Beloved teacher and community stalwart Mina Kavaler has died at 94
News obituaryThe 'mayor' of Weinberg Terrace

Beloved teacher and community stalwart Mina Kavaler has died at 94

“She cared deeply about people, cared deeply about her friends and cared deeply about her causes."

Mina Kavaler celebrates her birthday at Weinberg Terrace (Photo courtesy of Marti Fischer)
Mina Kavaler celebrates her birthday at Weinberg Terrace (Photo courtesy of Marti Fischer)

The date was Oct. 20, 2018, and Mina Kavaler, a bright-eyed Renaissance woman in Jewish Pittsburgh, was about to give a speech on her 90th birthday.

“One of the caregivers who comes into Weinberg Terrace says to me each day, ‘Have a blessed day, Mina,’” she began. “I want to tell you how many blessed days have made up my life these 90 years.”

Kavaler, who died on Jan. 29 at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas at age 94, lived a life fuller than most. A veteran Pittsburgh Public Schools math teacher at Reizenstein Middle School, Kavaler taught Billy Porter and tutored Andy Warhol. To paraphrase her family, many college journeys began in the 1960s and ‘70s at Kavaler’s Squirrel Hill kitchen table, studying for SATs.

Kavaler was the president of her University of Pittsburgh sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi, and an institution at the synagogue where she worshipped every Friday night, Rodef Shalom Congregation. She was passionate about social justice before it was called that, was active in Pittsburgh’s NAACP and marched for civil rights with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She had a decades-long “second career” working the concierge desk at Weinberg Terrace, where many joked she was the mayor of the place.

“Mina’s 24 years of unwavering devotion still impacts our community today as we mourn her recent passing,” said Pearl Averbach, Weinberg Terrace’s executive director. “Mina, who was a lifelong teacher, demonstrated to our community of Weinberg Terrace the values of commitment, integrity and compassion. Every day, she committed her time to our residents and staff of Weinberg Terrace. She greeted each resident, visitor and staff member with integrity, offering a kind word or assistance and her compassion and love for our community brought her back every day.

“Her photo continues to sit on the wall at our front desk,” Averbach added. “We know she is still watching us and still guiding us from afar.”

Above all, though, she was a wife to Vigdor — “Vig,” to whom she was married for more than 45 years, until his death in 1996 — and a mom to John and Marti.

“The luckiest day of my life was the day I got adopted by my mom and my dad,” said John Kavaler, who grew up in Pennsylvania and lives in Texas. “They raised twins and provided us with everything under the sun — we didn’t want for anything.”

Kavaler met Vig, the love of her life, at Pitt, where she was a massive supporter of all school sports, keeping score at the basketball games and attending every Pitt football game.

Mina Kavler with former student Billy Porter backstage at “Kinky Boots” (Photo courtesy of Marti Fischer)
It was at Pitt, her family-written obituary said, that she met many of her closest friends — friends whose bonds lasted, almost quite literally, a lifetime. More than 150 friends and family attended Kavaler’s funeral.

“From the group who had season tickets to Pitt football to the poker club crowd to her travel friends, Mina loved them all,” the obituary read. “Being Mina’s friend meant you were always available for a marathon late-night phone call and a ‘let’s go!’ attitude.”

“What my mother was really fabulous at was collecting amazing people,” said Marti Fischer, Kavaler’s daughter, who was raised in Squirrel Hill and lives in New York City. “I mean, at Reizenstein [Middle School], she had a group of teachers who showed up at her funeral, all these years later. They even danced with me at my wedding!”

“She was consummate at keeping relationships going,” Fischer added, “and all without social media, mind you.”

Kavaler headed the Sisterhood at Rodef Shalom, where her husband was the executive director. There, she spent hours worshipping, celebrating life events — and volunteering.

“Mina was quite a personality,” said Rabbi Emeritus Walter Jacob of Rodef Shalom. “She continued to be interested in things long after other people had stopped.”

“She was special because she had a broad range of interests and lots of people that she knew,” he added. “She was very spirited.”

But, was it true that Kavaler pushed repeatedly to set the rabbi up with nice, Jewish girls when he arrived at Rodef Shalom in 1955 without a romantic partner?

“I was single and she was determined to change that,” Jacob laughed. “She was always handing me all sorts of phone numbers and such.”

Years later, that persistence and determination netted Kavaler inclusion in the Jewish Association on Aging’s “Eight Over 80” listing.

Kavaler never complained about the aches and pains associated with growing older, her daughter said, and often referred to residents of Weinberg Terrace as “the older people,” even though she was older than a lot of them.

There’s a famous photo, maybe in a museum somewhere, of Kavaler sitting in her living room around 1959 with Black members of the NAACP. Fischer said that was indicative of her mother.

“Japanese, Polish, Black, white, Jewish, Christian — she had no filter for race or gender or anything we elevate today as statuses,” Fischer said. “She believed people should be equal. [She’d say] ‘This is right. This is wrong.’”

“She cared deeply about people, cared deeply about her friends and cared deeply about her causes,” Fischer added. “There’s a lot to be taken from that — it was ‘I’m a human being. You’re a human being. And we’re equal.’ There were no qualifications. There was no fanfare.”

At 93, Kavaler retired from Weinberg and, in the words of her family obituary, “left her beloved Pittsburgh for the greener pastures of Texas.” She moved to an assisted living facility called The Tradition and, true to form, quickly established a residents’ council and was awarded the first “Resident of the Month” honor.

In a year of living close to her son, she made great friends and spent time with her Texas extended family. She celebrated holidays in San Antonio and, at her son’s ranch in Round Top, Texas, quickly endeared herself to the locals.

“She’d say, ‘You get what you give,’” John Kavaler said. “And my mother gave so much, and she received so much. She said, in her final days, ‘I just want to live and I just want to contribute.’”
“There’ll never be anyone like her,” he said. “She was the dearest friend and she was an amazing mother.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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