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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Cohen isn’t a party in the suit. But his slow, methodical work in East Ramapo has made him one of the most influential figures in the diverse group of activists striving to reform the troubled district.

“The local schmuck like me just knows I’m pissed off about something,” said Steven White, an East Ramapo parent who has run unsuccessfully for a seat on the school board. “I explain to Oscar, and Oscar hears me and understands on a deeper level, about exactly in what way is this something that is not just another parent complaint; it… represents a pattern of discrimination.”

Cohen grew up in the Mosholu Parkway neighborhood of the Bronx and spent most of his professional life at the Lexington School for the Deaf, a leading residential and day school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Queens. He lived in the Bronx with his three children, who are now grown, and with his wife, who died last year, and led the school as its superintendent for two decades. Cohen’s parents were deaf, though he is hearing.

“The deaf community was my life,” he said. In 2001 Cohen left the school, ready to move on. He went to work for Ralph Lauren, a childhood friend from the old neighborhood. The two had grown up playing ball together, and Lauren hired Cohen to run his charitable foundation, which he did until 2008, funding cancer care and education initiatives, and running a volunteer program.

Cohen retired for real in 2008. He lives today in Chestnut Ridge, a suburban town in the East Ramapo district and stays in touch with his children — one a teacher, one a data manager and one a novelist.

After retirement, Cohen began to devote his attention to the problems in the East Ramapo district. It wasn’t his first effort at addressing what he saw as racial inequity in public schools. Years earlier, while living in Nyack, N.Y., he worked to force the local school district to address what Cohen characterized as unequal treatment of nonwhite students in the Nyack system.

“It became clear, even though Nyack was integrated, there were two [public school] systems,” Cohen recalled. “There was a system for children of color and a system for white kids.”


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