Storyteller brings his family saga to life

“In Detroit, I saw how important Jewish and Israel education are, and this completely changed my professional focus.”

Jeff Kaye, 60: From Glasgow, Scotland to Jerusalem, 1981 (photo credit: DANI MACHLIS)
Jeff Kaye, 60: From Glasgow, Scotland to Jerusalem, 1981
(photo credit: DANI MACHLIS)
Over a span of 39 years in Israel, Jeff Kaye went from a special education teacher to a school principal to the pinnacle of the nonprofit fundraising world. He worked for major organizations that included the United Israel Appeal (UIA), the Jewish Agency for Israel and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) and is cofounder of the Israel Academy of Philanthropy. Today, Kaye is VP of Public Affairs at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
His journey to Israel began in Glasgow, Scotland, where he grew up in a traditional Jewish home and community. When he was nine years old Kaye joined the Habonim Youth Movement, and with this and the influence of the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars, he was on a trajectory straight to Israel.
“No one in my family had ever been to Israel,” says Kaye. “But after I finished my degree in psychology at the University of Strathclyde, my cat and I were on our way to make aliyah.”
During a stint as director of the Kiryat Ye’arim Youth Village, Kaye was invited to be a Jewish Agency shaliach (emissary) in Detroit. Married, with two young children, he spent four years in a community that embraced him and opened his eyes to the importance of Israel-Diaspora relations.
“I had become so immersed in being Israeli that I had steered away from my upbringing in Scotland,” explains Kaye. “In Detroit, I saw how important Jewish and Israel education are, and this completely changed my professional focus.” Upon his return to Israel, he served as director of the UIA, and went on to become the Director General for Resource Development and Public Affairs at the Jewish Agency.
In 2006 he attended the Tel Aviv One event that brought young people from North America to experience Tel Aviv as a vibrant city on the cutting edge of global developments. While there, Kaye received a call from his mother telling him that his father had been hospitalized.
Kaye jumped on the first flight to London, and while hearing the words of Sarah McLachlan through his earphones, “The man I love is leaving, won’t you take him when he comes to your door,” Kaye knew he was too late. His father had died.
Numb with grief during the shiva mourning period, Kaye started to think about everything that had happened in his life: the path he had chosen and the plan that he had created for himself. He realized that with his father’s passing he had no one to get answers from about his past, in order to make sense of his own life. He remembered the name Samuel Jacobs, his great-grandfather who had immigrated to Scotland.
“I thought if I found out about him and his journey, it would help me find the answers that I was searching for,” says Kaye. “I did not want his story, my family’s story, to be lost to the sands of time.”
So began Kaye’s decade-long quest for his ancestor, which culminated in his new book Gathering Grains of Sand – My Search for Samuel Jacobs, published by Gefen.
The book spans Kaye’s meticulous and moving search from the birthplace of Jacobs in a farm beside Vievis, Lithuania to Glasgow to unknown relatives in Israel. Along the way, combed with memories of his travels to Jewish communities to gear up for his own journey, Kaye speaks about his Jewish identity and his role in some of Israel’s most historic aliyah missions.
He gives an insider’s view into the plight of the Ethiopians from the mountainous region of Gondar and about the complex Israeli laws that prevent a mother from ever joining her son in Israel. His poignant tale of meeting the last Jews of Iraq and the desire of some to remain there connects to his ancestor’s story of those who chose not to leave for Scotland. Kaye’s meeting with the Jews of Mizoram, India – thought to be from the lost tribe of Menashe – who were deeply immersed in learning and applying modern Jewish practice despite their isolation, showed Kaye, “that astonishing things could be accomplished with human determination.” “I never thought that all of my research would result in a book,” says Kaye. “I started my search out of curiosity and to leave a gift to my four beautiful grandchildren, so that they know where they came from.” It was a meeting with his longtime friend and accomplished Jewish educator, Avraham Infeld, that led him to begin writing in 2019. “Avraham told me that to write the book would be about sharing and perpetuating my personal values with future generations; this is the height of education,” says Kaye.
In reviewing the book, Infeld writes, “The reader is taken on a profound tour of the complexities of the rapidly changing world of Jewish identity. It is one of the more readable Jewish books of the decade.”
Toward the end of the book Kaye writes, “The real reason I chose to write is that I hope that by doing so I am adding my own modest contribution to the ongoing story of the Jewish people. Essentially, sharing my small piece of Jewish memory.” “The journey itself was motivated by love – for my family, for the Jewish people, for Israel, for Scotland and most surprising to me, even in the shadow of horrors Lithuania has crept into my heart.”
“Each event and each person that I discovered has in their own way provided me with clues and hints to decoding the mystery of Jewish existence and survival, although I know that many questions and dilemmas remain unanswered and unresolved.”