Remembering educator Barry Krasner, ‘a force without being forceful’

Barry Krasner is remembered for his love of Jewish music, his Zionist idealism and as a master educator in Washington’s Jewish community (Photo courtesy of the Krasner Family)

When Barry Krasner sang at a 2013 Obama White House Chanukah party as part of Zemer Chai, the Jewish Chorale of the Nation’s Capital, fellow chorale member Joan Wolf remembers, he stayed calm and collected despite the extraordinary circumstances.

“We were literally singing as the guests were walking into the party, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg rolled on by, it was just a very heady event,” said Wolf, the president of Zemer Chai. “And Barry kept his cool, and it was just an amazing experience for all of us.”

Krasner’s love of Jewish music was lifelong, as was his Zionist idealism inspired by the Israel of the 1960s. But it was as a master educator in the Washington Jewish community that he may have made his greatest impact.

Krasner spent more than two decades as education director of the Consolidated Religious School, a consortium of five Montgomery County synagogues. Later he had roles in a succession of local Jewish education agencies.

Krasner, an early innovator in prayer book Hebrew education, died on July 4 at 79, after nearly two years of treatment for mesothelioma, cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

“I would describe him as a human being of high moral integrity and values, who was unwavering in his commitment to Jewish peoplehood,” said his wife, Eleanor Epstein Krasner, the founder and director of Zemer Chai. She remembered him as an excellent cook and singer, a great host with a lovely sense of humor and as a loving husband, father and grandfather.

“He’s got a very quiet demeanor, but he knows so much, and he’s so willing to share and listen,” said Wolf, the cantorial soloist of Hevrat Shalom Congregation. “He’s one of the best listeners I’ve ever met.”

At Krasner’s July 6 funeral at Judean Memorial Gardens, Washington-area Jewish educators told Barry stories. They inevitably included Avi West, another master educator, who died in August 2021.

“We started together in the BJE [Board of Jewish Education] then the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and finally The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington,” longtime educator Mara Bier said in her eulogy. “In each iteration, we had the privilege of working with many outstanding professionals. Some stayed a short time, many longer, but the constant was always Avi, Mara and Barry. We have history. You can’t work with someone for 25 years and not know them well.”

Bier remembered when a commitment to prepare and deliver a meal to a nearby women’s shelter got out of hand, until the voice of reason spoke up.

“Avi and I scoured our recipe books to find just the right something special. After quite some time of just sitting and watching us, Barry quietly said, ‘Franks and Beans.’ That was it — three words to bring us back to reality. Franks and Beans. That was their favorite meal. Pure Barry. Direct. Simple. To the point.”

Born in Baltimore in 1942, Barry Krasner was given the nickname of “Bunke” because his father, while serving in the Coast Guard, always kept a photo of his newborn son in his bunk. Growing up as the oldest of three children, he had a typical Jewish education, attending public school and Hebrew school.

“It would be wrong of me not to include his commitment to the State of Israel,” said Eleanor Krasner. She described her husband as a “progressive Zionist,” with his idealism formed in the Labor Zionist youth organization Habonim and the year he spent in Israel, working on a kibbutz.

“Building a place where Jews had their own destiny, and were not subject to the whim of the leaders or the zeitgeist of whatever country they happened to find themselves in,” Eleanor Krasner said. “This piece of Zionism that involved kibbutz life, literally working the land, was a big part of Habonim idealism, and it was a good match for him.”

Krasner worked at Habonim summer camps in New York and California. He attended the University of Maryland, where he received a bachelor’s degree in history in 1964 and a master’s degree in Middle Eastern history in 1966. Many years later, he received a second master’s degree from American University in education.

In 1968, a year after the Six-Day War transformed Israel and unleashed a wave of Jewish pride around the world, Barry Krasner made aliyah. He went with his first wife, Marilyn Bono, and their children, Lonna and Evan, said Eleanor Krasner.

Moving back again to the States he found work first as the education director of B’nai Israel Congregation, and later directed the Consolidated Religious School, a consortium of five Montgomery County synagogues.

Eleanor Krasner remembered her husband greatly enjoying his work in education, saying that it was a very complicated job that she isn’t sure anyone else could have done.

“I don’t know who else could have run that school besides Barry,” Eleanor Krasner said. “It lasted for 25 years, and it closed, he was the only education director that that school ever had. He started it, and he was there [until] its close.”

“I am sure I am speaking for many of my education director colleagues in saying Barry Krasner had an enormous, positive influence on their synagogue school educational leadership and on the quality of Jewish education in this vast region,” Louis Nagel, education director of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, eulogized. “Barry had many gifts to share with us. His teaching was the experience of three-dimensional chess. … He was a force without being forceful, giving you room to choose your own path.”

Wolf remembers how, when she joined Zemer Chai around 2008, she noticed Barry Krasner as a tall, quiet, mustachioed man in the tenor section. She came to recognize, as they performed all over the United States and Israel, his dry wit and his “very distinctive voice. … It had a certain amount of depth and gravel to it, and just an overwhelming amount of spirituality to it.”

“He was an understated, but not underrated legend, and [he] was immensely respected,” Wolf added.

Barry Krasner is survived by his wife, Eleanor; son, Evan Krasner and wife Jennifer of Spokane, Wash.; daughter, Lonna Schwartz of Montclair, N.J.; and grandchildren Soren, Florise and Ethan Schwartz.

Veteran Washington-area educator and consultant Steve Kerbel called Krasner a dedicated educator.

“He came to work, put his sound-canceling earphones on and got down to business. He surrounded himself with his beloved books and used them often. He, however, was never, ever too busy to stop and answer a question, make a suggestion, edit a piece of work or offer his help.

“Barry was a dedicated educator,” Kerbel continued. “But, at 5 p.m., Barry took off his earphones, laid down his red pen, closed his paper planner, quietly put on his jacket and headed down the hall and down the steps (never the elevator), out the door and home to Eleanor.”

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