Remembering Myra Kraft, 'Jewess with attitude'
Last Friday, a temple in a Boston suburb was filled to overflowing. Among the 1500 or so people present were the National Football League’s 2011 MVP and the host of NBC’s hit show, “The Celebrity Apprentice,” the Presidents of the oldest Catholic college in New England and of the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored university in the country (the President of Harvard was there, too), Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Governor Deval Patrick, and Mayor Tom Menino.
It is difficult to think of another woman, never mind a Jewish woman, whose funeral would have attracted such a large, diverse, and illustrious crowd. Myra Hiatt Kraft, who died of cancer on July 20, was not a Hollywood celebrity; she was not a star athlete or a powerful politician. She was the daughter of one successful businessman—Jacob Hiatt—and the wife of another—Robert Kraft, owner (among other things) of the New England Patriots.
She used her position to take tikkun olam to a whole new level. “You call someone, they get right back to you,’’ she told a reporter in 1997. “Even if they think you’re calling for money.’’ Since their marriage in 1964, the Krafts gave away over 100 million dollars. They were generous benefactors of Israeli institutions and of Brandeis, her alma mater, but they also endowed a professorship of comparative religion at the College of the Holy Cross. From 1983 to 2011, Myra Hiatt Kraft served on the board of the Boston Boys and Girls Club and, in 1995, became the first woman in the organization’s 120-year history to chair that board.
How did Myra Kraft become, in the words of the current chair of the Boys and Girls Club, “the one person in our community who so clearly stood as an example of service, of commitment to good works and of giving back”? The answer lies 50 miles west of Boston in Worcester, New England’s second largest city, where she was born and raised.
Her father was Jacob Hiatt, who emigrated from Lithuania in 1935. His parents, sisters, and brother remained behind and perished in the Holocaust. He settled in Worcester and went to work setting up shoe boxes for his cousin Al Hiatt's shoe business. Years later, that store became Stride Rite Shoe, a successful manufacturer, and Jacob Hiatt's used his box-making skills to found the Rand-Whitney Group, a successful packaging company.
In 1963, his 20-year-old daughter married Robert Kraft, who had attended Columbia University on scholarship and Harvard Business School. Kraft went to work for his father-in-law and developed the Rand-Whitney Group into International Forest Products, the largest privately held paper and packaging company in the United States.
While her father was known as one of Worcester’s greatest patrons of education, the arts, and religious causes, Myra was quick to credit her mother Frances as a force in philanthropy and volunteerism. In 2008, she told Worcester Living Magazine, "My mother was on the board of many organizations in Worcester. She was on boards of banks, hospitals and Girls Inc. Every year Girls Inc. had some kind of writing contest and she was always involved with that. I remember her reading all of the entries."
This is just the way Myra liked to be involved, beginning when she was a young child. In one family story, at the age of five, she decided “to go out to the neighborhood to raise money for the poor children in Europe and Palestine. I went door to door. My mother was getting frantic, because I was late and she had no idea where I was,” she told the Jerusalem Post in 2008. “I came in dragging this sack of money.’’ Her hands-on approach helped redefine the role of a philanthropist.
“My parents passed down that you give back. That's the way I was raised," she said. "If you are fortunate to be able to give back you should do it. If not in money, then in time."
“It’s easy to write a check,’’she told the Boston Globe in 2007. “But this is what … my occupation is. I don’t know how to play bridge, nor do I want to learn how to play bridge. This is what I do.’’
Myra Hiatt Kraft could undoubtedly have been a terrific bridge player, but I know I am not the only one who is glad she never learned how.
Click here for the Telegram's slideshow of images of Myra Kraft and her family.