His father and faith add an edge to Robert Kraft’s trials
When Robert Kraft’s grandfather, a Polish immigrant named Louis Krafchinsky, died in his Roxbury home in 1955, a Boston Globe obituary described him as a leader of Boston’s Jewish community who bore “a renowned rabbinical lineage.’’
Krafchinsky had four children, two became rabbis and one, Harry, became Robert Kraft’s father and a lay leader of Jews in Greater Boston.
Robert Kraft has said his father never got rich running the small Crown Dress Co. in Boston’s Chinatown. But before he died in 1975, Harry Kraft told his son he was leaving him something more precious than material wealth: the family’s good name and a legacy of decency and dignity.
Today, those close to him say, Kraft is deeply embarrassed that he has scarred his father’s cherished legacy and cast shadows on the many institutions he has financially nurtured in his family’s name, particularly those honoring his Jewish heritage, since he became ensnared in an alleged prostitution scandal in February.
“I am truly sorry,” Kraft said in a statement issued Saturday. “I know I have hurt and disappointed my family, my close friends, my co-workers, our fans, and many others who rightfully hold me to a higher standard.’’
Kraft has previously denied wrongdoing, and his lawyers are so far contesting the charge. But his friends say he recognizes the damage the episode has done, regardless of how his case is resolved in court.
“One reason the current moment is so agonizing is that Bob took great pride in the esteem in which his father was held,’’ said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, who took Hebrew lessons from Harry Kraft at Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline in the 1960s and is a friend of Robert Kraft.
“Bob cares deeply about his good name and about the way he is viewed not only by the community but by his own children, so this has to be a very, very difficult moment for him,’’ Sarna said.
Steve Comen, an attorney who has been Kraft’s friend since they entered kindergarten together and has spoken with him since the charges were filed, said Kraft is “heartsick’’ over the scandal.
Kraft, in a stark departure from his years of celebrity, has not spoken publicly since he was charged with two misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Fla. The charges stemmed from a months-long investigation of Chinese massage parlors across four Florida counties.
After weeks of virtual seclusion, other than attending a couple of private social events in Los Angeles before the Oscars, Kraft is scheduled to arrive in Phoenix Sunday for the NFL owners meetings. Should he appear, it will mark the first time he has faced his peers under the cloud of criminal charges and the possibility that he could be suspended by commissioner Roger Goodell.
Kraft has been buffeted not only by the solicitation charges — he is scheduled to be arraigned March 28 — but by suspicions that the spas where he and more than 200 others allegedly paid for sex may have engaged in human trafficking, though no one is suggesting Kraft knew of that and no trafficking charge has been filed.
Since his wife, Myra, died in 2011, changes in Kraft’s social life had raised eyebrows among even some of his friends. But those changes pale in comparison to the sex scandal and its fallout.
Kraft’s friends say this humiliating sequence of events would have dismayed his grandfather, who immigrated from Russian-occupied Poland in 1900 and taught at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Roxbury; his father, who became president of both Kehillath Israel and the Associated Synagogues of Greater Boston; and his late wife, Myra, a descendant of Holocaust survivors and herself a leader of the Jewish community.
In his statement Saturday, Kraft in particular acknowledged his wife’s influence over their long marriage.
“Throughout my life, I have always tried to do the right thing,’’ Kraft said. “The last thing I would ever want to do is disrespect another human being. I have extraordinary respect for women; my morals and my soul were shaped by the most wonderful woman, the love of my life, who I was blessed to have as my partner for 50 years.”
To honor them and his heritage, Kraft has given tens of millions of dollars to Jewish institutions from Boston to Israel and beyond. Now, his friends say, he is quietly trying to mend any damage his personal crisis has inflicted on the family’s image, as wary leaders of those institutions stand by him.
Comen, who has worked with institutions the Kraft family has supported, said he too is “heartsick over what’s happened with Bobby, because anyone who is knocking him now is doing it because they’re jealous and have never been able to achieve in their lives what he’s achieved.’’
When Kraft donated $10 million to renovate the Combined Jewish Philanthropies headquarters in Boston, he called the gift “a fitting tribute’’ to his father and late wife. The new Kraft Family Building, housing the Harry Kraft Center for Jewish Education and Myra Kraft Boardroom, opened in 2018.
Then came news of the prostitution sting, and CJP responded as did several other institutions Kraft has helped to fund. “What was reported was certainly concerning. For several generations, the Kraft family has committed their time, energy and resources to support organizations and programs that have benefited the health and well-being of the citizens of Greater Boston and our region,” CJP said. “They have played a transformational role in the life of our Jewish community.’’
