One on One: Give and let give

Mega-philanthropist Myra Kraft's charitable endeavors.

kraft (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
When Myra Kraft was five years old, she took a satchel, slipped quietly out of her house and proceeded to go door-to-door hitting on the neighbors for money. When she returned with a bag full of cash, her by-now-frantic mother gasped with a combination of relief and shock. The year was 1948. Myra's father, Jacob Hiatt - a Lithuanian immigrant who had settled in Worcester, Massachusetts, and made it rich in the packaging business - was away on a United Jewish Appeal mission to Europe and pre-state Palestine. Myra's little fund-raising escapade was her way of contributing to the cause. Or perhaps she was merely showing that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Either way, she has been engaged in this activity ever since, though her nickel-and-dime endeavor of childhood is now sung to the tune of millions. And the causes - like the foundations she has established or whose boards she chairs - are as numerous as they are varied. Having a net worth of more than $1 billion will do that, particularly when it is coupled with a belief in the act of giving and with the skills to persuade others to follow suit. If Myra - who has just been appointed chair of the Israel committee for the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) - minds that she is best known today for the fact that her husband, Robert, is the owner of the New England Patriots, she does not show it. If anything, she seems happy to discuss the team in particular and football in general - a sport she says she used to hate but grew to love. And though the purpose of our interview is to discuss the mission she, as head of Boston's Jewish federation, brings here every year, it is conducted at Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem, home of American Football in Israel. (A week hence, her husband and two of his players will kick off a game of tackle in the presence of the Boston group and local spectators as curious to hear Robert Kraft address the crowd in Hebrew as they are keen on getting his autograph.) In the no-nonsense style for which she is famous in the world of professional philanthropy, Myra rattles off articulate answers to questions on a range of topics, making it clear which of her statements are off the record and which are merely a reflection of her personal opinion, particularly when it comes to politics. About one thing she is utterly unequivocal, however: "The way Israel is portrayed in the media is so wrong," she says. Why, if you've got the Patriots, would an amateur football organization in Jerusalem be of any interest to you and your husband? About 10 years ago, when [AFI President] Steve Leibowitz approached us through the Jerusalem Foundation - with which we had had previous dealings - providing a place for kids to play sports was really a no-brainer for us. [At the time, Ehud Olmert was the mayor of Jerusalem and gave the project four dunams of unused land in the city.] Then, a few years ago, we enhanced the field by funding state-of-the-art artificial field turf, because water is such a precious commodity in Israel. I'll tell you a funny story. The other day, a family with two little kids asked me directions to Kraft Stadium. The person I was with asked them why they were looking for it. They said that they had read about it in a guide book and their kids wanted to see it. So, apparently it's made some tour books, which is fantastic. Every time I drive by there, the lights are on, and there are people playing sports - even on Shabbat. It's the best use of money that I've ever seen. Steve is the best. Not only have we enjoyed our friendship with him and his family over the years, but he's very good at making sure the right thing is happening at the stadium. How did you feel when the Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the Giants last month? Well, it was sad. But it's important to remember that we had a perfect season up until then, which is a real accomplishment. And once you get over the disappointment, you don't dwell on it; you start focusing on the future. There's always next season. What is your take on what has come to be called "Spygate"? [The case of a Patriots employee being accused of videotaping the signals of the coaches of the New York Jets during a game. National Football League (NFL) Commissioner Roger Goodell fined Patriots coach Bill Belichick $500,000, and docked the team $250,000 and a first-round draft pick. Goodell subsequently had the videotape destroyed, arousing the ire of Sen. Arlen Specter. Goodell has since defended his actions on the grounds that the Patriots paid their dues and have behaved above board since then.] You know, that was looked into already by the NFL. We cooperated fully, and the NFL was satisfied. It was the NFL that destroyed the tapes. That Congress should be dealing with this stuff while troops are in Iraq and the country is in a recession is appalling. It should be busy with other things that genuinely concern the American taxpayer. Is it true that you had to develop a taste for football? Yes. I hated it. My husband and my [four] sons used to go to games every Sunday, and when they did, I would have a great time by myself, going to the movies and doing The New York Times crossword puzzle. I couldn't understand the game no matter how hard they tried to get me to learn it. Then, when Robert bought the team, the first game they played after that was in Miami, over Labor Day weekend. Well, I went, but I thought, "I'm leaving Cape Cod to go to Miami?" When the first play was over, I turned to my husband and sons to ask them a question, and they told me to be quiet. "For years, we begged you to learn and tried to teach you. Now you've got to do it on your own." So I did. How? By watching and asking questions - at the right time. And every year, my knowledge increased. Now I absolutely love it. I had thought it was just a brutal, stupid sport. Actually, it's layered and complex. You have to be very, very smart to play it and to coach it. It's a brilliant sport. It's like strategizing a war - the way chess is. Speaking of war strategies, how much do you follow the Israeli political scene? [She sighs] That's almost an oxymoron - I mean, because it changes day to day. We're very fortunate to have a lot of friends