The insider’s guide to Super Bowl LV’s Jewish stories and subplots

When the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers face off Sunday night in Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida, there will be plenty of juicy storylines for fans to bite in to.

The Buc’s 43-year-old quarterback Tom Brady (in this writer’s humble opinion, the greatest human being ever to walk the planet) will play in his record 10th Super Bowl.

The NFL legend will be playing against a young superstar who might one day challenge Brady’s legacy, 25-year-old Chiefs QB Pat Mahomes.

What’s more, the Bucs are the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in their own stadium.

But in addition to the stories sports fans across the globe will be discussing, there are a number of Jewish and Israel-related subplots to the big game.

Carly Helfand

Brady won’t be the only one making history Sunday night in Tampa. The game will have an unprecedented number of women in on-field roles, as referees, coaches, and trainers.

One of them is a Jewish day school graduate.

Carly Helfand, a scouting assistant with the Bucs, attended the Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland, New Jersey, graduating middle school in 2010.

In college, Helfand interned with the Philadelphia Eagles, then worked for the University of Pennsylvania’s football program after she graduated. She joined the Bucs organization in June 2019, where she travels around the country observing top college players.

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Tom Brady, sharpshooter

Brady spent his entire career until this year with the New England Patriots, owned by Robert Kraft, a proud Zionist and donor to numerous Jewish and Israeli causes. Kraft and his late wife Myra regularly took Patriots players and NFL Hall of Famers to Israel.

In 2006, they brought then young superstar quarterback 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. Barry Shrage, close friend of the Kraft family and president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, 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 long march back to his base. 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.

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 (Courtesy)

“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)

“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 in 2015. “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.

From Birthright Israel to the NFL

Brady is well protected by Ali Marpet, 27, who plays left guard. Marpet has been especially strong this season, not allowing a sack all year. He is the son of a musician mother and fashion videographer father from New York’s suburban Westchester County who hosted Shabbat gatherings for family and friends.

He attended Hobart College, arriving unheralded at the school of some 2,400 students in upstate New York. At the Division III level, meaning the colleges do not award athletic scholarships and their players almost never reach the pros, Marpet grew to over 300 pounds and combined his athletic prowess and a strong work ethic to make himself into a bona fide NFL prospect. The Bucs picked him in the second round of the 2015 NFL draft.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive guard Ali Marpet (74) walks to the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Atlanta. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won 31-27. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

Marpet, a Birthright Israel alumnus, has enjoyed a standout career, earning a five-year, $54 million contract a few years ago, with half in guaranteed money.

“There were a lot of things along the way that had to line up almost perfectly for me to end up where I am,’’ Marpet told the New York Post. “There wasn’t one moment that made the difference. It was a collection of moments. Me going to Hobart instead of trying to try to walk on at a D-I AA school or maybe going to another D-III school that didn’t take football as seriously [as Hobart]. There were so many ways this could have played out.’’

His father, Bill, said his son shuns the spotlight.

“He doesn’t read any of the stuff written about him,” the elder Marpet said in the Post story. “He just does what he does.’’

Should Marpet’s Bucs prevail, it would be the second Super Bowl championship for the Glazer family, who own the team. Tampa won the franchise’s only NFL crown in 2003.

Malcolm Glazer, a Jewish billionaire businessman, bought the team in 1995 for $192 million, which at the time was a league record. It’s worth about $2 billion now.

Glazer died in 2014 and his children have maintained ownership and run the business — quite well, it seems, bringing in Brady from his stellar New England Patriots career along with a number of talented veterans and young players.

Food, Family, and Faith

Jewish NFL football players and brothers Geoff (l) and Mitchell (r) Schwartz present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with football jerseys that have his nickname on them, in his Jerusalem office, on February 19, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The Chiefs also have a massive Jewish lineman. Mitchell Schwartz, 31, playing in his ninth season. But unlike Marpet, he won’t be protecting his superstar quarterback Sunday.

The Pro Bowler has been sidelined by a back injury since October and is likely out for Super Bowl LV, when the Chiefs aim to retain the title they won last season with a 31-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

The Southern California native isn’t shy about expressing his Jewishness. Schwartz and his brother, Geoff, who also was an offensive lineman in the NFL, wrote a book in 2016 about football and their lives growing up titled “Eat My Schwartz: Our Story of NFL Football, Food, Family, and Faith.” They were the first Jewish brothers to play pro football since Ralph and Arnold Horween in 1923.

The brothers attended a Conservative congregation in their native West Los Angeles. In fact, Schwartz did not start playing football until the ninth grade, in part because his parents — Olivia Goodkin, an attorney, and Lee Schwartz, a business consultant — did not want the game to interfere with his bar mitzvah preparation.

“I started out worrying that they were going to get hurt — but then I realized it was the other players I should be worrying about,” Goodkin said in the book, as the boys were over 6 feet (1.83 meters) by then. “They were like trucks hitting small cars. And I started to kind of feel like maybe this was their destiny.”

The brothers also visited Israel on a public relations tour organized by a pro-Israel group in 2018, as part of a delegation of NFL players. Their trip included several stops in West Bank settlements. The group also met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and presented him with jerseys.

Speaking about his sons playing pro football, their dad told the Jewish Journal in 2012, prior to Mitchell getting drafted, “I just kvell.”

Marc Brodsky contributed to this report. 

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