Some of Boston’s most prominent Catholic businessmen expressed similar concern and support for Kraft. He has long worked on interfaith initiatives through organizations such as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the Anti-Defamation League, and Catholic Charities.
“Bob apparently made a serious mistake in judgment,’’ said Jack Connors, a retired advertising magnate, who recently spoke to him. “But I think you will now see him redouble his efforts to do good things for the folks who have been victims in these kinds of cases. And if he follows through on supporting those kinds of charities, I’m going to be proud of my friend.’’
George Regan, a longtime public relations executive, recalled traveling to Israel many times with Kraft on goodwill missions.
“I saw the respect he has from people of all walks of life there, from the prime minister to the little guys on the street,’’ Regan said. “That’s not going to change.’’
The roots of Kraft’s philanthropy run to his formative years in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner, where he was raised in a closely knit, lower-middle-class Jewish community, first in a rented flat on Fuller Street, then a leased apartment on Powell Street. He split most of his childhood between Devotion Elementary School, now the Coolidge Corner School, and daily Hebrew classes at nearby Kehillath Israel.
His friends remember his father as a towering figure, an inspiration to the Jewish children he tutored and the adults whose synagogue services he led on the High Holidays.
“In the minds of all of Bobby’s friends, his father was a very influential and spiritual leader, someone you aspired to be as worthy as,’’ Comen said.
It was a tumultuous time in Jewish history. Harry Krafchinsky had changed his name to Kraft during a surge of anti-Semitism in the 1930s. In Robert Kraft’s youth in the late 1940s and 1950s, the horrors of the Holocaust grew clearer daily, Israel became a nation, and war broke out between Arabs and Israelis.
Throughout Coolidge Corner, little blue cans appeared on store counters for donations to the Jewish National Fund.
Harry Kraft wanted Robert to become a rabbi, and he carefully managed his religious studies. Robert became president of the youth congregation at Kehillath Israel and presided over Saturday services for as many as 700 young people.
“Bob wanted to be a leader,’’ said Daniel Margolis, former executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Boston, who grew up with Kraft and studied religion with his father.
“Through the combination of his father, his family, his synagogue, the Brookline community itself, and his public schooling, it was pretty evident that that was the kind of person Bob aspired to be,’’ Margolis said.
After Saturday services, Robert participated in discussions with his father at home about the lessons of the day. Then he was free to roam, but because his father forbid him from carrying money during the Sabbath, he relied on friends to cover his admission to double features at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.
In the summer, Kraft closely followed the Boston Braves, both because of his home’s proximity to Braves Field and because their roster included a Jew, Sid Gordon, and an African-American, Sam Jethroe, before the Red Sox had integrated.
“Those were our friends, our guys,’’ Comen said of the Braves. “They were critical to our history.’’
The team’s commitment to diversity helped to shape Kraft’s social conscience, as did the hours he spent after school as a 13-year-old watching nationally televised hearings of Senator Joseph McCarthy falsely alleging that communists had dangerously infiltrated American government and society. Kraft’s concerns later turned to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
In 1965, David Wax, Kraft’s friend and former classmate, was piloting an Air Force plane when it was shot down over the North China Sea. When Wax’s remains were recovered and returned in 1993, Kraft helped to lead a memorial service for him at their synagogue, Kehillath Israel.
“Dave and Bobby were very close,’’ said Bob Segel, who entered Devotion School in eighth grade and said Kraft was the first student to befriend him. “He has never forgotten him.’’
At his father’s request, Kraft never played school sports so he could focus on Hebrew studies. At Brookline High School, he joined the French Club and the concert choir and was chairman of the junior prom before he graduated in 1959 as class president.
He met Myra Hiatt three years later, while he was attending Columbia University and she was studying at Brandeis. They shared deep Jewish roots — her father, Jacob Hiatt, a judge in Lithuania, had fled the Nazis — and a commitment to giving back.
They married in 1963, and as they built a family, Kraft turned Jacob Hiatt’s packaging business into an international juggernaut. Along the way, he bought the Patriots and the New England Revolution and amassed a net worth estimated at $6.6 billion.
For decades, Kraft has been drawn to the limelight. But since Myra, his wife of 48 years died, his public life has become far more freewheeling.
Within a year of his her death, Kraft was dating, at age 71, Hollywood actress Ricki Noel Lander, then 32. And no sooner did the news of their relationship break than a videotape went viral of Kraft using foul language as he helped Lander audition for a movie.
