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May 18, 2024
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‘Touchdown in Israel’ Mission Visits Jerusalem, NFL Hall-of-Famers Meet Israeli Footballers

Jerusalem—On Sunday afternoon, the atmosphere was thick with excitement (and heat) in Jerusalem’s iconic Sacher Park, as hundreds of Americans and a few token Israelis gathered in Kraft Stadium for the annual visit of the field’s donor, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. However, this summer’s event was particularly special as Kraft, who often brings an NFL player or two with him, decided this year to bring 19 NFL hall-of-famers to the Holy Land.

It all began, explains Israel’s Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer, with a visit to the NFL Hall-of-Fame in Canton, Ohio last year.

“For me, one of the parts of my job is to strengthen support for Israel among the American people,” said Dermer in an interview with JLNJ. “We live in an age of celebrities… musicians, actors, athletes. As someone who loves sports, plays sports and watches sports, especially football, I thought it would be a good idea to bring these people to Israel.”

Dermer brought this idea to Kraft and to NFL Hall-of-Fame Executive Director David Baker, and a year later, “Touchdown in Israel: Mission of Excellence” was born. The goal of the mission: To help promote support of Israel in the United States by showing these Gold Jackets (NFL Hall-of-Famers) just how beautiful and special the Holy Land is.

“After this week, after they see the real Israel, the one you and I know but the world sometimes distorts, they’ll go back to their communities in America where they’re heroes,” Dermer said, “They’ll effectively become goodwill ambassadors to Israel, and will hopefully strengthen Israel’s support in the U.S.”

For Robert Kraft, this trip was especially emotional, coming on the heels of his franchise’s fourth Super Bowl victory this year. Comparing his team’s luck to the Jewish people’s journey through the Sinai Desert, Kraft explained that when he bought the Patriots in 1994, they had been 40 years without a league championship. But, once he invested in American football in Israel in 2001, his luck changed, and in the next 15 years, his team had made it to the post-season almost every year, and even won four Super Bowl championships.

“It was very special, winning the first Super Bowl,” said Kraft, “Since then, I’ve never given up, because even when we lost games we thought we’d win, I had faith that the good Lord was with us and, Baruch Hashem and B’ezrat Hashem, The Butler did it. The fans we have from Israel are very supportive. I think the number of notes that went in the wall to support us against Seattle in February really caused a miracle. Im Yirtzah Hashem, we have a wonderful team, but next year’s a new year, and we can’t do it alone.”

In light of this victory, Kraft was especially eager to share Jerusalem, the city that is so special to him, with the 19 NFL Hall-of-Famers, as well as David Baker and CBS’s NFL Today host James Brown, who also joined the mission. The result was a unanimous agreement that the week they had spent in Israel had changed these celebrities’ lives forever.

“It’s wonderful [to be here], said Baker. “I came here in 1974-1975 to play basketball, so this is my first opportunity to come back in 40 years, and to see how beautiful it is, and all of the things that have happened, is fantastic—it’s a miracle. We’re all so grateful to Robert Kraft for bringing us.”

Jack Youngblood, one of the 19 Gold Jackets on the mission, and well known for playing several games with a broken leg during his 14-year stint on the Los Angeles Rams, was so moved by the trip that he plans speaking out for Israel whenever possible.

“I had no idea what to expect. We knew about Israel from our Bible studies, and going to church, but, we didn’t have it in our mind’s eye, and we always wanted to. It’s been on our bucket list forever. I’m so pleased to go back and tell my friends and anyone I can, what Israel means to us and our relationship that we have with them, how that needs to be strong.”

“You can’t visit here and not have it be a life-changing experience,” said James Brown, “What most impressed me was how the folks here have embraced all of us, their sense of humanity, their inclusiveness. Even given the history of the challenges and battles going on here, there’s still such an outpouring of love on the part of the people, you can’t help but be endeared to the populous here.

“We’re going to come back again. Even though we’re blessed that Mr. Kraft had us here for a week, my wife and I are going to come back with another contingent, because we want to spend more time in the Holy Land. I think that says it best.”

While all of the mission’s participants were very moved by their trip to Israel, possibly the most excited on Sunday were the Israeli-Americans in attendance. These football fans, so dedicated to the sport that they often pull all-nighters to watch their teams play at ungodly hours on Israel local time, were very happy to meet some of their football heroes, so far away from home.

“It’s a treat for American Olim to have this kind of event,” said former MK Dov Lipman. “Aliyah isn’t always the easiest, and there are always challenges, so having this kind of treat is very special.”

By Tzvi Silver, JLNJ Israel

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