Soldiering on, the indomitable spirit of Eli Kay- murdered by a terrorist in Jerusalem in 2021- is today back at his base
By David E. Kaplan
Soon after arriving by bus at a training camp for some of Israel’s toughest highly-trained soldiers – Tzanhanim (paratroopers) Training Base in the Jordan Valley – our group soon understood the poignant symbolism behind the insignia of this ‘Paratroopers Brigade’ of the snake with wings. A history of “carrying out special forces-style missions”, it operates “like a deadly snake striking quickly with the element of surprise and then rapidly withdrawing,” explained our army guide. One of the biggest surprise raids in its illustrious history was the famous Operation Entebbe when on the morning of July 4, 1976, a counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission headed by Brig. Gen. Dan Shomron succeeded in rescuing 102 passengers and crew of a hijacked Air France aircraft at Entebbe, Uganda. The 102 rescued hostages were flown to Israel via Nairobi, Kenya, shortly after the raid.
Turning into a day “full of surprises” as the day was advertised, no less surprising for our group, was learning that for these young soldiers it was not only about protecting the citizens of Israel but protecting “our history and connection to the land of Israel.” We heard how for the past year, these soldiers, as part of their training, teamed up with the Israel Antiquities Authority to excavate a nearby archaeological site of a 5th century Jewish dwelling. As was explained:
“Being a soldier in the Israeli army is more than about combat in the field; it is also about connecting to the land, the history, the geography and to understand that we are part of the nation of Israel embedded to this land.” The discovery of the fifteen hundred year old Jewish dwelling in the confines of this army base, affirms the link of the Jewish people to the land and the need of a strong army to ensure ‘never again’ to be conquered and sent off into exile to be at the mercy of others. ‘Mercy’ it never was!
BOOTS AND ALL
We looked at the young men addressing us – all lone soldiers from abroad – who were telling us their personal stories and who look forward proudly to the day when they too will wear their regimental maroon beret with the infantry pin and reddish brown boots that will clearly identify them as being in the distinguished ‘Paratroopers Brigade’.
Eli Kay, a South African immigrant who at 25 was gunned down last year on the 21 November in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem’s Old City, had worn that highly prized maroon beret with the infantry pin, and his once calloused feet from the rigorous training had proudly walked, ran and marched in those reddish brown boots.
We were here today because of Eli, who although his physical presence could no more grace his base, his spirit most certainly permeated as we entered into the newly renovated soldier’s clubhouse renamed in his memory with funds generously donated by EMEK Lone Soldiers, Keren Magi and Roger Ademan & family (London) through YAHAD, theEnglish Speaking Branch of the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers.
All listened spellbound, as Eli’s father Avi Kay spoke movingly about his beloved son and his journey that although murderously cut short – had nevertheless been jam-packed with enriching experience and self-fulfillment.
“Thank you to the hosts and the young soldiers here without rank because you are at the beginning of your journey. When Eli came to Israel, he first went to the Yeshiva in Kiryat Gat and thereafter signed up for Tzanhanim,” began Avi.
“He fought very hard to get in here and fought no less hard to stay in this unit. This was his home. As a lone soldier at the time, before we, his parents, made Aliyah, this was his family. And when the opportunity arose to do ‘Course Makim’ (commanders course), he grabbed it because firstly it was an honour and secondly because he could impart the hard lessons he had learnt to the next intake of soldiers.”
These endearing themes about the son’s army experience in Tzanhanim – of ‘home’, ‘family’ and ‘preparing the next generation’ – was brought home to the father when “I was with Avi walking through the shuk – Mahanei Yehuda in Jerusalem – and he received a WhatsApp on his cellphone about one of his soldiers becoming a Katzin (a commander). I watched his animated reaction. It was almost like the expectant father standing outside a delivery room, who had just heard the cry of his first child….that’s how proud Eli was. And that is what I think this unit represents. Once you are part of it like Eli was, you are part of a family.”
Working alongside Ian Walbaum and Ian Fine of YAHAD that has been making an invaluable contribution to the welfare of Israeli soldiers by finding donors around the world to sponsor clubhouses and provide recreational equipment at military bases across the country, has been a very special rabbi from Jerusalem. Like Eli, Rabbi Shalom Myers is also a former South African. From helping English-Speaking lone soldiers to engaging and embracing soldiers from the Haredi community, Rabbi Myers pursues his vision of ensuring Israel’s lone soldiers are never alone. Most importantly, he has been providing spiritual as well as material support to the ever-increasing Haredi soldiers in the IDF.
To this end, Rabbi Myers is a frequent visitor to the Tzanhanim Training Base, engaging weekly with religious soldiers and it was in this context where he had earlier met with Eli. His ‘Emek Lone Soldiers’ – a home away from home for religious soldiers – is thus a proud partner in the newly renovated honouring Eli Kay clubhouse. Explaining his role following a quote from Rav Kook, Rabbi Myers said of the soldiers who are there to defend and protect us:
“If I can serve those that serve that is my biggest honour.”
On that fine note, Rabbi Myers hit another fine note – literally – when he surprisingly took out his shofar (rams horn), put it to his mouth and blew a sound that reached out to the heavens inviting Eli to join us in a warm spiritual embrace that connected our ancient past with our future. To safeguard Israel’s future and avert the Jewish tragedy of the past 2000 years, we need our brave soldiers like Eli.
Our group of fifty would later in the day reflect on the services of these young boys and girls in uniform and think again of the symbolism of the regimental emblem of the snake with wings when we visited on the Gazan border a thankfully discovered-in-time Hamas tunnel. Seventy metres underground, emerging 600 metres on the Israeli side in an open field on a kibbutz, what would have happened if it had not been discovered by soldiers like Eli and killers emerged to wreak murder and mayhem?
We know only too well the answer to this horrifying question!
I would later further reflect on the words of Eli’s father, Avi, in an interview following the funeral of his beloved son. Speaking about the warmth he and Devorah felt from people in Israel and around the world, he said:
“Know when your child goes into the Israeli army, the whole Jewish world is behind you.”
It should be, because when Jews around the world are today threatened, they can rest assured who will be there for them. As the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks expressed in 2018:
“One of the core ideas within Judaism is contained in the famous Talmudic phrase: Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh, meaning all of Israel are responsible for each other.”
This was something Eli understood and this message will resonate with all the exhausted and fatigued young soldiers who enter daily the newly renovated clubhouse at Tzanhanim Training Base.
For more information on the English-Speaking Branch of the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers, contact volunteer Ian Waldbaum at Tel: (054) 4745 092.
To learn more of the work Rabbi Shalom Myers with Lone Soldiers in particular the Heredi soldiers, visit ‘Emek Lone Soldiers’ at 64 Emek Refaim Jerusalem or contact by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org and/or +972586355207.
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