Lander has since given birth to a child. Though Kraft has said he is not the biological father, he is supportive. She has lived in a Beverly Hills home that Kraft owns through a corporation, Two R LLC.
Since his wife died, Kraft also has bought two penthouse condominiums on Fan Pier in Boston’s Seaport for a combined $12 million. In addition to his $20 million residence in Chestnut Hill and his $10.8 million summer getaway on Popponesset Island off Cape Cod, he owns a $14.5 million condo in The Plaza in New York, overlooking Central Park.
In recent years, his celebrity has extended to the music community, where he has won acclaim for helping to free Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill from prison, calling his incarceration for minor probation violations unjust.
Mill attended a Super Bowl party with Kraft less than two weeks after the Patriots owner allegedly paid for sex at the spa but three weeks before that accusation was leveled publicly. Kraft danced on stage with rapper Cardi B, wearing his signature Nike sneakers — all part of his evolving persona.
Friends attribute Kraft’s late life transformation to trying to find his way since his wife’s death. Myra Kraft spent years undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer.
“It was a devastating loss for Bobby for her to die and for him to watch her have a long, painful suffering,’’ Comen said. “It took him a long time to bounce back from that, and in some ways it’s still taking time.’’
How much longer remains unclear, as Kraft’s facing criminal charges puts him at odds with the values of the people and institutions he holds dear. Typically, he would be in the spotlight at Gillette Stadium on May 15 when his Revolution soccer team hosts England’s Chelsea Football Club in a charity match for the “Final Whistle on Hate,’’ aimed at curbing anti-Semitism and hate crimes around the world.
Kraft and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich each have pledged $1 million to the cause. But it remains to be seen if Kraft will appear publicly.
In Israel, a ceremony is scheduled in June to honor him as the nation’s 2019 Genesis Prize Laureate, which is known as the Jewish Nobel Prize. The Israeli media initially portrayed Kraft as a safe choice for the award, after controversy marred the two previous ceremonies. In 2018, the honoree, Natalie Portman, boycotted the event to protest the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The previous year, the event was canceled after the prize winner, British sculptor Anish Kapoor, said it would be “inappropriate to hold a festive ceremony’’ during the Syrian civil war, according to news reports.
Kraft, who is close to Netanyahu, said he plans to donate the $1 million Genesis prize to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice. If he attends the ceremony in June, it will mark his first visit to Israel since the criminal charges. One member of the Genesis advisory board has since resigned in protest of the award to Kraft.
Rivka Carmi, a former president of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, told the Jerusalem Post she stepped down to support “women on all levels and all aspects.”
The chairman of the Genesis foundation, Stan Polovets, described the criminal charges as “unfortunate” but said Kraft has invested tens of millions of dollars in Israel, including helping to launch the Israel Football League, whose championship games are played at Kraft Stadium in Jerusalem.
Polovets said Kraft has also given half a billion dollars to charities around the world.
“This makes him a highly deserving laureate,” Polovets said.
Columbia University, which has received more than $8 million from Kraft, including support for the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life, declined to comment.
Kraft’s family also has funded chairs in Jewish and Christian studies at Boston College, Holy Cross, and Brandeis, where Bernadette Brooten, the Myra and Robert Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies, last month described the Florida charges to the Globe as “deeply disturbing” and “very painful.’’
Others said it was not their place to judge Kraft.
“I certainly know that reports of recent events have nothing to do with the Bob Kraft that I know,” said Margolis, the head of the Jewish Education bureau. “But I would never turn my back on him. Nor do I think he would do that to me.”
In his statement Saturday, Kraft said he hoped to prove to be worthy of redemption.
“As I move forward, I hope to continue to use the platform with which I have been blessed to help others and to try to make a difference,’’ he said. “I expect to be judged not by my words, but by my actions. And through those actions, I hope to regain your confidence and respect.”
In April, Kraft’s high school classmates will gather for their 60th reunion. Kraft hosted brunches at the Patriots Hall of Fame for their 50th and 55th reunions. Segel, who is helping to organize the 60th, said Kraft has yet to respond to an invitation.
“Whatever he did, I feel bad for him,” Segel said. “I hope he comes. I still love and respect him.”
Though Kraft never became a rabbi, he told the Globe in 1997 that his own rabbi visited him every Friday to help him study tracts from the Talmud called “Ethics of the Fathers.”
He said he did so in part to honor his father, who he described as “the kindest, most ethical man I’ve ever known.’’ He also said of Harry Kraft, “I’m not as good as he was. I know that.’’