who are involved in government. The Olmerts, for example. I'm working on a project with Aliza - a gracious, very lovely, talented and smart woman. It's a brilliant project geared at enabling all children to start out on an equal footing before they begin school. The provider is the JDC, but the government has promised to support the project over the long term - and not because Aliza is the wife of the prime minister. We're also very close with Ehud, and their son, Shaul, as well, who just returned to Israel from the States with his wife and kids. I don't think Shaul missed a single football game this past year. I mean, he moved back to Israel a week before the Super Bowl, and flew back to America to attend it. We've also known Bibi [opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu] for many years, and Natan Sharansky and [Defense Minister] Ehud Barak. Has this diversity ever caused a conflict? No, because it's good to know everyone. Your current visit involved bringing a mission to Israel. Who are the participants and why is it important that they come here? This is the fourth year our federation has been bringing a mission of Jewish and Christian community leaders to Israel. And each year it gets better. The word has gotten out, and people have already started asking me to put them down for next year. In fact, this trip, two players from the Patriots - [star defensive lineman] Richard Seymour and [tight end] Ben Watson and their wives - who are religious Christians. They kept asking Robert if they could come one of these years. Aside from touring the country, we always have a program with authors, journalists and politicians who span the spectrum Left to Right. The participants then become spokespeople for Israel. A very dear friend of ours, Joe Campanelli - the head of one of the largest banks in New England - came two years ago. A couple of days into the trip, he said that he was so angry that, because of everything he'd read in the newspapers, he had denied himself and his wife such trips to Israel. He said: "It's the safest place I've ever been to in my life. And it's so beautiful and so incredible." He subsequently wrote an editorial to this effect in a Boston newspaper. The way Israel is portrayed in the media is so wrong. It causes fear. A couple of our most generous Jewish donors - who each give over a $1 million a year - have never been here, and it's due to fear. As someone who came here several times during the second intifada, I know that you take care not to do certain things, like going into a crowded pizza parlor or riding the bus. But, you know, even in Boston's inner city, there are drive-by shootings, which are just as random as suicide bombings in terms of the ability to avoid them. So, you just learn where to go and when. What about Sderot? Do you take your missions there? That wasn't on our itinerary this year, though I myself have been there a number of times. What people down there are going through is unimaginable. They have been under shelling for seven years and it's just gotten worse and worse. Of course, now Ashkelon is in the line of fire, too. It's coming to a point where something has to be done. But I understand the problem of Gaza's being so tightly packed that going in there with soldiers will have to be done very carefully, because of world opinion. Is it true that you visited Israel during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006? Not exactly. I was going to go on three different occasions, and Robert didn't want me to, because there were missiles falling on Haifa, and he knew I'd be going there, since Haifa is Boston's sister city. So he said, "Please, I'll make a deal with you. The day after the war's over, you can take the private plane. You don't have to fly commercial." I said, "You've got a deal." So, I flew out Tuesday night, got here Wednesday afternoon and flew back Friday. How do you juggle all the different organizations you run and whose boards you sit on? It's what I do; it's my job. It's very exciting. I'm about to become the chair of the Israel committee for the JDC, and I love it. Is it true that you've been raising money since you were a little girl? Yes [she laughs]. When I was five, my father - who came to the US from Lithuania in 1935 (his family, except for one sister, were annihilated) - became involved with JDC, which then was the UJA. And the first mission ever went to Palestine in February of 1948. They went for a month and first they visited the DP camps in Europe and then came on to Palestine, where they were guarded by the Hagana, because hostilities had already broken out. It was around Purim time, and I attended an afternoon kindergarten [in the Boston area]. One morning I got up, took a bag and decided to go out to the neighborhood to raise money for the poor children in Europe and Palestine. I went door-to-door. My mother was getting frantic because I was late and she had no idea where I was. I came in dragging this sack of money. And she said, "Oh my God, what did you do? We've got to return it all." And then the neighbors started calling the house. It was a good thing [she smiles]. What ever happened to that money? Did it get to the children? Of course it did. And it's continued ever since. Were you an active Zionist throughout your life - in college, for example? It was all kinds of things, but Israel was a place where I had spent a summer in high school. And it was a really different place in those days. It was so tiny. The first time I realized how much Israel had grown was when we came here for our son's bar mitzva in 1977. Now it's absolutely unbelievable - just watching all the construction going on. What would you do if one of your sons announced he was making aliya and joining the IDF? I would go with him. I always wanted to live here. As for joining the army, over Vietnam, I would have had an issue, because I didn't believe in it. The same goes for the war in Iraq. I don't know why we're there. I would hate to have one of my sons fighting there. Iran's the problem, not Iraq. But, as far as fighting for Israel is concerned, there is no problem. Is the Iranian threat - or different candidates' positions on whether to invade - one of the things you will take into account when you vote in the upcoming presidential elections? No. What issues will you take into account? Israel, the economy, the plans for getting out of Iraq quickly.