KAVALER: On Sunday, Jan. 29, at 94, Mina Kavaler took her final retirement at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas. A consummate worker, doer and people-person, Mina loved a challenge. She never turned away from a cause or situation she believed she could make better and worked tirelessly to improve people’s lives.
An (almost) lifelong Pittsburgher, Mina was born on Oct. 16, 1928, in Oakland to Jack and Faye Serbin. As a child of the Depression with a father who owned a candy factory, Mina learned never to waste a dollar and, as anyone who ever visited her Squirrel Hill home knew, had a love affair with strategically placed bowls of candy. With a mother who played cards at night for a living and a working father, Mina was the elder sibling and surrogate parent to her younger brother Harvey, whom she loved fiercely throughout his life.
Mina was a proud graduate of Schenley High School and the Pittsburgh Public School system. It was here that the direction of her life was established. She fell in love with learning and teaching, most notably as Andy Warhol’s math tutor, and became a career teacher of math in the Pittsburgh public school system. Schenley High School had students from every walk of life, which ignited her passion for social justice, a calling that led her to be the first white woman on Pittsburgh’s NAACP board and walk in marches supporting equal rights with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others.
Mina met the love of her life, Vigdor Kavaler, at Pitt, beginning an almost 50-year marriage full of friends, family and travel. At Pitt, she was president of her sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi, and a massive supporter of all Pitt sports, keeping score at the basketball games and attending every Pitt football game. It was at Pitt that she met many of her closest friends. These friendships lasted her lifetime; from the group who had season tickets to Pitt football to the poker club crowd to her travel friends, Mina loved them all. Being Mina’s friend meant you were always available for a marathon late-night phone call and a “let’s go” attitude.
Armed with a master’s in teaching from Adelphi University, Mina began a decades-long career teaching math in some of Pittsburgh’s most challenging neighborhoods. Mina was motivated by the diamond in the rough, the student she could inspire to learn. Twenty-five years after he graduated from Reizenstein High School, she was thrilled to visit her student, Billy Porter, backstage on the set of Kinky Boots on Broadway. Of course, when Mina left Reizenstein, she retained a core group of teacher friends.
Mina’s teaching didn’t end with the school day. If you grew up in Squirrel Hill in the 1960s and 1970s, chances are you sat in Mina’s kitchen after school getting tutored for the SATs. Many a college career began at Mina’s kitchen table.
Family, religion and travel were hugely important for Mina, with family coming first. The best day of Mina and Vig’s life was when they adopted John (JD) and Marti through the Jewish Family and Children’s Services. They were the lights in her life. She was a loving, devoted mother and worked diligently to provide her children with everything they could want and need, including a well-rounded education as school students and, through travel, citizens of the world.
Even as children, Marti and John supported Mina’s many volunteer efforts and learned the value of community service. They sealed envelopes for friends’ political campaigns, worked the polls at 6 a.m. during elections and sorted clothing at Anathon House. Mina excelled in every aspect of volunteering, but her sweet spot was fundraising. If you got a fundraising call from Mina, you didn’t get off the phone until you gave — probably more than last year.
Mina’s labor of love was Rodef Shalom Congregation. She was an institution in the Rodef Shalom community supporting Vig’s work as a long-term president of Sisterhood, chairing many committees and teaching Sunday school. In later years, she even sang in the choir. If you were a member of Rodef Shalom, you knew Mina. Every Passover was spent sitting on the dais, drinking Vig’s excellent wine collection. Marti and JD were bar mitzvah at Rodef Shalom, Marti married in the sanctuary, and Mina celebrated her 90th birthday weekend with friends and family from all over the country. If Mina was having a life event, it was happening at Rodef.
And then there was travel. Vig and Mina visited every continent except Antarctica and almost every country on our planet. When Nixon opened China, they were among the first visitors. They loved exploring different cultures. Never an adventurous eater, Mina traveled with a suitcase full of cheese peanut butter crackers while Vig indulged in every cuisine. Travel wasn’t only international. Every summer, the exodus from Squirrel Hill to Beach Haven on the Jersey shore began. Mina cherished spending summers with her children and friends, enjoying the beach and many fun group activities. The Jersey shore crew took relaxing seriously.
After 32 years of teaching, she retired and began her second career. She spent the next 24 years as “mayor” of Weinberg Terrace. Weinberg Terrace put Mina at the epicenter of Squirrel Hill’s older Jewish population. She knew each resident’s family personally. Handling the desk with warmth and kindness, she ran Weinberg Terrace like she ran her life, efficiently and with a sense of humor. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Mina made many improvements to the lives of the residents. And she never missed a day of work. During the pandemic and armed with a mask to match every outfit, she drove herself to work and ensured residents had their menus on time and scheduled activities. She often did double shifts to ensure the residents were taken care of.
So, at 93, Mina decided it was time for a change. She retired from Weinberg Terrace and left her beloved Pittsburgh for the greener pastures of Texas. Mina moved to The Tradition and, as an expert on assisted living facilities, quickly formed a resident’s council and was awarded the first Resident of the Month honor. In her year of living close to JD and Kelly, she made great friends and spent time with her Texas extended family, Jeanene Rutkowski and Brandan White. She looked forward to holiday celebrations in San Antonio with Laurie, Sean, Hailey and Brooke Burgess. At JD and Kelly’s ranch in Round Top, Texas, Mina quickly endeared herself to the locals. During her time in Texas, she had many visits from her beloved grandchildren, Jack, Kat, and dear friend Janice Rosenberg.
Throughout her life, there were too many awards and recognitions to mention and hundreds more stories to tell. Her surviving family — John and Kelly Kavaler, Marti and Barry Fischer, grandchildren Jack and Kat Fischer and fiancé Garrett Snyder would love to hear your Mina stories.
Services at Ralph Schugar Chapel, Inc., 5509 Centre Avenue, Shadyside on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023 at 1 p.m. Visitation 1 hour prior to service (12 noon – 1 p.m.).
Vigdor has been waiting patiently and Mina will be laid beside him at West View Cemetery of Rodef Shalom Congregation. She will undoubtedly regale him with tales of all of her adventures, and together they will look down on granddaughter Kat’s wedding in the fall of 2024.
Learner, teacher, volunteer. If you would like to honor Mina’s memory, please support the Vigdor W. Kavaler Scholarship Fund through Rodef Shalom Congregation. The fund awards college scholarships to Jewish students. Mina would love that. schugar.com PJC