Some 48 hours before he was slated to receive the Genesis Prize, Robert Kraft greeted guests in his suite at a Tel Aviv hotel with a relaxed smile, sporting a casual polo shirt and carrying his 78 years very well.
“I’m not someone who chills easily, but coming to Israel I feel good and relaxed when I see this,” he says, gesturing toward the picture window that offered a spectacular view of the frenetic midday beach scene below, juxtaposed against the serene Mediterranean. “Yeah, this is awesome,” he marvels.
After a year that has seen the owner of the New England Patriots rise to the heights of winning yet another Super Bowl, Kraft is focused during his week’s stay in Israel on the privilege of being named laureate of the 2019 Genesis Prize and hosting a group of current and former NFL players and their guests on a tour around the country.
The Genesis Prize, dubbed “the Jewish Nobel” by Time Magazine, honors extraordinary individuals for outstanding professional achievement, contribution to humanity, and commitment to Jewish values. Previous honorees include US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; philanthropist and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg; actor, producer and peace activist Michael Douglas; British sculptor Anish Kapoor; and “fiddler to the world” maestro Itzhak Perlman.
“I’m so grateful to the Genesis Prize because by doing what they did and the timing of it, it got me a little more focused on concentrating my efforts on doing good things,” says Kraft. “To be very frank, I didn’t know a lot about it. I had seen that some wonderful people had been awarded the prize, and I was really very humbled and flattered when I was told about it. I run into a fair amount of sports fans here in Israel who speak highly of the Patriots, but on this trip I’ve been hearing much more ‘mazel tov’ on the Genesis Prize, and I think that’s very nice. So it’s really quite an honor.”
Kraft says that being awarded the prize has been a catalyst for him to reshape his thinking about how he chooses to conduct his extensive philanthropic efforts.
“We try to do creative philanthropy, and most of our philanthropy outside of the Jewish world is aimed at helping people most vulnerable… or where it’s really impactful, where people don’t think that others care about them,” he explains.
Kraft credits his focus on creative philanthropy to his late wife, Myra, who died in 2011, and to a lifelong commitment to Jewish values.
“Myra was always looking out for the most vulnerable people in society. Because of that, we got to do a lot of things in partnership with communities, ones that would never think we would even care about them. I’ve been privileged, and I try to live my life according to the book of Pirkei Avot. I don’t always succeed. But every Sabbath when I used to come home from services with my parents, we used to study the portion of the week and learn Rashi. I was privileged to be born into a family where I was exposed to religion in a way that was an enhancement. For those people looking for a guide to life, everything’s there, in my opinion,” he says.
The 2019 Genesis Prize laureate used his acceptance speech to announce the establishment of a foundation dedicated to combating antisemitism. Kraft has already raised over $30 million at its launch by seeding the foundation with a $20m. personal donation and two $5m. gifts, including one by Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich. Kraft invited other philanthropists to join him in making contributions to fund this foundation to fight antisemitism.
Kraft called the foundation “a platform to galvanize the global fight against antisemitism, uniting all people of good conscience around this goal. My vision is to work to end the violence against Jewish communities. To counter the normalization of antisemitic narratives that question Israel’s right to exist, disguised as part of legitimate debate on campuses and in the media. To educate, to inform, and to heal inter-communal relations. In combating the scourge of antisemitism, my solemn ambition is to counter all forms of intolerance in the spirit of the ancient Jewish value of tikkun olam – to heal and repair the world.”
Co-founder and chairman of the Genesis Prize Foundation Stan Polovets praised Kraft’s announcement, saying that “from Pittsburgh to Paris, from San Diego to Berlin, Jewish communities have been under attack. We can no longer be complacent or pretend these are isolated incidents. Make no mistake; the wave of antisemitism is rising once again. Tonight, we stand together with Robert Kraft in our determination to turn back this tide of darkness and to channel significant human and financial resources toward this goal.”
Kraft devotes much of his time to addressing the rise of antisemitism in the US. “When you think about it, that people in America or Europe are killed for no other reason than how they were born and what ethnicity or religion they were born into... they are hate crimes, and we need to be more cognizant of it,” he says.
In November of last year, while in town for a New England Patriots game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kraft visited Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, a few weeks after a mass shooting that left 11 dead. Kraft was given an aliyah and was asked to speak about the recent tragedy at the synagogue.
“When I came off of the bimah, a woman hugged me and thanked me, and her arm was wrapped up. I found out later that she had been shot, and her 94-year-old mother was killed,” he said. “She [her mother] was someone who came from Europe and survived everything there, and then went to a shul in America and was killed for no other reason than being Jewish. That’s nuts,” he laments.
KRAFT’S ALLEGIANCE to Israel is one he wears on his sleeve, whether it be exclaiming that walking along the Tel Aviv promenade to Jaffa and back is one of the joys of his life or touting the Israeli innovation he experienced with his busload of players on a visit to Startup Nation Central in Tel Aviv earlier that day.
“You realize on a per capita basis what goes on in Israel and the innovation that goes on here. It’s not a country of great natural resources or large population, yet it’s the center of a lot of great activity. I take great pride in that,” he says.
Kraft admits that being an outspoken advocate for Israel has sometimes been detrimental to his business interests but that he would not be swayed from standing up for what he believes in.
“Life is short, and you have to be true to what’s right to you. Sometimes doing that is not popular... and it’s not easy sometimes,” Kraft says. “We’re living in a world, too, where with social media, people can say anything and do anything, and very often it isn’t true. It becomes part of our information flow and takes on certain legitimacy, even though it’s false. So we’re living in a world like that, and I want to do everything I can to counteract it. Part of it is doing things you think are right, even though it’s not popular.”
One very popular move Kraft made in Israel was funding the inauguration of the Israel Football League and building Kraft Stadium near the entrance to Jerusalem in 1999, a gift that introduced American football to Israel. He later contributed funds to build the Kraft Family Sports Complex which was inaugurated in the capital in 2017.
Kraft, a believer in the idea that sports brings people together, gave an example of one team -- the Jerusalem Lions -- winning the IFL’s Holy Bowl. “What I loved was that there was a Jewish quarterback, and there were Palestinians from east Jerusalem on the line blocking for him. Everybody’s got problems every day... and playing a game is an escape from challenges and the day-to-day life,” he says.
“If you understand the Patriots locker room, there are people of all backgrounds, of all different economic groups. And the only way to win is to do it as a team,” he adds.
Efforts like that are part of the lifeblood that keeps Kraft going. He’s reached the age at which he is thinking about the legacy he wants to leave behind, beyond that of being the owner of one of the most successful teams in NFL history.
“I’ve had only one bad break in my life: losing my sweet wife. Other than that, I’ve been blessed in so many ways. I went to school on a scholarship, and I’ve been able to forge my way and have wonderful opportunities. I hope my legacy will be of someone who tried to bring people together in unique ways, “ he says.
“Whenever I’m in Jerusalem, I think how lucky I am that the State of Israel was established in my lifetime. I used to put on tefillin as a young man and would face Jerusalem saying the Shema Yisrael. And to think Israel was created in modern times when we’ve been in the Diaspora for a couple thousand years, how lucky are we to have this country and how vibrant it is. So those of us who are in a position to help, we must do everything we can to help this country to be strong and vital.” This story was written in cooperation with the Genesis Prize Foundation.
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