New England Patriots owner's love for the Holy Land

Robert Kraft uses his unique sports platform to promote Jewish values and impact communities, from New England to Jerusalem.

 ROBERT KRAFT with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at the Kraft Family Stadium complex in the capital. (photo credit: ARNON BOSSANI)
ROBERT KRAFT with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at the Kraft Family Stadium complex in the capital.
(photo credit: ARNON BOSSANI)

Robert Kraft is a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

Most prominently known as the owner of the National Football League’s New England Patriots, the 81-year-old Boston native is also chairman and CEO of the Kraft Group, a 2019 Genesis Prize recipient, a Columbia University alum who holds honorary degrees from several institutions, and even somewhat of an American pop-culture icon, among his many hats and designations.

In the sports realm, since buying the Patriots in 1994, Kraft also founded the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer in 1996, and the esports-based Boston Uprising in 2017. As of 2022, he has a reported net worth of $8.3 billion.

Yet, Kraft succinctly self-defines his life mission by the “four f’s: family, faith, football and philanthropy.”

The Jerusalem Post had a recent opportunity to catch up with Kraft in a wide-ranging conversation that ultimately kept coming back to his love of Israel and its capital.

 Israel tackle football story by Jerusalem Post Sports Staff – Picture of Israel-vs-Hungary (credit: Tamás Battyáni/Courtesy) Israel tackle football story by Jerusalem Post Sports Staff – Picture of Israel-vs-Hungary (credit: Tamás Battyáni/Courtesy)

Kraft grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, in a Modern Orthodox Jewish family. He famously recounts his father wanting him to become a rabbi and how in high school, he was unable to participate in most sports because it interfered with his after-school Hebrew studies and Sabbath observance.

“As a child growing up, I grew up in a very traditional Jewish home and put on tefillin every day and always faced Yerushalayim [Jerusalem] while reciting the Shmona Esrei [the silent prayer].”

After getting married at the age of 22, Kraft and his young bride knew exactly where their first overseas adventure would take place.

“Someone was kind enough to give me and Myra a honeymoon trip to Israel, and that is when my real love of the country kicked into another gear.

“That was in 1963, when the State of Israel was 15 years old. I’ll never forget looking out my window in the hotel and seeing Jordanian soldiers on the Western Wall and not being able to go into the Old City. It was a great, great disappointment not being able to go to the wall in ’63.

“A week after the 1967 war, I came back and I have probably been back in Israel over 100 times since then.”

Many of those trips combined both business and pleasure.

“In the ’90s, our principal business at the time was paper and packaging, and I knew of two plants in Israel that were both in financial trouble and I bought them both and put them together and helped turn them around. We had a partnership with [Israeli manufacturer] Koor Industries, and we wound up building a plant in Caesarea, on the most modern plants in the Middle East, and were honored with Natan Sharansky doing the ribbon-cutting.

In 1989, Kraft and his wife launched the Passport to Israel Fund, in collaboration with the Center for Jewish Progress of Greater Boston (CJP), to help parents send their teenage children to Israel.

He has also led 27 missions to the Holy Land, including numerous “Touchdown in Israel” trips with Patriots players and Football Hall of Famers.

“I have brought many different entertainers here, different missions of Christian people and athletes. Primarily, I wanted them to come and experience the country in a way that Israel doesn’t always get portrayed in the media. A lot of them become PR agents for us.”

In 2017, Kraft announced a contribution of $6 million to build the first regulation size American football field in Israel, what is today known as the Kraft Family Sports Complex. Its predecessor, Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem’s Gan Sacher, was inaugurated almost 15 years earlier.

“At one point, I made the decision to help improve the quality of life in Israel, in whatever small way I could. So I thought of building places where people could experience athletics or exercise and also interact with people of all backgrounds. I started working with [former Jerusalem mayor] Teddy Kollek and we built the first [American] football stadium In Jerusalem.”

Right away, Kraft and his wife brought Patriots’ players to see the games, including quarterback Tom Brady in 2006, and he also brought the Lombardi Trophy to the Holy Land after one of New England’s Super Bowl titles.

“One of my first recollections when I came to watch a game is seeing people of Arab descent blocking for our Israeli, Jewish quarterback – who was actually Ron Dermer.”

Dermer, of course, became a high-profile political consultant in Israel and recently served as the Israeli ambassador to the US from 2013 to 2021.

“Over 20 years ago, he played quarterback for the Big Blue football team and on his offensive line there were both Jews and Arabs, and I love that.”

“We have continued to build and do things that have enabled physical activity by Israelis and help people enjoy our beautiful country.

“Taking these 27 missions that I led – mostly with my late wife, Myra, of blessed memory – have been really inspirational. Going into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, taking people to the Western Wall and just traveling throughout the country has been unbelievable. When I took some of our athletes to be baptized in the Sea of Galilee, many of them said that it was a greater thrill for them than winning the Super Bowl.”

OVER THE years, Kraft has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to philanthropic work including education, child- and women-related issues, healthcare, youth sports and American and Israeli causes.

In 2019, Kraft, along with then-Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, hosted a soccer match between the New England Revolution and Chelsea, called Final Whistle on Hate, to raise money to combat antisemitism. The match raised an estimated $4m., with Kraft personally contributing $1m. toward the fund. Following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting at Tree of Life in 2018, Kraft visited the synagogue to pay his respects and attended services with the congregation before the Patriots played the Steelers in a game the next day.

