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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His own children, one of them an adopted African-American boy, were students in the Nyack system. Cohen became chair of the education committee of the Nyack NAACP and embarked on a campaign that eventually drew the attention of the state education department. His campaign eventually forced the district to bring in experts to evaluate how to change the culture of the district’s schools.

The East Ramapo effort has so far eluded any such clear-cut solution. Cohen’s chief ally in his current struggle is Willie Trotman, president of the Spring Valley chapter of the NAACP. The two first met in 2002.

“Every once in a while, someone might say something that angers him, but it’s very, very rare,” Trotman said of Cohen. “He’s always composed, always ready.”

The East Ramapo district includes large Hispanic and Haitian communities. It also covers the Hasidic enclave of New Square and the largely Orthodox town of Monsey. Orthodox Jews don’t send their children to public schools, but they do pay taxes into the public school system, and they do vote — in large numbers — in the local school board elections.

Seven of the nine school board members are Orthodox. While 9,000 students attend public schools in the district, another 20,000 attend private schools — many of them religious Jewish schools. Those schools are eligible for some public funding.

Meanwhile, only 7% of public school students in the East Ramapo district are white. None of the seven other districts is less than 40% white.

Lately, long simmering tensions over the board’s management of the public schools have come to a boil.

Over the summer, Arthur Schwartz, an attorney with the not-for-profit law firm Advocates for Justice, filed an administrative complaint with the state education department and a class action lawsuit against the board. Schwartz said that his involvement in the case came about after Cohen reached out to him.

As the lawsuit moves forward, Cohen is pursuing a different track. Cohen and Trotman presented the East Ramapo situation to the governor’s New New York Education Reform at a meeting in Manhattan on October 16. The NAACP asked Cuomo to put together a task force charged with entirely rethinking how the district is run.

If accepted, the proposal could have an impact far beyond East Ramapo, in other New York districts like the one in Lawrence on Long Island that have large Orthodox populations.

“We’re not trying to demonize the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox community; we’re saying there’s a problem here. They have their needs, and we respect those. But the secular community has its needs,” Cohen said. “What I would like — and what Willie [Trotman] and the NAACP would like –– is for the Hasidic community and the NAACP together to go to the legislature and go to the governor and say together we’re asking for this issue to be addressed and for there to be a rethinking to try to come up with a solution, because it’s not going to go away.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com and follow him onTwitter@joshnathankazis


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