By: Steve Balestrieri
Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick, Robert & Myra Kraft, Steve Leibowitz. (FILE PHOTO)
When Myra Kraft lost a battle with cancer in July at the age of 68, she was hailed as a great woman, a treasure, and a tireless philanthropist who worked for the good of all people worldwide not just here in Massachusetts.
To be sure, she and her husband, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, have done countless acts of kindness for the people of this state. The Patriots will honor her this season by wearing a patch with her initials on their NFL game day jerseys.
But perhaps that patch should also be worn on other football fields far from Foxboro, and in a stadium that bears the Kraft name. For perhaps the greatest legacy that Myra and Bob Kraft will leave behind is a football stadium and league in the country of Israel.
For those who aren’t as familiar with news coming out of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the country is separated by language, religious differences and generations of mistrust. Palestinians and Jews have limited interaction with one another and even fewer personal relationships across the cultural lines.
But that has changed on the football fields of Israel and in the American Football in Israel (AFI) League. Here Jews and Palestinians are getting along and are bonding friendships that even last the tests of time. How the league started and the Kraft’s involvement are a story in itself. The league had its humble beginnings 22 years ago and the visions of two men who shared a passion for the sport.
Back in 1989, Steve Leibowitz and his friend Danny Gewirtz were working for a now defunct newspaper called “the Nation”. They both loved American sports and would watch games on the satellite from American Armed Forces Television.
While other American sports had taken hold in Israel, other than pick-up games there was still no football, so Leibowitz and Gewirtz started the American Touch Football in Israel League (ATFI) and nicknamed their championship game as the ‘Holyland Bowl’.
American Football in Israel. (FILE PHOTO)
They rented local fields and found what sponsors they could find. Thanks to their dedicated leadership, it grew from eight teams at its onset, to 30 teams by year ten. The problem facing Leibowitz was now playing fields. The league was running out of places to rent for practices and games. Enter Robert and Myra Kraft in the picture.
One of the players literally bumped into the Krafts at the prestigious King David Hotel in Jerusalem. He told them about the league and the plight of the players searching for playing fields. The Krafts told the player to instruct the head of the league to contact them in Massachusetts and they would be willing to help.
Leibowitz found a rock-strewn dilapidated field at the entrance of Jerusalem where soccer hadn’t been played on for nearly 20 years, the field was being used strictly for archery. He contacted the Mayor of Jerusalem (at that time and later Israeli Prime Minister) Ehud Olmert and asked for permission to use the property if they developed the land. Olmert gave his blessing and Leibowitz presented a plan to the Krafts. Less than a year later, the stadium opened under the Kraft Family Stadium name. Touch gave way to flag football and American Football in Israel had a permanent home.
The league quickly grew to more than 50 teams and women became interested and started their own leagues with the help and sponsorship of Myra Kraft. High Schools then started and soon with four different leagues there were over 1000 players involved in the sport. The sport then spread to different cities in the country.
The Israelis started to then compete in international competitions and the national team is now ranked 9th in the world. The World Championships of 2014 will be hosted by Israel and so far 30 countries are signed up to compete.
Then about 4-5 years ago, Leibowitz met Guy Van Stratten, who with other football enthusiasts were playing tackle football with no equipment in the Haifa and Tel Aviv area. With no idea on how to procure equipment, they followed through with their vision to start an American style tackle football league with four teams, the Haifa Underdogs, Tel Aviv Sabers, Tel Aviv Pioneers and the Jerusalem Lions. The league expanded every year to now include the Jerusalem Kings, Judean Rebels, Herzliya Hammers and Beersheva Black Swarm. The league may further increase to ten teams this year.
Leibowitz then started a high school developmental league, but even in Israel, the game took on an international feel. No longer were just Jewish kids involved, Palestinians, American immigrants, Russian immigrants and others have flocked to the sport. Now players from 15 different countries of origin are playing. And no problems are reported, which is the best news of all between the Palestinians and Jews.
It is evident in the manner that the players treat one another on the field. During the early play of the championship game of the Kraft Family IFL (Israel Football League) ‘Israel Bowl’ where the crowd includes ultra-Orthodox Jews, armed soldiers and police and skull capped Israeli settlers, fans erupt, waving flags for Palestinian linebacker Ayoub Elyyan as he intercepts a pass.
