How Can I Be Holy?
By: Brandon Chiat
Photo: Judi Snyder
Joe Napora was 86-years-old when he was called to the bimah as a bar mitzvah.
On that momentous day, Rabbi Schwartz joked that it was the first time he addressed a bar mitzvah boy with his wife, children, and grandchildren present.
Mr. Napora came from an interfaith family. His mother, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, ran away at 16 to marry a 30-year-old Catholic policeman. Neither of his parents had much interest in religion and so his 13th birthday passed as a “non-event,” Mr. Napora said.
As a young father, supporting a growing family took precedence over Mr. Napora’s Jewish ritual life. But witnessing his son Neil become a bar mitzvah at Beth El reignited a spark for Judaism.
“Rabbi Essrog really took me under his wing,” Mr. Napora said. “He gave me my first aliyah two weeks before Neil’s bar mitzvah.”
In 1969, Mr. Napora married his second-wife Linda, to whom he has been blissfully married for 49-years. Linda’s parents, Eva and Joe Snyder, were longtime devoted members of Beth El, and Joe once again found himself pulled not just towards the congregation, but to the Jewish faith.
Initially, the newlyweds would come to shul only on High Holy Days or for special events. Before long they became regular fixtures at Shabbat mornings, and eventually Friday evening services.
Slowly, Mr. Napora grew accustomed to the worship experience, going as far as to learn Hebrew so he could better understand the prayers. He purchased a siddur and began to familiarize himself with the Jewish rituals that aren’t included in Saturday morning services.
“The siddur contains many powerful messages,” said Mr. Napora. “I began to ask myself: How can I be holy?”
The answer to that question led him to a Beth El Torah study group facilitated by Rabbi Dana Saroken. Sensing Mr. Napora’s blossoming thirst for Jewish wisdom, Rabbi Saroken recommended he read Everyday Torah. That book, along with the weekly sermons delivered by Rabbis Schwartz and Saroken, proved decisive in Mr. Napora’s journey to Jewish adulthood.
“The rabbis’ sermons helped me identify and celebrate those aspects of life which reflect God’s majesty,” said Mr. Napora. “It opened me up to the possibility of becoming a bar mitzvah.”
Cantor Thom King, who converted to Judaism as a young man, particularly inspired Mr. Napora. “I would challenge anyone to show me someone more dedicated to Judaism than [Cantor King],” said Mr. Napora.
Mr. Napora credits the clergy’s passion for Judaism and their gift for brilliantly connecting the weekly parsha to the challenges of modern life. “Their enthusiasm and commitment to living Torah values inspired me to step up my spiritual game and become a bar mitzvah,” said Mr. Napora.
That’s when the hard work began.
After several meetings with Rabbi Schwartz to review the intensive bar mitzvah process, Mr. Napora began preparing with Beth El’s Ritual Director Ben Kreshtool. “Ben had me memorize not just the words of my Torah portion but their pronunciation as well,” said Mr. Napora.
As Mr. Napora’s big day approached, Ben twice invited him to read from the Torah in shul. “I was concerned about my chanting of the trope,” said Mr. Napora. “But Ben put me at ease.”
He needn’t have been worried. When his bar mitzvah day arrived, Mr. Napora found himself surrounded by his wife, children, grandchildren, and loving friends, some of whom traveled far distances to be in attendance.
Mr. Napora even received some last minute advice from a trusted mentor. “Rabbi Saroken said the warmest and most comforting words,” he said. “She told me my bar mitzvah was not a test, and just to be myself.”
Being “himself” was more than enough. While the bar mitzvah is a moving ceremony, it is important to remember that Jews become responsible for the obligations of Judaism regardless of a formal bar mitzvah celebration.
Mr. Napora accepted the duties of Jewish adulthood long before he became a bar mitzvah. After all, this is a man who keeps dollar bills on his person at all times, just in case he passes a homeless person in need. “The Torah teaches us not to close our hand to a needy brother or sister,” Mr. Napora said.
The man who once asked himself “how to be holy,” now leads a life that exemplifies righteousness. He still reads his siddur daily, often finding new interpretations of ancient wisdom.
“Living Torah is such a powerful thing because you realize that being a good Jew is less about asking for God’s blessing, and more about being a blessing to others,” said Mr. Napora. “Even if you don’t believe there's a God, acting as if there is a God, and living a holy life makes all the difference.”