In June 2019, Kraft received Israel’s Genesis Prize, a $1m. award given to an individual who is committed to Jewish values and is an inspiration to the next generation of Jews. At the Jerusalem event, Kraft pledged $20m. to establish a foundation to fight antisemitism and combat the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel, also known as BDS.

In August of this year, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-affiliated super PAC United Democracy Project received $1m. from Kraft. And also this summer, Kraft met with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion and committed funds for the NIS 15m. rejuvenation project in Jerusalem’s Gan Sacher.

“I fell in love with Jerusalem when I visited for the first time on my honeymoon,” noted Kraft. “There is no other place in the world quite like it. Since then, I have proudly pledged my support to numerous Israeli initiatives. When Mayor Lion advised me of his plans to renovate Sacher Park in order to add more recreational space for all citizens of Jerusalem, it was my pleasure to join in his efforts as he is a visionary who continues to provide great leadership for the city.”

Mayor Lion also was effusive in his remarks.

“The vast philanthropic activity of the Kraft family in the city of Jerusalem is another testimony to the depth of friendship, partnership, love and trust between the family and the city of Jerusalem,” said Lion. “We never take for granted the fact that our city has such a generous friend. The latest donation constitutes another chapter in this special relationship. The upgrading of the sports complex strengthens one of the well-known and beloved symbols of Jerusalem that has become Jerusalem’s Central Park. The Jerusalem Municipality will continue to work tirelessly to upgrade the infrastructure, tourist sites, leisure centers, gardens, parks and public spaces all over the city for the benefit and well-being of all the city’s residents and visitors.” 

Kraft admits his outlook on life has changed somewhat over the years.

“As I’ve grown older, the ability to impact my community… has become more important to me,” Kraft said. “Now, when I wake up each morning, my focus has moved from what it’s going to do with my businesses to how I can use the platform and resources available to me to fight the inequities and injustices I see in the world.”

Invariably, this leads him back to Israel.

“I’ll never forget when we built our first football stadium in Jerusalem and before the ceremonial opening game, they played both ‘Hatikvah’ and the American national anthem and I got goosebumps. Where else in the world would that happen?

“And within a few hundred yards of that stadium you had the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall, three of the greatest physical structures that symbolize holy places of three different religions, which is just so special.” 

Kraft has always made a meaningful effort to promote Jewish values and his love for Israel. Being the owner of the Patriots has certainly provided him with a unique platform for social change and influence.

“I think in today’s world there is so much divisiveness and extreme feelings and a lack of empathy toward other people’s positions. There are two things that bring people together in the world, where the only real agenda is rooting for the performer. And that is sports and music. They truly have the ability to transcend differences between people.”

When asked to identify the core source of his philanthropic nature, Kraft didn’t hesitate to recall his parents.

“I think in today’s world there is so much divisiveness and extreme feelings and a lack of empathy toward other people’s positions. There are two things that bring people together in the world, where the only real agenda is rooting for the performer. And that is sports and music. They truly have the ability to transcend differences between people.”

Robert Kraft

“My mom used to have a sign up in the kitchen where we would have breakfast – ‘Hard work, perseverance, never giving up and charity are the main things in life.’

“So I try to live by what both my parents taught me. I was privileged to have a very loving home. We were a modest-income family, but we were very rich in love and Jewish values. I think if there’s anything in which I’ve been considered successful, I would give the credit to my parents and the values they taught me.

“Whenever I have the opportunity to speak, I talk about the Jewish values I grew up with. My dad, of blessed memory, knew Torah inside and out – ba’al peh – and we used to study the portion of the week every week on Shabbat morning, with all the commentaries like Rashi and Onkelos, and then in the afternoon we would learn Pirkei Avot (Chapter of the Fathers), which is my favorite book in all our liturgy.

“I think Pirkei Avot really provides the best lessons of life and the answers for everything are found in the book.”

And, of course, Kraft quoted Ben Zoma’s teachings (naturally, in perfect Hebrew).

“‘Who is wise? One who learns from every man. Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations. Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot.’ These lessons, when you think about it, are what life is all about.”

ANY CONVERSATION with Kraft has to include a question about the Patriots and his expectations for the team in this recently started NFL season. The Patriots, of course, have won six Super Bowls under Kraft’s ownership in the past 20 years.

“We have the good fortune of taking a team that, when we bought it, was the worst performer at the bottom of the 30 teams in the league, though in the last couple decades we have done pretty well.

“But in terms of this year, I get asked this question all the time. And the truth is that no one really knows, because every season is unique. There are so many factors at play, and the physical well-being of our players and them not getting injured is so important. But I feel very positive about our team.”

While Kraft has personally been to Israel a number of times over the past couple of years, he is hoping that after a brief hiatus, he will be back in the Holy Land leading another mission soon.

“There are a lot of people who have not yet had the opportunity to do it. Because of COVID, we had this break, but now we are back! It’s a real joy for me to do it, to open something up for people that they wouldn’t otherwise see. I believe it really does make a difference.”

“Israel combines the unique modernity of Tel Aviv – which is a great, great city – and then 45 minutes away you have Jerusalem, the ultimate city of spirituality. 

“The fact that Israel was established in my lifetime, when for more than 2,000 years we have been in Diaspora, is a true miracle of the world. I’m honored to be able to come and be a part of it. I just love the country.”