Local campaign steeped in Torah values

Local campaign steeped in Torah values

Day school mom runs for Livingston Town Council

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Livingston Town Council candidate Debbie Burack points to one of the many damaged sidewalks she hears residents complain about. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg
Livingston Town Council candidate Debbie Burack points to one of the many damaged sidewalks she hears residents complain about. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg

At the last door she will knock on this evening, Debbie Burack introduces herself, announces that she’s running for town council, and says, “I hope I can count on your vote.” Many residents have been polite. A few took her up on her offer to field their questions or concerns. At this house she gets a hearty, “Yes ma’am. Women in power! You just do right!”

It’s a nice way to end the day’s door-to-door campaigning. Win or lose, Burack said, she’s glad she’s having this experience. “I’ve met so many people and learned so much about the town I live in,” she said.

Burack, a Republican in a town that is heavily Democratic, is realistic about her chances of winning a seat on the town council. She and another Republican, Brad Minde, are running against three incumbent Democrats for their three seats on the five-seat council. She is the only woman. And the only Orthodox Jew.

A stay-at-home mom and member of Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, the 41-year-old sends her three children, ages 17, 15, and 10, to the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston.

While we chat, the 10-year-old pops through the door and heads straight for the bathroom. “Close the door, and wash your hands,” Burack calls out. As she sits on the sofa, surrounded by photos of her family, the scent of dinner cooking wafts through the house. (She insists her family has dinner together at least five nights a week.)

She’s reasonably new to Livingston, having moved from Staten Island just three years ago. And this campaign marks her first time running for office. But getting involved in the community, usually on a volunteer basis, comes as naturally to her as breathing. She does it every day, volunteering at her children’s school as well as at her synagogue, the Friendship Circle, Inglemoor Care Center, and Overlook Hospital. She worked for eight years as an EMT and founded the Disaster Assistance Response Team in the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy when she was still living in Staten Island.

Burack said Jewish values shape her political views.

Burack has loved politics ever since she was young, she said. It was at a Shabbat lunch last winter when the idea to run for public office was planted by another guest that day: Mark Dunec, a Livingston democrat who ran for Congress in 2014. They were talking politics. “He said, ‘Who do you love in politics?’” She recalled. “I told him Nikki Haley and Sara Sanders. They empower us. They say what’s true. They don’t hold back, and they’re no nonsense,” Burack said. Dunec told her there was an election coming up, and then spoke with a friend in the Republican Party. Within six weeks Burack had met with party officials, was vetted, and officially running for office.

Judaism impacts her political positions, she said. “Torah is a blueprint for my life.” She offered a long list of examples, from being family oriented to volunteering in the community. “I’m more conservative than liberal. I’m more old-fashioned/old school, and I’d rather have more boundaries than fewer,” she said, one reason she is against the legalization of marijuana (except for medical reasons) and opposes the idea of sanctuary cities, even though Livingston is one.

“My father served in the Israeli army and came here legally,” she said. “If you want to come here, great. Use our opportunities, use our resources. But it should be done legally.

“People talk about how to maintain the character of Livingston and be a sanctuary city,” she continued, defining that character as being “family oriented, wholesome, [and a] small community with so much going into after-school programming.” She believes Livingston’s status as a sanctuary city will change that. “Providing sanctuary would allow non-legal immigrants to move in; it will affect benefits and housing.”

What about the Torah value of welcoming the stranger? Burack responded, “Welcome. Come over. I have people over all the time for Shabbos meals, people I know, people I don’t know. We live in a great country, a country of opportunity. Immigrants bring in trades and skills … but it has to be done legally.”

Of the all-white, all-male, all-Democratic council, she said, “There’s no balance, no diversity. They haven’t even had a woman run in 10 or 15 years, and where are the minorities for such a diverse town?”

She estimates that she’s met more than 1,000 residents during her door-to-door campaign efforts.

Going door to door, campaigning at bus stops and at events, Burack thinks she’s met more than 1,000 people. And she hears similar concerns from the voters she speaks with — they focus on taxes and infrastructure, the lack of sidewalks or the inflated numbers of damaged sidewalks and lighting, insufficient stop signs, or yield signs, especially near schools, and flooding. She sees some easy, cost-effective fixes, such as simply adding stop signs, yield signs, or speed bumps near schools, and pushing the county to repair the roads and sidewalks that are their responsibility.

Fixing taxes is trickier. “When people ask how to ease the burden of taxes, I joke, ‘Don’t live here in Northern New Jersey.’”

In truth, she takes residents’ concerns seriously. “People are fearful that it’s not affordable.” Many people with teens in high school tell her that when they graduate, the family plans to move. And, in fact, she does have suggestions, like sharing services with neighboring towns and finding ways to reign in existing expenses, like renegotiating the payments for the loans used to build the Livingston Town Hall.

If she wins, Burack acknowledged, she won’t be available on Shabbat unless it’s a life or death emergency. And in gray areas, she said, she’ll ask her rabbi from Suburban Torah, Elie Mischel, about what is permissible. “If the town really needs me and it’s life or death, they can send someone from the police department and I’ll be there,” she said. Otherwise, she does not foresee her Orthodox lifestyle affecting her ability to hold office, even though there are “lots of events on Shabbos and over the holidays.”

Burack admitted that “I learned everything I know from Jay Webber,” referring to the Republican candidate running for Congress in the 11th district against Democrat Mikie Sherrill. He took her door to door for her education, she said, and she followed his lead.

On this weekday evening, she was ready to head out to knock on doors by 5 p.m. Mostly, she had a receptive crowd, using a common app that lets her know which houses are “hard” or “soft” Republicans and which are “hard” or “soft” Democrats. She skips the “hard” Democrats, but tries to make her case to the rest of the houses. Burack is always warm and chatty, complimenting a door color or a garden decoration. One mom shared her concerns about speeding cars and the lack of sidewalks. Some weren’t sure where their voting places are. Some listened politely, but Burack wondered whether they would vote at all.

And there were a few residents who didn’t wait for her to start her spiel. “I know who you are,” said one woman as soon as she opened the door. “You’ve got my vote!”

People like that make Burack light up. “Wow, we picked a good block tonight,” she said with a smile, before moving on to the next house.

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