May 24, 2024
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Englewood Councilman Urges Jews to Get Involved

It was billed as the Englewood Family Fun Day, a celebration of “One Englewood,” to bring the city’s diverse population together. Only it was planned for a Saturday, when Sabbath-observing Orthodox Jews, who make up 15-20 percent of the city’s population, wouldn’t attend. Michael Cohen, city councilman in Englewood’s second ward, where Orthodox Jews make up fifty percent of the residents, said he doesn’t think the day was chosen deliberately to exclude Sabbath-observing Jews, but it wasn’t changed despite repeated attempts to let appropriate officials know the day of inclusion was excluding a large chunk of the city. “After my attempts were ignored, I realized that if our community is not active, not paying attention, then we can be easily ignored,” Cohen said in an interview with the Jewish Link. “This is not the pinnacle of issues. But it is imperative that an issue like this is brought to our attention, so that when more serious issues are brought to the council, we’re ready and have an expectation that city policymakers will take our concerns seriously.”

At the city council meeting in Englewood last month, Cohen noticed that there were 75 to 100 people in attendance, but only one from the second ward. He says that has to change. He sent a letter to second ward residents as a wake-up call, telling them what transpired and suggesting solutions to encourage more active participation. He would like to see a minimum of five ward residents at every council meeting and told his constituents to “start demonstrating that we are paying attention by either calling or emailing the mayor and our other elected officials” about issues that affect the community.

Cohen said he thought some structure might be necessary, depending on the response he gets to the letter. He has already received about 100 calls and emails, with many saying they would volunteer to attend meetings. While all meetings are listed on the City of Englewood website, and the electronic billboard in front of City Hall publicizes upcoming meetings, he is looking at options for how to reach more people. It might mean forwarding agendas in advance to second ward residents via his email list, or creating a newsletter. In other wards, community leaders set the tone and bring others with them. Cohen said heads of churches, PTAs and tenant associations have a presence at the meetings. “People come, not because they are told to but because they understand the importance,” Cohen said. “In our ward, we need to get to that point.”

Second ward resident Dr. Lisa Wisotsky, who recently ran for city council, agrees that galvanizing residents to attend council meetings and make their views known is critical in winning support for an issue. She led a movement to save the MacKay Ice Arena after it was damaged by Hurricane Sandy. “I, among others, helped mobilize residents of the city to come to council meetings to urge the council to support repairing the arena,” she wrote in an email interview. “We succeeded in getting at least several dozen rink users to come to meetings over a period of months. They succeeded in convincing many council people of the importance of the rink to our city.”

Cohen said he is all about bringing people together and would have liked to participate in the Englewood Family Fun day. Cohen began his political career at 20 years old by constructing a Black/Jewish Relations Conference on Capitol Hill, including the Congressional Black Caucus, Jewish Members of Congress and each community’s national leadership organizations. He is currently Director of New York State Political and Strategic Affairs for the government relations firm Pitta, Bishop, Del Giorno and Giblin. He was formerly a senior staffer in the New York State Senate and served on the New York City Planning Board.

Cohen hopes the letter will start a new chapter of activism by second ward residents. “I wrote the letter that was circulated with the specific intention of inspiring a new wave of needed community activism necessary to truly achieve the dreams so beautifully articulated of One Englewood,” he wrote in a follow-up email. “A united city can only truly be achieved if its disparate components understand both the value of the relationship and the unfortunate consequences of existing without it.”

By Bracha Schwartz

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