Shishler
Ari Shishler
Working to bring Moshiach

Eli Kay HY’D, a force for a better world

When Kasriel Kay called me on Sunday, it raised no alarms. We talk. Kasriel was my student in high school and our Shul’s youth director before he made Aliyah. I studied with him ahead of his wedding earlier this month. Had South Africa not been red-listed for Covid, I’d have been at his wedding.  

Sunday’s call was a shocker. Rather than the friendly “Hey, Rov, can I just ask you…” it was “Did you hear about this morning’s terror attack in Jerusalem?”. 

I had. Every terror attack knots your insides, regardless of where you live. I mentally double-checked that my teen daughter had left Jerusalem back to her seminary in Tzfat. I prayed that there would be no serious injuries.

“My brother was involved in that attack,” Kasriel cut through my thoughts. “He is in the worst possible condition. Please find a rabbi to come through to Hadassah Har Hatzofim urgently”. 

That was the whole conversation. 

The phone clicked off before I could ask which brother he meant or how he was hurt. I quickly messaged a colleague in Jerusalem to be in touch with the Kays and then told my family to pray. Minutes later, the rabbi in Israel texted back, “Sadly, he is no longer alive”. 

Eli’s funeral yesterday was heart-wrenching. South African Jewry is close-knit, and everyone knows one of the Kays. Eli’s murder sucker-punched our whole community. Thousands of us bawled through the funeral live-stream, and thousands more thronged to escort Eli to his final resting place. 

Eli’s funeral was a patchwork of ironies. Chief Rabbi Lau noted the first when he paraphrased the upcoming Torah portion of Jacob’s denied wish to live in peace. Avi and Devorah, Eli’s parents, had followed him to settle in our beloved homeland. They chose to live in Modi’in to enjoy homely family life in a vibrant Jewish community. They planned to remain modest and inconspicuous, but for whenever they could contribute to the community. 

Yesterday, you could see their discomfort at having been catapulted onto front-page news. A family that shuns attention had now been thrust onto the world stage. 

But, they didn’t melt under the spotlight; they rose to the role with dignity, humanity and modesty. Despite their searing pain, the Kays reached out to ensure those around them were alright. When I sent Avi condolences, he only wanted to know that their friends back in South Africa were cared for during this painful time. 

Kasriel’s impassioned call at the funeral for us to honour Eli by being better people wasn’t theatre. He expressed the lived values of his remarkable family- to illuminate the world around you. Kasriel’s simple, yet powerful message has stoked the global Jewish imagination. Interior Minister, Ayelet Shaked, was moved to tears by the tenacious goodness of the Kays, and their wish that their son’s murder should become a catalyst for good. Today, Eli’s friends and family launched a Tefillin campaign, in defiant response to him being gunned down while on the way to pray. Various groups have started Torah learning programmes in Eli’s memory. Near-anonymous in life, Eli is now a force for good in the world. 

Eli’s funeral already captured the essence of the change that he would so have wanted to see. We were moved by the stirring melodies that the crowd sang on the way to the grave. Songs seem ironic at a funeral; yesterday’s tunes expressed a deeper irony. Eli was buried only hours before the Chabad holiday of Yud Tes Kislev- a dirge ahead of a celebration. Chabadniks call Yud Tes Kislev the “Rosh Hashanah of Chassidus”; Eli’s funeral portrayed what Chassidus aspires towards 

Many of the photos of Eli that have circulated through the media don’t depict a typical Chabadnik. You see him in a Kova Tembel, rather than a Borsalino. Yesterday’s funeral was a sea of black hats, knitted kippot, twisted peyot and bare-headed ponytails. You don’t get much more Chabad than that. 

Chabad philosophy, which we celebrate on Yud Tes Kislev, teaches how to heal our hashtagged world. We often seem to be tangled in a messy us-versus-them reality, where we fear or malign those who think or look different to us. It’s Liberal against conservative, Haredi v. Secular and a whole slew of other “usses” and “thems”. It’s league soccer. We pick a team, sing its cheers, wave its flag and curse its opponents. Once in a World Cup, we band together to face off against a more threatening opponent. 

Society is intellectually lazy. Rather than appreciate the nuance of human complexity, we group by hashtag. And fight.  

Then you get an Eli Kay. Eli’s family taught him and his siblings to value every person and appreciate them for who they are. This is why Eli paid extra attention to the Arab janitor at the Western Wall, who he felt others disrespected. 

Chassidus centres on the belief that everything and everyone plays an integral role in G-d’s Masterplan. You don’t only value those who share your beliefs or pray from the same prayer book as you. You value everyone. If G-d made them, they are precious. 

It’s no surprise then that Eli’s send-off united people from every walk of Israeli society and that his story has touched people across the globe. It is no less surprising that his final journey led straight into the day that commemorates Chassidus. He lived its essential value of love for every Jew and respect for every human.  

Kasriel and the Kay family have asked us all to do something in Eli’s memory to make our world better. We could start by stripping away those artificial labels we claim separate us but fall away at a time of national pain. 

May Eli’s memory inspire us to brighten our world by caring for those we meet and uniting with our brothers and sisters who look and behave differently from us.  

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.
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