George Karonsky, lifelong educator in San Francisco, dies at 88by dan pine, staff writer
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George Karonsky had just about every credential a certified educator can earn, from a Ph.D. on down.
And he put them to good use, as Karonsky was a giant in public and Jewish education, someone who had an impact on thousands of Bay Area students, Jewish and non-Jewish.
Following a bout of pneumonia, Karonsky died Aug. 2 in Los Angeles. He was 88.
“He had a philosophy of education in terms of Jewish life,” said his son, Rabbi Glenn Karonsky, himself a longtime educator who is now an executive with the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles. “Role modeling was central and core. While learning is important, if a child has no realistic role model, he’s going to care a lot less about the learning.”
Karonsky strove to be that role model, for San Francisco public school students, for Hebrew school kids at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco and for his own children at home.
Starting in the 1950s, he served the San Francisco Unified School District long and diligently — as a teacher and counselor at Horace Mann Middle School, a vice principal at Herbert Hoover Middle School and principal at Portola Junior High School. He also served as area superintendent of the Bayview-Hunters Point region of the school district.
From 1954 to 1973, he served as principal of the religious school at Beth Sholom. Glenn Karonsky, who attended that Hebrew school, recalled his father’s “role model” approach. When recruiting teachers, Karonsky selected high-level professionals who would, he hoped, make an impression on students.
“The teachers were all attorneys or professional teachers,” he said. “[My father] would twist a busy doctor’s arm to go and teach on Sundays. The most important class was confirmation, for those about to go out into the world, and Dad would always pick an attorney.”
Later in life he was a driving force in the Bay Area chapter of the American-Israel Friendship League, a national organization that facilitates student exchange programs between the two countries.
“He left a tremendous legacy,” said Rabbi Micah Hyman, who came aboard as Beth Sholom rabbi after Karonsky retired. “He was a real elder statesman of the community, proudly San Franciscan and proudly Jewish in a world of multiculturalism.”
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Karonsky spent his formative years in the once-predominantly Jewish neighborhood around McAllister Street in San Francisco’s Fillmore District.
He grew up in a religious household, and though his parents were from the Old World, they wanted their son to make his mark in the new world.
“He got strong encouragement from his father,” Glenn Karonsky said. “[My grandfather] was in the hotel business, dealing with the public, so he got a firsthand look at how important it would be for his kids to have a strong education and speak good English.”
Karonsky attended San Francisco’s Lowell High School, then headed off to fight in World War II. He rose to the rank of master sergeant.
After that, he attended U.C. Berkeley, where he earned a doctorate in education in 1960. He also played on the Cal freshman basketball squad, and never lost his love of sports.
Sports were “important in his growth and became for him a vehicle to reach kids,” Glenn Karonsky noted. “He loved competition. He used the playing field as a way to engage with people.” His achievements in athletic endeavors included organizing a citywide synagogue youth basketball league.
Karonsky and his wife, Marie, raised three children. Marie was “steadfast and by his side,” said her son, though she, too, had a busy career, working directly for the president of UCSF. The couple was married for 63 years, before Marie’s death last year.
In addition to his regular duties with the SFUSD, he also was asked to help guide the district through court-ordered desegregation of San Francisco schools in 1971.
Overall, he was dismayed by the decline in the quality of public education over the years.
Karonsky “was a huge proponent of public schools and felt the community was not the same, largely due to flight from public schools,” said his son. “He took that as a personal failure because he couldn’t do more to ensure the excellence of public schools.”
Following his retirement in the late 1980s, he took up the cause of the American-Israel Friendship League. Karonsky coordinated the education program, according to his friend, KGO radio host John Rothmann. But he did more than that while he was active with the organization in the 1980s.
“George and his wife would arrange all the home hospitality, touring and press,” Rothmann remembered. “He loved kids, he loved Israel, his work in public education and Jewish education was just phenomenal. This is a guy who never received the recognition. Not that he wanted it.”
Before and after retirement, Karonsky could often be found at Candlestick Park or AT&T Park cheering on the 49ers or Giants — and shmoozing. “The biggest kick he had in the world was to run into people he would know and speak Yiddish at the ballgame,” remembered his son. “Dad was of a generation that did that.”
Life had its share of sorrows. In addition to losing his wife last year, Karonsky also lost his son Samuel earlier this year. Yet even into old age, Karonsky never lost his passion for education and for Jewish life.
“He tried to surround his students and children with positive role models,” Glenn Karonsky said, “and he himself was the strongest role model. You can’t command respect and devotion; you can only lay it out.”