His team, the Judean Rebels converted the turnover into a touchdown and won the championship game 32-30. The fact that this game took place amid the crowd of mixed Jews and Palestinians just weeks after a horrible knife attack that killed an entire West Bank Jewish settlement family is amazing. The attack polarized and inflamed feelings on both sides of the equation which already run very deep.
Kraft Field is likely the only place in the entire Middle East you’ll find Palestinians and Jewish settlers embracing. But Elayyan and his two Palestinian brothers helped a team of mostly Jewish settlers win the championship of Israel’s American football league. Just like in America, the crowd rushes the field after a championship, and to see an offensive lineman with sidelocks and a skullcap typical of the ultra-Orthodox Jews bear-hugging Ayoub’s older brother Musa, a defensive lineman from the West Bank city of Ramallah, it both startling and refreshing.
“We play as a team and leave our personal stuff on the side. If they can do it, I can too,” said Musa Elayyan, nicknamed “Moose” by his teammates. “Once you’ve played together you create a bond, especially on a successful team.”
“We are the only Israeli league of any kind that has any Palestinian players and I’m proud of that fact,” Leibowitz has said. “We were concerned about the politics, but it just hasn’t been an issue.” Leibowitz, calls the sport “peace under the helmet.” His take is that Middle Eastern people are drawn to the game because of its strategic and physical nature.
As for Robert Kraft, his take on the interaction of peoples is this; “For me, the biggest turn-on is to see Palestinians and Jewish people playing the game together and being on the same team,” Kraft said. “… You solve problems by creating jobs for people and by getting people to interact with one another and know each other as human beings and so that’s the turn-on for me here.”
Since Myra Kraft’s passing, Robert has said that he has been overwhelmed by the amount of compassion and support he’s received. “She doesn’t know how much she touched people,” he said pointing at boxes of letters and cards in an excellent interview with Yahoo’s Michael Silver. “There are about 5,000 letters per box, and more boxes at home, and most of them I haven’t been able to open yet.
‘I do it at night, and then I have trouble sleeping. But I’ve vowed to read every one. I’ve vowed to read everything… I want to read it all.”
Leibowitz who visited with Bob Kraft just before Myra’s passing, released a statement stating that Myra and Robert held the Israeli football community that they have helped get off the ground in very high regard.
“Over the past 12 years, Myra gave her love and support to the many thousands of people in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel who have been able to enjoy Kraft Family Stadium. Myra nurtured and adopted the Israeli women’s football program, and without her willing assistance, WAFI would have been hard pressed to reach its current level of success,” Leibowitz wrote.
The Krafts were frequent visitors to both Israel and Kraft Stadium, coming every year to tour and bring their message of peace and philanthropy. Several past and present Patriots players have come with them including Tom Brady, Richard Seymour, and Benjamin Watson among others. Veteran broadcaster Al Michaels and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick were among other friends who have traveled with the family.
The people of Jerusalem held a memorial service for Myra Kraft at Kraft Stadium recently with many of the players from the AFI, former Jerusalem Mayor and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, current Mayor Nir Barkat in attendance along with Kraft’s son Dan and his wife. The message was that Myra Kraft’s long association with all of the people of Israel will never be forgotten.
While it is very much overly simplistic to think that AFI will cure the many problems and mistrust that exist between the Palestinians and Jews in Israel, the fact of the matter is this; the many young people that play on those football fields may someday be the same people that sit across from one another in trying to hammer out lasting peace agreements.
Sports in general and football specifically build great and lasting relationships. Perhaps one day a former Quarterback for the Tel Aviv Sabers and a Linebacker for the Judean Rebels will look across the bargaining table and remember a bond that has never existed in that room before.
Wouldn’t it be one of the greatest legacies of both Myra and Robert Kraft that, if by helping a fledgling football league in Israel, they put forth the tools to break down the mistrust and help usher in peace into the region? I can think of no better legacy for anyone.
Many thanks to both AFI’s Steve Leibowitz for all of the background on AFI and for being so patient with so many questions and Lela Gilbert, accomplished author and journalist who lives in Israel and reports on the issues of the area. She is a great friend who went well out of her way to help with this and other articles.
If any of our readers would like to contact Steve Leibowitz directly and ask questions about the state of football in Israel, he can be reached at [email protected] or check out the IFL website: www.israelfootball.net