NEW YORK – In almost every campaign photo of Amber Adler, her two young boys are by her side. As she runs to represent New York’s Council District 48, the Haredi single mom says she wants to teach her children the importance of civic engagement.
“My kids are always with me, and by default they have been a part of the campaign,” she says of her two sons, Shmuel, 8, and Yaakov, 6. “I want them to be empathetic, I want them to be leaders, and I want them to know how to connect the dots and never be afraid or intimidated by anything,” she tells Haaretz in a phone interview.
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Community activist Adler is hoping to replace outgoing Councilman Chaim Deutsch in the Brooklyn district, which includes parts of Midwood, Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach and Sheepshead Bay – homes to significant Jewish populations.
So far, she’s facing competition for the Democratic nomination from two male Jewish candidates: Steven Saperstein, a teacher who unsuccessfully ran for the seat in 2017 as a Republican before switching this year; and Midwood community activist Boris Noble. The primary is set for June 2021.
A sign from God (or J.Lo)
Adler, 36, was born in Ohio and raised in Florida. She was studying at Ohio University when she visited New York City for the first time in 2002. It was love at first sight.
“I actually prayed to Hashem the third day I was in the city and I asked him to give me a sign if I should stay,” she recalls. “It felt like the right place, but it was a very big change for me.”
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A couple of days later, Adler’s prayers were answered in the most unlikely fashion: She was asked to be an extra in the film “Maid in Manhattan,” starring Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes. In the scene, which ended up on the cutting room floor, Adler is seen asking the would-be senator Fiennes for an autograph.
Adler took this as a sign that New York was where she belonged.
Coming from a family that was “always very vocal about standing up for your rights and helping other people,” Adler says the idea of service was ingrained in her from an early age. Religion, however, came later.
“I wasn’t brought up religious, I actually became religious in 2006,” she says. “Someone had passed away that I was very close with, and it was very hard on me. I reached out to a local rabbi in my hometown.”
The rabbi recommended some readings about death and mourning for her, and Adler quickly found herself inspired by the Orthodox lifestyle, which she adopted.
She now resides in the Homecrest area of Southern Brooklyn with her sons, who she has full custody of after her divorce – a long process she preferred not to discuss with Haaretz. Indeed, she declined to comment on her marital status at all.
Adler, who serves as chair of Brooklyn’s Neighborhood Advisory Board 15, has been volunteering in her community for years. But as COVID-19 swept New York City last spring, she says she felt it was time to really “step up.” She distributed masks, meals and other supplies to people in need and essential workers – always accompanied by her sons.
Her efforts didn’t go unrecognized. As well as making multiple media headlines, New York City’s Department of Youth and Community Development recently presented Adler with the “2020 Community Mom” award for her volunteering work.
While she gained attention for her activism, Adler reached the conclusion that running for office would allow her to “really make a difference.” She threw her hat into the ring at the end of June.
Having worked on Councilman Deutsch’s reelection campaign in 2017, Adler is familiar with the political horse race. But for her, the campaign is about “getting to know people one by one.”
Some of the issues Adler is campaigning on are things she sees as key for the city’s recovery from the pandemic, including affordable housing, child care and health care.
But perhaps one of her top priorities is the fight against antisemitism and other forms of hatred, which she views as a “two-part thing,” she says.
“There is fighting hate, and then there is promoting unity,” she explains. “Everyone is going through the same challenges, so we can focus on a few common denominators and really do a lot of good.”
As part of her ongoing effort in the area, Adler helped secure some $170,000 from the city in 2019 for Holocaust Education in public schools.
Community activist Mark Appel, who founded the Bridge Multicultural and Advocacy Project, sees the race for Council District 48 as particularly important at this particular time. “You need somebody in there to be able to balance, who has the ability to really communicate, who works with diversity,” he says.
Building bridges between community members of different backgrounds is essential, he notes. “You have to bring in a coalition of Jews, Blacks, Muslims and other people to get something done [at City Hall],” he says. “You can’t make everything a Jewish issue.”
Jacob Kornbluh, national politics reporter for Jewish Insider and also a Brooklyn resident, says that city council elections are important in general because they allow the community to choose “a voice in the legislature to speak out for you, to offer constituent services and to bring back home funds for local organizations, institutions and the community.
“I think it’s pretty obvious amid the rise in antisemitic violence, when progressive candidates are winning right and left, that the [Jewish] community feels that they need more representation,” he adds.
A seat at City Hall is also a valuable political stepping stone. Many council members have run for higher positions after their term ended, like New York’s current attorney general, Letitia James. More recently, Democratic Councilman Ritchie Torres won his congressional primary in New York’s 15th district and is now set to be a House representative next year.
A men’s club?
New York City Council elections will take place in November 2021, but the race has already made headlines. It was revealed last month that any candidates seeking endorsement from the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America – a rising force in city politics – were asked to pledge not to travel to Israel if elected, “in solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation.”
The question was harshly criticized by many lawmakers, who viewed it as counterproductive and offensive.
“It was absurd, it was revolting,” says Adler, who joined others in condemning the request. “I am an identifiable Orthodox woman running for city council, and here there’s an organization leveraging an endorsement based upon people who will stand against me on such a fundamental piece of me.”
Only one Orthodox woman, Susan Alter, has ever served on New York’s city council – she represented Brooklyn’s Council District 32 from 1978 to 1993 – and it’s still rare to find American Haredi women becoming involved in politics.
For Adler, running is also “about bringing an accurate representation of all people to the council.”
But Appel isn’t sure Adler being a woman will play in her favor.
“The Orthodox coalition of political activists [in the district] are much more in support of men generally,” he observes. “It’s basically a men’s club.”
Appel believes “it’s going to be a complicated race” for Adler, especially since her opponents are “well-respected” in the community.
“Of course, when you run for city council, you have to raise a substantial amount of money and you have to get the support of the community,” he adds.
Adler, though, believes her potential constituents are “definitely ready to elect a woman to city council,” and says she already has the support of “many community members, local pillars, rebbetzins and rabbonim.”
Having an Orthodox councilwoman, she argues, is also a great opportunity for them. “I have already begun networking and building relationships with other candidates for city council, and people want to work with me,” she says. “That brings our district a lot of options and potential. This election is going to be the one for the history books!” she adds.
As she continues to campaign and volunteer, Adler’s children remain close by. Whether she’s distributing food or speaking out on the steps of City Hall for special education, they follow her. Last June, she also took them to a Brooklyn memorial rally for George Floyd, where they held signs reading “United for the Black community” and “Jews in solidarity.”
“I just want my kids to be good people and to help others, to respect all people, to encourage others to do the same,” Adler reflects. “I think, for a lot of people, raising their kids to be compassionate humans that do better than they did – that’s a common goal.”