Catching up with the brilliant New England Patriots Cheerleader on children’s health advocacy, combatting antisemitism, and cultivating enthusiasm among the next generation of Jewish leaders
It’s an unseasonably warm winter day in Boston, generally unremarkable, but the kind of weather you come to appreciate amid a streak of dark and gloomy days. Then, as New England Patriots cheerleader and proud Jewish leader Eliza Kanner greets me, suddenly I understand the concept of apricity.
Indeed, the warmth of her personality mirrors the restorative optimism befitting of the sun spontaneously shining on a February New England day.
Before I can even embark on the adventure of exploring the inspiration for her activism, her experiences as a Jewish woman in the NFL, what it was like winning the title of Miss Connecticut 2017 — she asks about me. Not in the contrived, feigned interest, disingenuous way common of some well-rehearsed Miss America contestants of internet infamy; rather, the do-it-all dynamo is as sincere as they come, her thoughtful approach to making connections rooted in compassion.
The question eats at me; I have to ask. With so many fame-worthy moments in her life, the uniqueness of her particular religious identity in a sport fueled by Christian prayer circles and uncomfortably nonsecular commercials, the existential topic begs to be spoken: as the media is clamoring with increasing frequency for the attention of her engaging personality, why does her Jewishness and her physical appearance overshadow the profound intellect and nuance of Eliza Kanner’s thoughts?
“The thing that has shaped who I am has been in question because of how I look: In Jewish and non-Jewish spaces, I’ve been asked if I’m Jewish, and have heard countless times, ‘But you don’t look Jewish.’ I used to be so humiliated by this comment,” she explained. “Today, when I get a comment of this sort, I respond back by asking, ‘And what does Jewish look like?’
“In this instance, what people may not realize that what they think is an innocent comment is actually antisemitic, by making assumptions on a narrow set of criteria. There needs to be increased education and representation of the diversity among Jewish people.”
Never mind that she embraces the Boston culture just as much as Patriots fans adore her back, or her advocacy in NFL circles is fostering change for the betterment of Jewish lives, or that her platform as Miss Connecticut 2017 — “for the kids” — supports her lifelong advocacy work for children’s hospitals.
“I was a patient at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center the very first year it opened its doors as the only free-standing children’s hospital in the state, and nearly 20 years later, I got to lead the efforts in fundraising over $1 million for the hospital, while also serving as an advocate and ambassador for children’s health,” she said proudly. “My monthly visits to the hospital were the highlight of my experience as Miss Connecticut. Some patients I only met once, and others I created meaningful relationships with them and their families. To know that I was able to bring smiles and joy in a time of pain is an honor that I will be forever grateful for.
“As a Patriots Cheerleader, I’ve attended events to support Boston Children’s, which is part of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. I love being able to continue working with this network that has deeply impacted the lives of so many.”
The Connecticut native counts her parents home as the ultimate spot to disconnect from the frenetic pace of the NFL season, charity events, media opportunities, and her Senior Development Officer at Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP). From the homemade meals to Sunday snuggles with her family’s Boxer and French Bulldog during Patriots away games, Kanner prioritizes this time to be her best self when it’s time for action once the new week begins.
As comforting as coming home can be, Kanner has just as reliably cultivated a sense of belonging here in Boston. Buoyed by delicious seafood at The Barking Crab right in the heart of Boston Seaport, or exploring new coffee flavors at local spots like Marylou’s Coffee and PS Gourmet Coffee, the decision to join her siblings here has proven to be a fruitful one.
“My older sister was already living in Boston before I moved here, and I was torn on moving to New York City or Boston post-grad,” she recalled. “While awaiting news from job interviews, I was visiting my sister and we grabbed dinner in the Prudential Center. While overlooking the city skyline and bonding over sushi, I got an email that I landed a job in Boston, and the rest is history! I’m so fortunate that my sister and brother both live in Boston, and we’re able to create memories as young adults in this incredible city.”
Educator, Role Model, Activist, Patriots Standout, All In One
It’s not often that someone as gifted as Eliza Kanner fulfills that potential, instead preferring to rest on the perks of their privilege. Not the case with her, though, as I discovered her accomplishments were the byproduct of passion, dedication, commitment, and profound intellect.
And after recently attending the Hillel International Israel Summit at Gillette Stadium, it’s never been clearer that her very presence in these circles provides real, tangible hope for the future of all Jewish individuals, from the campus to the NFL gridiron, from inspiring conferences to Israel, and beyond.
“I was inspired to be in a room energized by 250+ campus students and influential community leaders,” she said. “I started my career as an Israel educator for college students, and watching the next generation of leaders who are dedicated to educating their peers makes me hopeful for the future. It’s imperative young people have access to role models and leaders who are using their platform to explore the nuances around the conversation about Israel, and bring the conversation into their networks. The Israel conversation on campus can be extremely polarizing, and at worst, dangerous. It’s more important than ever that college students have informative and credible resources to learn from and lean into.”
