First off, I wish you the best on your upcoming search.
There are many great towns in Union and Essex county. I grew up in that area and know most of them. You should probably look around the Raritan Valley line for an easy commute. They're actually runnig some test trains that could potentially take you directly to Manhattan. As of now, you would have to take a connecting out of Newark.
Towns like Westfield, Scotch Plains, Fanwood, and Cranford all have great school districts and their communities in general are close knit and friendly. If you want a cute downtown, I would concentrate primarily on Westfield or Cranford.
To really understand where you should focus I would need some more details on the type of house that would be ideal. Feel free to contact me at maniespkw@gmail. I would love to extend a hand of help.