Moving forward

Moving forward

Wyckoff Township committee member breaks several glass ceilings

Melissa Rubenstein
Melissa Rubenstein

For a long time, Melissa Rubenstein of Wyckoff felt that Jews should be more active on the municipal level.

“It was important to me,” Ms. Rubenstein said. She was born in Queens but when she was a child her family moved to Bergen County — first to Park Ridge and then to Montvale. “Growing up, I felt that there was a sort of segregation between the Jewish community and municipal life,” she said. “My goal was to integrate that.”

And now she has.

On Election Day, Ms. Rubenstein was voted onto the Wyckoff Township Committee. She is the first Jew ever to sit on the committee, and the second woman there in the last 84 years.

Ms. Rubenstein moved to Wyckoff nearly four years ago and immediately became active in the town, at first by joining the local mom’s Facebook page to learn more about the community. Now, she’s also the treasurer on the board of the Wyckoff Newcomers and Neighbors Club and on the community service committee of the Realsource Board of Realtors. She has volunteered at the Paramus Veterans Home and in various Rebuilding Together home renovation projects, and she is an active supporter of the Wyckoff YMCA, the local schools, and the Wyckoff Education Foundation.

Trained as a real estate attorney — she received her law degree from Fordham University School of Law and practiced real estate law at the firms of Olshan LLP and Kaye Scholer LLP in New York City — she later became a realtor with REMAX in Wyckoff.

“Wyckoff is a wonderful place to raise a family,” Ms. Rubenstein said. “The people make the town. It’s a big mix — a lot of longtime residents but also tons of new families.” Her own family includes her husband, Sam, whom she described as “incredibly supportive,” and their two children, Jillian, 4, and Lucas, 6.

Ms. Rubenstein recalls that one mom on the Facebook page joked that “Wyckoff moms run the town. That was great,” she said. Nevertheless, she pointed out, while there are many women on the board of education and the PTO, “if you look at the township committee, all five members are men. There’s only been one woman in the last 84 years. That’s not a statistic I’m in favor of.”

As for being the first Jew to serve on the committee, Ms. Rubenstein said she’s not sure why that’s so. “I’m not sure if Jewish residents ever run,” she said. By running — and winning — she hopes to show her children that there is no separation between the Jewish community and the rest of the town. Certainly, she said, “I have felt absolutely comfortable here as a Jew. There’s always a place to go to.” She attends programs at both Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff and Chabad-Lubavitch of Northwest Bergen County in Franklin Lakes.

This is the first time Ms. Rubenstein has run for office, she said, but her interest in politics goes back to a two-summer internship in the Ridgewood office of the late Congresswoman Marge Roukema, a Republican legislator for 22 years.

Ms. Rubenstein, who will be sworn in on January 1, is under no illusion that she will feel at home in her new position right away. “I think I will feel uncomfortable at first,” she said. “In any new role, it takes time to get to know other members and the government. I think it will be something to learn about.

“Wyckoff is an incredibly well-run town, with one of the lowest municipal tax rates in the county,” she added. “The goal of everyone, in both parties, is to keep taxes as low as possible.”

The Wyckoff Township committee is partisan, and has had only one Democrat for the past nine years — and that was its “first Democrat,” she said. Not only will she be its only Jew and its only woman, she also will be only its second Democrat. Although the Democrats remain the minority party on the committee, “we’ll try to work together to get things done.”

Ms. Rubenstein hopes that the things she talked about during her campaign will bear fruit. “The main thing we talked about was mayoral selection,” she said. “Currently the mayor is chosen by the township committee. I want to make sure it’s the people’s choice, to see more transparency.” Committee meetings are not videotaped, she said. While this is troubling to the young generation — who are used to tuning in to see what’s going on — it also is problematic for seniors, “who may not be able to get out. I want them to be able to log in and watch.”

Ms. Rubenstein said that she encourages more women and more Jews to take part in municipal government, whether by running for an office or by working on a committee, whether it is parks and recreation, planning, or environmental. “I think it’s important because diversity of opinion is always important,” she said. Although she will be the newbie on the township committee, she believes she will be listened to.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to be involved in the community and to know as many people as possible,” she said.

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