I’m not the only one who feels this way, either. In an exclusive conversation for this story, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft shared high praise of Kanner’s efforts to combat antisemitism, provide a positive presence for the next generation of leaders, and represent the Patriots organization with grace.
“Building bridges and positively impacting the community has always been a top priority for myself and for my family and is a guiding principle in everything we do, from our foundations to our football team,” Kraft told me via email. “Eliza embodies this value in the work she does both on and off the field to bring awareness to the fight against antisemitism. This fight is a personal one for me, and one that I have been proud to support through our Foundation to Combat Antisemitism empowering all people, especially non-Jews, to stand up to Jewish hate. We are proud to have Eliza as a New England Patriots cheerleader. She is a great ambassador for our team and we are grateful for her leadership as she has impacted and changed the opinions of so many of those around her.”
The New England Patriots, under Kraft’s stewardship, have provided an outlet for Kanner to affect change, feel supported in her quest to educate, and thrive at the individual level.
“During my rookie season as a New England Patriots Cheerleader, I had the opportunity to stand side-by-side with New England Patriots Owner, Mr. Robert Kraft, and share with my team how to support the Jewish community,” she proudly recalled. “My coach, Alexandria Walker, has been proactive to ensure as a Jewish member of the team that I feel completely supported, and have the resources to support Jewish communities in my role. The NFL announced the creation of the NFL Diversity Advisory Committee in 2022 to ‘evaluate league and club diversity, equity and inclusion strategies and initiatives.’ As the league continues to implement inclusion training across teams, I hope to see training to address and combat antisemitism as part of this work.”
And while much has been made of the discomfort many felt when the $100 million “He Gets Us” Christianity campaign overshadowed major NFL news, like the Super Bowl, I couldn’t help but wonder how it felt, both as a Jewish woman and as an employee of a professional sports organization whose owner sponsored an ad to shine a light on standing up to Jewish hatred?
“Last October 30, the Patriots were away playing the Jets, which meant I had the Sunday free to attend the ADL Conference: “The Good Fight” in Boston. During one of the sessions, I was sent a Tweet with a preview of the ad, and my mouth dropped open in astonishment,” she said. “The simplicity of the ad made the messaging extremely powerful, and to have an ad with this type of messaging during an NFL game sent an even more powerful message.
“I so admire and respect that Mr. Kraft is not taking a stance of passivity. The team at the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism is working diligently to make this type of messaging even louder, and as an ambassador of the Patriots Organization, I feel a great sense of responsibility to amplify this messaging.”
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice…Except for the Jews
Kanner fondly recalls coming of age in vibrant Jewish spaces where the threat of discrimination for being Jewish wasn’t necessarily present. A proud ally to minority groups who relished learning DEIJ principles, it wasn’t until college that she came to experience the exclusion of Jewish allyship prevalent in many DEIJ spaces.
“I have been invested in the inclusion of Jewish education into DEIJ spaces since college, where I would face discrimination as a Jew,” she said. “My freshman year while I was a member of the UConn Dance Team, we had practice scheduled on Yom Kippur. There were a few Jewish girls on the team, and we were told that if we missed practice, even for a religious observation, that we wouldn’t be able to perform at the football game that following weekend. After fasting all day, we attended practice, and had break the fast together at a dining hall. I didn’t have the tools to speak up and fix the situation.
“My sophomore year, I was in a Modern Middle East Studies course, and my professor displayed a map of the ‘Modern Middle East.’ She pointed to the countries on the map and said their respective names, and when she pointed at modern-day Israel, she said, ‘This is Palestine.’ I raised my hand and said, ‘Professor, the country you pointed to is Israel, and you’re doing an injustice by calling it anything but that,’ to which she responded and said, ‘Eliza, you must be Jewish. That’s the only reason you care about Israel.’”
This time, however, she said she found her voice and discovered the power to do something in order to ensure that future students wouldn’t be subjected to antisemitism and anti-Zionism in similar classroom situations.
“As the conversation around DEIJ-work has become embraced in the workplace, I’ve seen many companies and industries take great strides to incorporate education about minority groups, but unfortunately these conversations often do not include the discrimination Jewish people face,” she explained. “It’s important for DEIJ educators to understand that Jewish people are scared right now. The increasing rate of antisemitism is alarming, and the only way it’s going to get better is for our allies to be as vocal about standing up to Jew hate as they do for other marginalized groups.”
And whether it’s cheering on the New England Patriots on game day, finding her voice amid tense educational settings, being an advocate for children and their respective healthcare needs, educating the next generation of Jewish leaders as an exemplary role model, Eliza Kanner has gotten pretty darn proficient at standing up for others.