For Augie Napoli, president and CEO at United Way of Greater Cleveland, a turn to Judaism came later in life.
Born in Pittsburgh to a Catholic family, he attended Catholic schools, but he was well aware of Judaism, with close neighbors and friends in New Kensington who were Jewish.
A graduate of Valley High School in New Kensington, he went on to get his degree from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and worked in the university’s admissions department before moving to Cleveland for a job at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike. It was there that he began his work in development. Napoli was impressed by the fulfillment of the mission of the nuns at Ursuline, but “I didn’t really begin to think about conversion until much later.”
Even after he met Joan Katz, a fourth-generation member of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, married and agreed to raise their children as Jews, Napoli did not take the step toward conversion. After their son, Gabriel, was born and Joan’s father died, the family began to attend Friday night services regularly to recite Mourner’s Kaddish.
“It was really enveloping and warm,” said Napoli, adding that as his son grew older, he began to feel a pull. “As he was approaching his bar mitzvah, you know how something strikes you? The whole notion of a father passing the Torah to the son, of course you can’t do that if you’re not Jewish. That really struck a chord.”
He approached then-Senior Rabbi Richard A. Block about conversion and later worked with Rabbi Rosette Barron Haim, who was at The Temple as well. “Jewish values are not all that different from values I grew up with as a Catholic,” he said. Shortly after his son’s bar mitzvah, The Temple sponsored a trip to Israel. At Haim’s suggestion, Napoli held his final conversion ceremony near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which he described as “so meaningful and touching.” He also reaffirmed his commitment in a bar mitzvah later at The Temple.
“I certainly was never a ‘super Catholic’ and I’m not a ‘super Jew’, so I don’t wear it on my sleeve. But I’m so proud to be a part of a wonderful community that has such significance and meaning to me and my family.”
Prior to joining United Way, Napoli held several major fundraising positions in Northeast Ohio, which included leading the final phase of the $350 million capital campaign at the Cleveland Museum of Art and raising $500 million to build the facility that houses the Miller Family Heart and Vascular Institute at the Cleveland Clinic.
Napoli took the job at United Way in 2016, knowing that he was hired by the board there to be a change agent. After just 120 days on the job, he saw that a complete overhaul was needed at every level, from fundraising to funding, if United Way was going to make a bigger and more meaningful dent in the poverty issues that affect our neighbors.
“The gap is growing,” he said, referring to poverty. “Is it acceptable that 66% of the people who live in the city of Cleveland are considered to be functionally illiterate? Or that 50.5% of the children in the city of Cleveland, are living in poverty?”
Napoli has laid out a plan to address both the symptoms of poverty through the Community Hub for Basic Needs, and its root causes – including racism – through the Impact Institute, chaired by Dr. Toby Cosgrove. He has also enlisted the minority community to help United Way identify priorities through alliances with the United Black Fund and the formation of an Equity Leadership Council. All of these initiatives require intense collaboration with public and private agencies, a centerpiece of his plan.
“We exist to support the person in need-– not the delivery system of services, but the person in need,” he emphasized. “We have no agenda other than serving the poor. So many people have preconceived notions about those in need, but I haven’t met one person who doesn’t want to be able to put a roof over their own head and take care of their kids. The people we serve deserve the best-in-class service.”
Within the Jewish community, Napoli has served on The Temple board. In the broader community, he serves on the Cleveland Transformation Alliance, an oversight board of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, as well as the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank’s community advisory board, which is in sync with his role at United Way. “They’re doing so much work on the effects of racism on the economy, and they validate a lot of what we know from social sciences,” he said.
“The work at United Way certainly isn’t easy, especially because of the magnitude of change we’re leading,” he said. “It’s a hard slog, but it’s worth it because you can see the effect on someone’s life.”