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Darien’s Jews proudly celebrate Hanukkah in a town they say wasn’t always welcoming

Darien Menorah Lighting
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Rabbis from local congregations lead a crowd in a Hanukkah celebration at Darien’s Grove Street Plaza. Members of the community gathered on the fourth day of Hanukkah for the town’s first public menorah lighting ceremony. The event was organized by Darien father Dan Guller, who wanted to celebrate the town's growing Jewish community after several antisemitic incidents at nearby schools.

Dan Guller helped his 3-year-old son switch on the bulbs of the menorah to mark the fourth night of Hanukkah. But Guller remembers when this kind of visibility wasn’t the norm for Darien’s Jews, and he told a crowd Wednesday night about the worries he had when he and his husband moved to town 12 years ago.

Would a same-sex couple fit in here, would we be welcomed here? And we were told by more than one person, ‘You’ll be fine being a same-sex couple,’” Guller said. “‘Just don’t tell them you’re Jewish!’”

Darien Menorah Lighting
Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public
/
Connecticut Public
Darien resident Dan Guller sings along with his 3-year-old son wrapped around his shoulders as rabbis from local congregations lead a crowd in Hanukkah songs. Guller organized the town’s first public menorah lighting ceremony to celebrate the city's growing Jewish community after several antisemitic incidents at nearby schools. “It’s not who Darien is,” Guller said. “From this turnout tonight, the Jews outnumber the antisemites. The allies outnumber the antisemites. The love outnumbers the hate.”

Among the storefronts and tree limbs dotted with Christmas lights in downtown Darien, residents can now see a shining silver menorah for the first time. The town of Darien celebrated its first public Festival of Lights, after antisemitic graffiti was found at a local middle school in October.

“We had a really contentious election ... and in the ensuing days as well we saw hate speech at our schools and in the community, and it really made this event seem that much more special,” Guller said of the need to show the community celebrating Hanukkah in public.

Over 100 people of all backgrounds filled the Grove Street Plaza to light the 6-foot-tall menorah.

“I couldn’t imagine this happening even 25 years ago,” said resident Jan Raymond, who is Jewish.

When Raymond’s family moved to Darien in 1953, the town was known for a so-called gentlemen’s agreement, where real estate agents would not sell homes to Black or Jewish families. Raymond said her parents jumped at the chance to move into a waterfront home in Darien anyway, because the property had its own mooring. It was the only way her family members, who loved sailing, could take part in the sport because most yacht clubs barred Jewish people. A British family agreed to sell to them.

At that time, being in Darien was not an easy thing, being told you couldn’t play hopscotch with the other girls. So for me, this is a very exciting and emotional time ... Times change!” Raymond said.

Darien was once known as a sundown town as well, a town that didn’t welcome Black or Jewish people after sunset. Now Rabbi Shirah Sklar of Temple Shalom in West Norwalk can lead the community in prayer in a town square.

Here we are after sunset, everyone,” Sklar said. “We are here together to celebrate this holiday of our religious freedom, to be who we are, to celebrate as we like and to celebrate diversity.”

Darien Menorah Lighting
Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public
/
Connecticut Public
Members of the Darien community disperse after a menorah lighting ceremony at the Grove Street Plaza. Over 100 people joined to celebrate, sing songs and collect toy donations for a local shelter. The event was organized by Darien father Dan Guller, who wanted to celebrate the town's growing Jewish community after several antisemitic incidents at nearby schools.

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