In Super Bowl matchup, Pats have Israel connections covered
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In Super Bowl matchup, Pats have Israel connections covered

Tom Brady shoots at an IDF range, PMO guards try to dismantle the championship trophy, and scrappy NE players embrace their heritage

Lazar Berman is a former breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and owner Robert Kraft are all smiles after beating the Indianapolis Colts, January 2015. (Elsa/Getty Images/via JTA)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and owner Robert Kraft are all smiles after beating the Indianapolis Colts, January 2015. (Elsa/Getty Images/via JTA)

When the two heavyweights of the National Football League – the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots – meet in the Super Bowl Sunday night in Arizona, many questions will be answered. Can Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” defense shut down New England’s vaunted passing attack? Will the Patriots’ defenders slow Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch? Is this the game in which Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick take their spots as the best in football history, or will Seattle dethrone New England as the dominant NFL franchise?

In one area, though, the Patriots already have the Seahawks beat, well before the opening kickoff – their connection to Judaism and Israel.

The physical, punishing NFL, and college game that feeds into it, attracts players from gritty inner cities across the US, as well as hulking specimens from football meccas like Texas and the Midwest. Though there have been some notable exceptions, like Hall of Fame QB Sid Luckman and brothers Mitchell and Geoffrey Schwartz, Jews have not been nearly as prominent in the NFL as they have been in professional baseball.

The Patriots, however, have key players who identify as Jewish, and an owner with deep connections to Judaism and Israel.

‘Completely in love with the country’

The commitment of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and his late wife Myra, to supporting Jewish causes in the United States and in Israel is apparent to all who have come to contact with them.

Kraft grew up in a religious home. His father, Harry, was a beloved teacher at the Temple Kehillath Israel in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he regularly led services.

Robert was on break from his studies at Columbia University when he noticed a pretty Brandeis student sitting at a nearby table in a Boston deli. His friend found out her name – Myra Hiatt — and Robert winked at her as he walked out. The lovestruck Kraft later went to her campus to find her, and after locating her in the library, took her out on a date. They were engaged that very night.

Myra’s father, Jack Hiatt, was a successful businessman who ran a packaging company in Worcester, Massachusetts. Robert went to work for his father-in-law, eventually taking over the Rand-Whitney paper products company and creating his business empire.

Kraft bought the Patriots in 1994 for a then-record $175 million.

The Krafts turned their attention to philanthropy early on, giving more than $100 million to a range of causes. To promote Christian-Jewish understanding, their family foundation has endowed chairs in Jewish studies at Boston College and Holy Cross College, and a chair in Christian Studies at Brandeis University. At Kraft’s alma mater Columbia, they funded the Kraft Center for Jewish Living and the university’s athletic fields.

The Krafts have contributed to Israeli society and economy in a number of ways. They were instrumental in developing the sister city relationship between Haifa and Boston. Myra Kraft was especially interested in the fate of Israel’s Ethiopian community, and supported after-school and absorption program for Ethiopian immigrants to Israel. A colleague remembered Myra Kraft chastising Israel’s ministers of education and absorption in a late night meeting in her hotel suite for not doing enough to absorb Ethiopians into Israeli society.

The Krafts also donated millions of dollars to build the Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem, where Israel’s flag and tackle football leagues play. In addition, Myra Kraft supported the Israeli women’s national flag football team.

Robert Kraft’s business activity extends to Israel as well, including to Israel largest packaging plant, Carmel Container System, where he is the primary shareholder.

But it was the annual trips to Israel where their connection to the country was most evident.

“Robert loves taking people to Israel,” said Barry Shrage, close friend of the family and president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies. “Myra was completely in love with the country. Every stone, every rock, every tree. And she knew all their names.”

“It was a way for her to express her intense feeling of love for the country. It was very important to her…She really was a beautiful person.”

Even during the height of the Second Intifada, Myra led groups with hundreds of participants to Israel. She would make sure local shopkeepers stayed open late so she could take the groups to support in the struggling stores.

And it wasn’t only members of the Jewish community who toured the country with Myra. Before she passed away in 2011 after a bout with cancer, Myra Kraft used to take Patriots players to Israel regularly.

“I remember sitting in the training room with her one day; we were both getting treatment, and she invited [my wife] Kirsten and I to Israel with her and Mr. Kraft,” former Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson told ESPN.com. “I thought she was kidding, but that’s the kind of person she was: so gracious, generous and hospitable.”

