Uphill Push for Change in Orthodox Stronghold

Activist Oscar Cohen Battles East Ramapo School Board

Fight the Power: Activist Oscar Cohen and the NAACP are fighting the Orthodox-dominated school board in upstate East Ramapo, N.Y.
Shulamit Seidler-Feller
Fight the Power: Activist Oscar Cohen and the NAACP are fighting the Orthodox-dominated school board in upstate East Ramapo, N.Y.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published November 13, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
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After a decade of fighting a public school board dominated by Orthodox Jews in suburban New York, Oscar Cohen, a soft-spoken 71-year-old with a reputation for composure, is starting to get angry.

“You have eight school districts in Rockland County,” the retired school administrator told the Forward recently. “One is cutting every nonmandated service to the bone. Seven are not. Ninety percent of the kids going to the one are children of color. Is something wrong with that picture?”

Today, Cohen, is an activist with the NAACP, which is warning that racial tensions are boiling over in the East Ramapo school district. The school board, the group charges, is stripping services from public school children and channeling resources to benefit the Orthodox parochial schools attended by the school board members’ own children.

The school board disputes the NAACP’s allegations.

When the historic civil rights group’s New York State division called on the governor to intervene at an education reform hearing recently, one of the NAACP’s representatives was African American. The other was Cohen, a Jew from the Bronx.

Cohen and the NAACP’s latest push is to convince New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo to convene a task force that would fundamentally change how public education is funded and governed in East Ramapo and similar districts.

Cohen said these drastic steps come after Orthodox members of the East Ramapo school board rebuffed efforts by him and his NAACP colleagues to engage in a dialogue directly.

“They didn’t want to meet with us,” Cohen said. “They indicated they have the power, why would they want to meet with us?”

Daniel Schwartz, president of the school board, told the Forward that the 2011 effort to begin a dialogue ended after a single meeting, because of “broad issues concerning the nature and the tenor of how the conversations would take place.” He would not be more specific.

The effort to reform the board drew little attention for years outside the pages of the Forward and The Journal News, an upstate New York paper. But this past summer, that changed when a not-for-profit law firm, with Cohen’s encouragement, filed a lawsuit and an administrative complaint against the school board.


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