When Amber Adler ran for City Council she faced a barrage of abusive messages, caustic comments, and a protest. Even people who knew her questioned her decision.,

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“What was eye-opening to me was how abusive people can be to someone who’s out to make a positive change.”

— Amber Adler, who ran for City Council in Brooklyn’s 48th district

In Amber Adler’s Orthodox Jewish community, deep in South Brooklyn, women generally don’t do much public speaking. Or pose for newspaper photos. Or make major community decisions. But when Ms. Adler, 37, decided to run for City Council in Brooklyn’s District 48, those activities became somewhat unavoidable.

She didn’t anticipate just how caustic the response within her Orthodox community would be. “What was eye-opening to me was how abusive people can be to someone who’s out to make a positive change,” she said.

Almost immediately after she announced her campaign in June 2020, her inbox and social media accounts were flooded with messages, many of them from Orthodox Jewish men, trying to discredit her campaign. Some said that they didn’t want their district to be represented by a woman; others criticized her as not religious enough or a neglectful mother.

The threats escalated in April, two months before the primary, when a group of six men in the community staged a protest outside Ms. Adler’s home. Hoping to protect her two sons from the vitriol, Ms. Adler planned an excursion. (They were supposed to go to Coney Island, but ended up shopping at a local mall because it was raining.)

“When we came back I had to explain to them, ‘We’re going home, but there might be someone not so nice waiting for us,'” she said.

Of course, running a political campaign is never an easy endeavor. Running as a woman can make it worse. Research shows that women face greater levels of online abuse than men do, and that it tends to focus more on their personal lives and sexuality instead of on their politics. But that dynamic is heightened for someone running in an Orthodox Jewish community — especially a divorced woman like Ms. Adler — where women are often expected to focus on raising their children, not leading public lives.

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Ms. Adler’s two sons helped her out on the campaign trail.Credit…Yana Paskova for The New York Times

Some of the hurdles Ms. Adler faced in her campaign were logistical. She couldn’t campaign in the men’s-only section of her synagogue, so she introduced herself to voters in the park where her kids played, instead.

Local Jewish newspapers refused to publish photos of her, citing Jewish custom that expects men to “guard” their eyes against potentially immodest images. So Ms. Adler found a workaround: She had a 20-foot billboard made, plastered with an image of herself and her sons, and hired someone to drive it around surrounding neighborhoods, including Flatbush and Midwood, while playing an ice cream truck-like campaign jingle — Amber Adler, here for us! Affordable child care, housing too! She chuckled when friends flooded her WhatsApp messages with photos of the billboard parked in various locations around the area.

That enthusiasm, though, was the exception. Many of the comments Ms. Adler received were sharp and personal, focused less on her politics and more on her family situation.

In 2016, after struggling for years in a relationship she said was abusive, Ms. Adler requested a religious divorce, called a “get,” from her husband. In Orthodox Judaism, only the man can grant permission for a religious separation. Two years later, her husband agreed to grant her the “get,” and it took two more years of arbitration before Ms. Adler was granted full legal custody of her sons, now 9 and 7.

On the heels of her experience, Ms. Adler went on to become an advocate for the hundreds of Orthodox women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorces in the religious system; they are known as “agunot,” which means chained. Ms. Adler started a petition urging the New York State legislature to make coercive control a Class E felony, which now awaits a vote in the State Assembly.

To some men in the community, this work was all the more reason to brand Ms. Adler a rabble rouser. “The movement ruffled the feathers of people who had been exploiting their ability to grasp control over their ex,” she said, adding that many men in the community had grown accustomed to using their power in divorce proceedings as a kind of bargaining chip to get what they wanted from their exes, whether financially or in terms of child custody.

But Ms. Adler’s advocacy also stirred emotional responses. On Election Day, Ms. Adler was standing outside a polling site near an affordable housing complex when an older Orthodox woman — modestly dressed, with a wig and hat covering her hair — stopped to thank her.

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A campaign ad featured Ms. Adler’s children holding up a sign saying, “Vote 4 Mommy.”Credit…Yana Paskova for The New York Times

“We need you to keep fighting,” the woman said, according to Ms. Adler. “So that everyone knows we have a way out of a marriage.”

When Ms. Adler first announced her candidacy, some members of the community questioned how she would balance campaigning with her responsibilities as a single mother: “What are you going to do with your kids?” they wanted to know.

They had a point: Summer camps were closed because of Covid, which meant her sons were with her all day. And the friends Ms. Adler usually relied on to babysit in a pinch were high-risk and couldn’t help out because of health concerns.

“I defied gravity on so many levels,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘How much sleep can I go without tonight?’ I tried to do everything, but there were not enough hours in the day.”

But Ms. Adler also saw the campaign as an educational opportunity for her sons, and enlisted them to help distribute masks to seniors on the sidewalk while she spoke to voters.

In one of her ads, her sons proudly held up a sign that read “Vote 4 Mommy,” alongside some of her campaign promises which focused on increasing affordable housing in the district and expanding preschool spots. Other ideas she frequently touted included fighting anti-Semitism and protecting elders from financial abuse.

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“I defied gravity on so many levels,” said Ms. Adler, who found herself balancing the campaign trail with her boys’ remote learning.Credit…Yana Paskova for The New York Times

Gradually, as the months of the campaign wore on, she began to hear a different message undercutting the abuse: gratitude. Dozens of women in her district, some Orthodox and others not, told her they had never thought they might be able to vote for political representation from a working Orthodox Jewish mom.

In the primary last month, Ms. Adler won 17 percent of the first round vote and placed third in the fifth round of ranked choice voting. It was painful explaining to her sons that after all their family had sacrificed, including at times their sense of safety, she hadn’t won.

Her older son just smiled: “That’s OK,” he told her. “You can always do it again.”

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