“I specifically remember how comfortable she made us feel. We did not know most of the people on the trip but she went out of her way to introduce us to everyone, like we were her kids, as well as educating us on the many places we visited,” Watson remembered. “I also didn’t realize what a sense of humor she had. She and our tour guide had us rolling.”

Not all the trips went off according to plan. In 2002, after the Patriot’s first Super Bowl victory over the St. Louis Rams, Kraft and Shrage were invited by then-Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert and prime minister Ariel Sharon to visit the Prime Minister’s Office with the trophy. The guards at the PMO had no idea who Kraft was, had never seen the big metal trophy in his hand before, and were at a total loss whether to let it through or not.

Their solution? Dismantle the trophy to make sure nothing was hidden inside.

“Luckily, one of the guards was American-born, and when he saw what was happening, he told them they couldn’t do that to the Super Bowl trophy,” recalled Shrage. The trophy made it through, and Kraft, Shrage, and the rest of the participants spent the next hour with Sharon and Olmert.

Tom Brady, sharpshooter

It was the Krafts’ 2006 trip that still has Patriots fans in Israel buzzing.

They brought superstar quarterback Tom Brady to the country for his first visit, along with CBS anchorwoman Sara Underwood, and Joseph Campanelli, then CEO of Sovereign Bank.

Participants on the trip say Brady was visibly moved by what he saw and experienced. Shrage remembers a Chabad rabbi who was close with Myra leading the group’s Friday night dinner. “Everyone started to dance, and Tom soon joined in. To see Tom Brady dancing in a circle with us, singing with us, that was really special.”

“I think he was enormously moved.”

The Krafts took Brady to an IDF infantry base as well. Boston-born Netzach Yehuda battalion soldier Avi Sandler was in basic training in the Jordan Valley. He had just completed a week of field exercises and a forced march back to his base.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and quarterback Tom Brady visit Nahal Haredi soldier Avi Sandler on his base during a 2006 trip to Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and quarterback Tom Brady visit Nahal Haredi soldier Avi Sandler on his base during a 2006 trip to Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)

He was told to put on his beret and report to the Deputy Company Commander’s office.

“I was nervous, as at that point one only went to his office if he was in trouble,” said Sandler. “As I entered the office and saluted, I saw two other soldiers with American backgrounds already seated. We were told that a group of important Americans will be visiting the base tomorrow and that we were chosen to attend as representatives.”

Fellow soldier Label Garelik was sitting in his room when his sergeant came in, and told him that there were some Americans visiting who wanted to speak to soldiers who had moved to Israel from the US.

“Some Robert Kraft or something.”

The next morning, the soldiers were bused to the firing range, where a weapons demonstration was prepared for the visitors.

“Quietly, on the side, my friend says, ‘Avi, isn’t that Tom Brady?'” Sandler recalled. “Other than Mr. Kraft, we had no clue who was visiting. I responded, ‘It looks like him but what would he be doing here?'”

“‘We quickly turned to Brady and asked, ‘Are you Tom Brady?'”

“‘Yes,’ he responded. Our mouths dropped.”

One of the soldiers asked Brady if he wanted to play football with them.

“I don’t mix business and pleasure,” Brady joked.

The soldiers gave a demonstration of the various weapons lined up at the range. Brady exclaimed “Damn!” as the machines gun were firing.

The Patriots quarterback even took some target practice at the base’s shooting range. “I was worried about the recoil,” Shrage recalled. “We certainly didn’t need Brady hurting his throwing shoulder shooting a rifle.”

Other New Englanders were given the opportunity to meet Brady at the Israel Museum at a Saturday night dinner.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady visits the Israel Museum, 2006 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady visits the Israel Museum, 2006 (photo credit: Courtesy)

“He said he really enjoyed hummus,” remembered Israeli lawyer Hillel Katchen, a law student at Bar Ilan at the time “He seemed really down to earth. He said he enjoyed Tel Aviv more because nobody recognized him there.”

It’s not clear whether it was the trip that inspired Brady, but he keeps a large menorah in his Brookline home. “We’re not Jewish,” he told the New York Times last week. “But I think we’re into everything…I don’t know what I believe. I think there’s a belief system, I’m just not sure what it is.”

