I met Beatrice Shapero, known universally as Bunny, 10 years ago in a preview class for Me’ah. Me’ah is an adult learning program that, in a hundred hours of classroom time, begins with Biblical history and continues through the founding of the State of Israel. It’s a two-year course of study. But if Bunny was up for it, what excuse could I possibly have not to enroll.
As it turns out, Bunny was the coolest octogenarian any of us had ever met. In fact, she was cool, period. She was also an incredible role model. Me’ah was just one of the stops on her journey of learning and becoming. Bunny came to Me’ah already primed for Jewish learning. A decade before, she had become an adult bat mitzvah and before that, well, she did a million things for the community. She was the young woman who sold bonds door-to door for the newly-created Jewish State in 1948. Rae Gann was the captain of her team, and for 12 years running Bunny sold the largest number of bonds in the group. Israel was so new, and Bunny never promised people that they would get a return on their money. But that was beside the point. Bunny loved Israel, and Israel needed the funds.
Bunny also loves her synagogue. She’s been a member of Temple Emanuel in Newton for more than 50 years. During that time, she’s been the heart and soul of Sisterhood and the temple’s branch of the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism. No one comes close to selling Bunny’s quota of Torah Fund cards. She’s not sure how many she’s sold over the years, but at the last Torah Fund brunch she was close to moving 500 of those cards for the Jewish Theological Seminary. Bunny may not call herself a feminist, but that’s what she is. Her daughter, Susan, was the first girl at Temple Emanuel to have a bat mitzvah on a Saturday. Susan is a twin, and Bunny insisted that Susan and her brother, Martin, celebrate their b’nei mitzvah together. “They studied the same material, why shouldn’t they get the same recognition?” she reasoned. The ritual committee agreed and consented to the Saturday morning ceremony. Was Susan’s bat mitzvah in 1959 an exception? Yes. But it set an early and important precedent.
Bunny is a natural at setting precedents. This year, at 88, she is the oldest participant in the annual walkathon for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). There have been nine walk-a-thons in Boston, and Bunny has walked the three-mile course at each one of them. A founding member of the Boston chapter, Bunny is committed to NAMI because she is devoted to Martin, who had his first schizophrenic breakdown at the age of 15.
“Mental illness is low on the totem pole when it comes to any kind of funding,” Bunny said. “That’s why I got so heavily involved in fundraising for NAMI the past few years.” As of Monday, Bunny had raised close to $10,000 for the organization – and that’s for this year alone.
She’s passionate about erasing the stigma of mental illness, ensuring research on schizophrenia and reducing homelessness among the severely mentally ill. “At the time Martin was diagnosed there was no awareness of the disease. People in the profession blamed the mothers,” she said. “Martin is 66 now, and sometimes I think [society at large] still blames the mother. But mental illness is all over the country, and no one knows exactly what goes wrong with the wiring in the brain.”
Bunny is also dedicated to bringing mental illness out into the open – to have the necessary conversations to give patients and their families hope. The mother of four, she remembers the veils of shame and secrecy that isolated families with a mentally ill child. Martin’s three siblings rarely invited friends to the house for fear he might have an outburst. “It was a silent illness. We didn’t talk about it. I’m so grateful for the support circles and the Family-to-Family programs that NAMI runs.”
Family members with a mentally ill relative staff NAMI’s Family-to- Family program. These volunteers are trained to provide information on everything from medication to day programs. Family-to-Family serves as a resource for the latest research and as an information clearinghouse for caretakers dealing with a loved one’s relapse.
Bunny has helped Martin through his own relapses. Like many people diagnosed with schizophrenia, he has often stopped taking his medication when he felt better. Bunny observes that he underestimates the role that medication plays when he begins to improve. “Medication is tough,” Bunny said. “A lot of it has been trial and error for Martin, and sometimes he feels like a guinea pig. But mental illness is like any other chronic disease. If you have a heart condition or diabetes, you need your medication in the same way.”
The day after the walk-a-thon is Lilac Sunday at the Arboretum. It’s also Mother’s Day, and Bunny and Martin plan to spend the afternoon together at one of their favorite places among the flowers.