One day while undergoing chemotherapy, Enid Shapiro headed off to a meeting, only to realize her hair was falling out. She was always going to meetings — her resume was uncommonly long, even for someone who nearly made it to 92 — and having been first diagnosed with cancer decades ago, the effects of treatment weren’t exactly daunting. She could deal with dwindling hair while driving.
“She threw all her hair out the window, put on a wig, and went to the meeting,” said her daughter Amy. “It’s a fabulous story, and it’s so classically my mother.”
Throughout her long career as a social worker and a volunteer, Mrs. Shapiro helped people of all ages and backgrounds and “became the ‘grande dame’ of Jewish Boston,” said Rabbi Andrew Vogel in a eulogy during her memorial service at Temple Sinai in Brookline.
He added that although “she talked openly of being a survivor of breast cancer” for more than 30 years, nothing slowed her drive to help others. “She engaged in the active denial of her mortality, overcoming illness and age by investing herself in the cause of making the world we inhabit better.”
Mrs. Shapiro, who late in life turned her social work skills to working with elderly clients, including some who were younger than she, died May 25 in her Brookline home. She was 91 and had lived past the point when doctors could explain why she was surviving.
“I actually told her the cancer was afraid of her, and I think it’s true. I think she just scared that cancer away,” said Amy, who lives in Milwaukee.
Mrs. Shapiro “loved life, and she loved living life fully,” said her son, Robert of Chicago. “She was once quoted in the newspaper as saying life was too great to live on the sidelines. She was always engaged in everything.”
Early in her career, she was among the first women to serve as a social worker at Beth Israel Hospital. She later helped establish a unit for the elderly at Jewish Family and Children’s Services, where she was a supervisor. Mrs. Shapiro also served as director of social work at both Jewish Memorial Hospital in Roxbury and the Coolidge House nursing facility in Brookline, and she had a private practice.
Over the years, she helped resettle Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union and counseled parents of LGBT children, volunteering with the organization Keshet to welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews into their faith community. Mrs. Shapiro encouraged dialogue between Jews and Muslims, too, and worked with the Interreligious Center for Public Life more than a decade ago during contentious plans to build a mosque in Roxbury.
“She was seriously dedicated to peace in the Middle East and worked on its behalf, including her commitment to Muslim/Jewish relations,” Amy said in a eulogy. “She believed deeply in possibility and understood it was her own responsibility to do something.”
In her 80s, Mrs. Shapiro established a fund to support a social worker exchange program between Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Rambam hospital in Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city.
“My mother had an extraordinary sensibility about social justice,” Amy said in an interview. “She was concerned about people who couldn’t speak up for themselves, and helped them build better lives.”
Among the groups to which she devoted time were the women’s Zionist organization Hadassah, the Jewish Community Relations Council, Kit Clark Senior Services in Boston, the Brookline Literacy Project, the Rainbow Committee that fosters a welcoming atmosphere for Temple Sinai’s LGBT community, and The Abraham Fund, a nonprofit Israeli organization that promotes coexistence and equality among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.
“Everything she did, she brought enormous energy to,” her son said. “I think she became more and more energetic as time went on. She never wore down. It’s almost as if the disease impelled her to be more energetic. Every morning, by the time she had her feet on the ground she was moving, and she kept moving.”
Enid Greenberg grew up in Roxbury and Brookline, the older of two children born to Louis Greenberg and the former Idah Lesser. Her father often was ill because of his service in World War I, when he was among the soldiers who were gassed. Her mother worked as a companion for the elderly. At one point, money was so tight that Mrs. Shapiro shared a coat with her mother.
A high-energy person even in her youth, Mrs. Shapiro graduated from high school at 16 and received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University at 19. She was a writer for a Brookline newspaper when she met Melvin I. Shapiro, whom she married in 1947.
Mr. Shapiro, a former managing partner of an accounting firm and former trustee of Hebrew College in Newton, died in 2008. Mrs. Shapiro served as an overseer at the college, which awarded her an honorary degree.
While living in Belmont and raising her children, Mrs. Shapiro returned to school and graduated in 1967 with a master’s in social work from Simmons College, for which she later was a corporator.
“Simmons changed my life,” she said for a college publication.
Mrs. Shapiro was part of the Making Education Work steering committee at Simmons, where she launched the Enid Shapiro Innovation and Learning Fund.
“As a child I just thought that all mothers were bigger than life,” Amy said in her eulogy. “I, of course, had no idea that she was someone so special — a mother who taught all my friends to ice skate, went back to school for her master’s in social work, worked tirelessly on political campaigns, took me to the movies when we were supposed to grocery shop.”
When a friend first met Mrs. Shapiro, Amy added, “She asked me if my mom always ran everywhere.”
Mrs. Shapiro always outpaced those around her and counted among her close friends those who were half her age. “Eventually she went into private practice and worked primarily with the elderly,” Amy said. “And later in life, she was working with elderly people who were a lot younger than her.”
A service was held for Mrs. Shapiro, who in addition to her daughter and son leaves another daughter, Laura Shapiro Kramer of New York City; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Shapiro also was a board member of The Right Question Institute, a Cambridge education nonprofit that promotes the importance of the skill of asking questions effectively. She was an old pro at the practice.
“I used to say — and it’s true — that my mother would get in line to buy tickets to a movie, and by the time she had her tickets, she would knew everyone in line,” her son said. “And not just their names. She knew their jobs and who they were. She just made friends naturally.”
Mrs. Shapiro “literally breathed life into all the people around her and really caused them to want to get up and go and do things and enjoy their time and their experiences,” he added. “She thought everybody was worth knowing, she really did. It’s a wonderful way to be.”