Brady probably isn’t the only one in his family with a menorah at home. His sister, Julie, married Jewish former Boston Red Sox star Kevin Youkilis in 2012.

Finish strong

Though their star QB isn’t Jewish, the Patriots do have players who identify as Jews.

Not many expected Julian Edelman to make the NFL, certainly not to excel in the league. Though his athleticism was never questioned, Edelman is undersized at 5’10, and was not a standout throwing quarterback in college. Scouting reports were brutal –“He is too small and unconventional.” “There are questions about his durability and he is an unknown.“ “He is a gimmick prospect who lacks a true position.”
But the Patriots took him in the last round of the 2009 draft, with the 232nd overall pick. Edelman went about proving his critics wrong, making his mark as a premier punt returner, and taking advantage of his limited opportunities at wide receiver. He even filled in as a defensive back when injuries decimated the New England backfield. After leading Patriots receiver Wes Welker departed for the rival Denver Broncos, Edelman stepped into the limelight, becoming New England’s top receiver.

Given his name, there has always been speculation that Edelman was Jewish, but there were conflicting reports. In 2009, blogger Jeremy Fine spoke to Edelman’s college roommate and teammate, Kent State defensive tackle Sam Frist (who is Jewish himself), and learned that Edelman’s father is Jewish but his mother is not. Edelman considers himself Jewish, Fine learned.

In recent years, there have been additional indications that Edelman embraces his Jewish heritage. In an interview last season with NFL Total Access, Edelman was giving cagey answers, and one of the hosts asked for “some good Christmas answers. Give us some presents, okay?”

“Yeah, I’m Jewish, so I’ll try to keep it to Hanukkah presents, even though it’s over, but we’ll see what we can do,” Edelman responded.

During Hanukkah 2012, Edelman is reported to have tweeted a picture of a lit menorah to Jewish ESPN sportscaster Linda Cohn, with the message, “Happy 6th night. #hanukkah2012 #boom.”

This season, in a blowout win over the Denver Broncos, Edelman was spotted on the sidelines donning a red stocking cap with an Israeli and American flag pin firmly affixed to it. According to Shrage, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor was at the game that day, and gave the pin to Edelman before kickoff.

Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman wearing an Israel-America flag pin, November 2014 (screen capture: CBS)
Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman wearing an Israel-America flag pin, November 2014 (screen capture: CBS)

“He certainly feels a connection,” Shrage confirmed.

Safety Nate Ebner is another scrappy player who took an unconventional path to the NFL. The 26-year-old was a rugby star growing up, playing on the US age group national team. He became the youngest player to play for the US national rugby sevens team at age 17.

He never played high school football, and walked on to the Ohio State Buckeyes team in 2009, primarily as a special teams player. He won the team’s Bo Rein Award for most inspirational player in 2011.

The Patriots drafted Ebner with their 197th pick in the sixth round of the 2012 draft. In his three years with the team, Ebner has become a core of the special teams unit, while playing occasionally at safety.

Ebner grew up in Dublin, Ohio with his father, mother, and stepsister. Ebner’s father, Jeff, was president of the University of Minnesota chapter of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity, the country’s oldest Jewish fraternity. He was active in local synagogue Temple Shalom, even serving as Sunday school principal at one point. Jeff Ebner was also an avid rugby player, and played for the US team in the Maccabia Games in Israel.

But tragedy struck the family. In November, 2008, while Nate was away in college, Jeff Ebner was beaten to death in his auto restoration business.

“It was real hard for me. I mean my dad and I were best friends,” Nate told ESPN. He and his mother began wearing “Finish strong” bracelets, to remember what his father’s message as his rugby coach.

The Seahawks have players who have Jewish-sounding last names, but they are not Jews themselves. Defensive lineman Landon Cohen said in a 2010 ESPN interview that he often gets asked about his last name.

“It’s a Jewish last name and I don’t know how I got it,” he said. “I know my dad’s last name is Cohen and it’s been that way since I can remember.”

He added that he is Christian.

Offensive lineman Max Unger’s name has also led some to believe he is Jewish, but there is no indication that he is.

Many in Israel will stay up into the wee hours of the morning Monday to watch the big game. Some will root for the Patriots, other for the Seahawks, and there will of course be those who just come for the commercials.

But if Israelis would like to see the Super Bowl trophy make its way past the guards and into the Prime Minister’s Office once again, it’s clear who they should be pulling for.

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