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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different. http://jd.fo/p57AB
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.