Beatrice Lillian Schwalb was born on March 10, 1912, the daughter of European immigrants, Eli and Celia, in Union, South Carolina. At the age of two, Bea contracted polio. To get better medical care, when Bea was three her parents moved back to Massachusetts. They settled in Lynn and Bea fully recovered.
Three years later, the family, which now included Bea and three sisters, moved to Lewiston, Maine. They owned a small farm, and Eli worked as a shoemaker. The years in Maine were some of the happiest of their lives; however since there were no other Jews in the area, Eli and Celia began to worry about their daughters’ futures. Although Eli was not a religious man, his father had been extremely observant, and when Bea was 13, the Schwalb family moved back to Lynn.
Like most girls of her generation, Bea had no formal Jewish education. When she was about 13, she joined a Young Judaea club, under the direction of Hadassah. Thus began Bea’s religious education and love of Hadassah. She began studying Hebrew, Judaism, and Zionism so that she could teach the younger children in her group. Eventually, she became President of Lynn Junior Hadassah and later President of the New England Region of Juniors.
My grandfather, Bernie Garber, first heard of Bea from a cousin who worked with her. Bea and Bernie met, started courting, and dated for six years. During this time, Bea attended Simmons College for a year and also briefly attended the New England Conservatory of Music as an accomplished pianist. To help support her family, Bea left school and began working, first at Sears Roebuck Co. and then at an interior decorating company. Bea and Bernie were married on December 20, 1936.
Their first home was in Dorchester, a Boston neighborhood that at the time was home to a large Jewish community. They later moved to Brookline where Bernie had started a driving school and Bea worked with him as an instructor. During WWII, Bea ran the business while Bernie worked at GE.
After the war, Bernie expanded the business to include a travel agency. Both Garber Driving School and Garber Travel Agency were extremely successful. Bernie said that “more than half of [the] success … was due to the unlimited cooperation and dedication of Bea.” Bea and Bernie eventually moved to Newton, where they raised three children. As of March 2012, their prodigy includes eight grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
Bea continued to be active in Hadassah, becoming President of the Brookline Chapter of Senior Hadassah, President of the Boston Chapter, President of the New England Region, as well as serving on the National Board and as Chair of Youth Activities. She also found other ways to give back to her community – including being the first woman in 100 years on the Board of Temple Mishkan Tefilah in Newton; president of the Sisterhood; a member of the Brandeis Women’s Committee; a member of the Cerebral Palsy Committee; and working on various cancer and anti-smoking drives.
Israel was an important part of my grandparents’ lives; they visited at least 30 times. Bea served on the Aliyah Council of Greater Boston and as Treasurer of Neve Shalom, an Israeli residential educational institution that fostered positive interactions between Jewish and Arab youth. Bea once told the Boston Globe that her favorite city was Jerusalem — with its beautiful blending of old and new, where a feeling of serenity and calmness prevailed, despite current difficulties.
Bea was an extraordinary woman — a role model, a leader, a teacher. By her participation and leadership, she taught us about the importance of involvement — that each of us has a role to play in supporting and strengthening our Jewish community. From a young age, I remember her including us in her efforts, whether it was Hadassah, Israel bond drives, or the many community events she hosted — especially stuffing envelopes for hours!
While she wasn’t your typical “Bubbe,” cooking brisket or baking kugel, she was a gifted public speaker and totally dedicated to Hadassah, her synagogue, the Land of Israel, the Jewish people, and her family.
Bea passed away on January 14, 1999, at the age of 86 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.