If you have ever attended a bris, b’nai mitzvah, wedding, shiva or Saturday morning kiddush anywhere in Pittsburgh, chances are Michelle Vines was also there. For 45 years, whether as a waitress or overseeing the event itself, Vines has worked at almost every imaginable Jewish function, and after nearly a half-century of quietly and fastidiously facilitating everyone else’s occasions, Vines will be the subject of communal praise when Israel Bonds, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol — Beth Jacob Congregation and Congregation Beth Shalom honor her on Sept. 8 at Congregation Beth Shalom.
The recognition is unexpected and humbling, explained Vines.
“I appreciate everything everybody’s doing. It means a lot to me,” she said.
Vines had little idea 45 years ago how it would change her life when she accepted an offer from her West Mifflin neighbor, Helen Frost, to work an event at Beth Shalom.
There was certainly fiscal incentive to saying yes to Frost, but there was also an opportunity for understanding, explained Vines. “Instead of babysitting, I just thought it’d be interesting to learn a little bit about their religion and what she does.”
One event turned into another and then another, and apart from a two-year period of living in Florida, Vines, who is Catholic, has been working Jewish events in Pittsburgh ever since. She hasn’t kept track of how many functions she has been a part of, but figures it’s well over a thousand.
She has made a lot of memories, and friendships from the process but the biggest gift is seeing the generations continue, she explained.
In one instance, Vines worked a child’s bris, then 13 years later his bar mitzvah, then his wedding and then his child’s bris.
“It’s rewarding just to watch the lifecycle, the whole circle come together,” she said.
When Vines began, as a teenager, her first gig was as a waitress. Over the years her responsibilities changed, and for the past two decades she has served as events coordinator at Beth Shalom. In that position she arranges the waitstaff, speaks to vendors and plans the parties.
“I make sure everything is running smoothly,” she said.
As events coordinator, Vines isn’t responsible for ordering the food. That charge belongs to the caterers, and Vines has had her fair share of working with many of them throughout the city. When asked who served the best meals, she diplomatically declined to answer, but said the experience of working with so many individuals taught her that “people are people,” and that “you get along with everybody. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you are,” she said.
Within Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, Vines’ role is well established and greatly appreciated by the many she has worked with.
Deena Ross and Moishe Siebzener of Creative Kosher Catering called Vines “a beloved friend” and credited her with “decades of loyalty” and “service to the community.”
Vines’ Beth Shalom colleagues referred to her as a “dynamo of hospitality” and an “understated maven of functions.”
“Michele is the absolute best of the best and has the kindest heart,” said Judah Cowen of Elegant Edge Catering Company. “She not only does an amazing job but always goes above and beyond with whatever she is doing and touches many peoples hearts, calms nerves and leaves a lasting impression with whoever she meets.
The compliments and attention are a bit uncomfortable, admitted Vines. More enjoyable is the work itself and those who surround her, as every so often a younger core comes to help on Saturday mornings.
Joining their grandmother with setting up kiddush at Beth Shalom are two young girls: one 11 and the other 8.
Said Vines, “I’m starting them young.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.