November 28th marked the first day of Hanukkah, and with that came the Menorah Lighting at City Hall in Malden. Though this is the third year the lighting has been held, this was the first year the city could truly organize it the way they saw fit, Lori Ardai, one of the advisors explained. The Lighting was held on Sunday, Dec. 5th with Rabbi Sruli Baron as the religious leader and speaker.
Jewish Educator, Jessica Slavin Connelly, came up with the idea for the event after attending the Wakefield Menorah Lighting that Rabbi Baron spoke at in 2019. She also wanted to give her son Owen an option to learn more about Jewish culture and just “get out there” after he told her this was something he wanted. Connelly told Baron she wanted to do something similar in Malden.
Since there were still two days remaining of Hanukkah, Baron knew they could figure something out. For the last two days, they did the Lighting in Malden, starting the tradition.
The advisers held the event in 2020, in-person and on Facebook live, at the height of the pandemic. For safety restrictions, the event only had about 20 to 25 people, including the City of Malden Staff. Connelly was happy to see no Covid restrictions this year in terms of numbers.
Councilor at Large, Karen Colon Hayes, was invited by Ardai to help out with the event. “[She] is a community organizer at heart.” Hayes explained that her favorite part of the event was the “community feel and the people singing.” She expressed her gratitude towards the planning group for making the event “so welcoming” with a focus on “community building.” Overall, she found the event very “beautiful” and was happy to have been given the opportunity to learn the dreidel for the first time. The dreidel is a 4-sided children's toy that is marked with Hebrew letters, traditionally played at Jewish events.
Marilyn Andrews, special education advocate, expanded on how good it was to be outside with so many different people from different backgrounds again. She said she makes it a point to always help with volunteering when she can, and this was a great opportunity to do so. Andrews was glad the event was blessed with a Rabbi, who made the event special for everyone, regardless of their knowledge of Jewish culture and was very “compassionate."
Andrews’ husband and sons, who are Jewish, have exposed her to its traditions, so she wanted to share them with others. Connelly and Ardai started the event three years ago and then invited Andrews to work alongside themselves, seeing as that Ardai and Connelly are good friends. She was very thankful they were able to expand the event this year and bring more publicity, describing it as a “people’s event.” Connelly estimated between 100 and 120 people attended in-person. She added that since they also advertised online, there were many more than that.
Connelly said she moved to Malden for its diversity and sizable Jewish population. She added that it was delightful to see multiple groups of people “blending in” and enjoying themselves.
Andrews was personally touched by Mayor Gary Christenson after the first year because he had bought the Menorah last year and this year, making sure it was lit on all eight nights of Hanukkah. She touched on how this made her feel good and was extremely thankful for his dedication.
Maria Luise, the special assistant to Mayor Christenson, has been attending the lighting since it started. Luise said she loves that it brings the community together and gives people a chance to “learn Hanukkah traditions” as well as that is what the holiday is “really about.” Luise had mentioned to Andrews how she had noticed people singing along and even knowing the words very well.
This was because Connelly was great enough to create song sheets, Andrews explained. Click here to view the song sheet.
Members of the community, Tina Weldai and Eric Rubin also joined Connelly, Ardai, Luise, and Andrews as coordinators. They had been working since early October to make this event run as smoothly as possible.
Connelly said she wanted to plan the event because Jewish hate crimes have increased by a devastating 50 percent. Planning the event was important to her because she strives to live in a city that welcomes diversity.
Connelly added that she wanted to highlight Malden’s growing Jewish community, as well as spread a message of hope and freedom since those are the universal messages of Hanukkah. Overall, she was shocked yet happy that so many people showed up. For her, it meant a lot.
Connelly also runs the Malden Young Families Facebook group with a close friend. Initially, she noticed that there were no community groups and thought it was time to start one.
Adam Weldai, School Committee member, explained he did help plan the event, but not to the extent of the woman who started it. “I love being able to see something like this for our kids.” Weldai voiced he wished something like this existed for him as a young Jewish boy. He believed the event truly does “represent how many cultures and ethnicities there are.” He is glad that Malden is “another step towards being a place where everyone is represented.“
Public Facilities Director Rubin has been a part of this event for the past three years. He explained that he and his team covered the facility side of things, such as making sure the plaza was good to go, power was working and that chairs and tables were set up. He added that there was a huge Jewish population in Malden at one time, and it was nice to keep the tradition alive. Rubin said that Malden has continued to try to keep everyone involved and recognize everyone. Overall, he was very delighted with the event and the planning committee.
Mayor Christenson thanked organizers Ardai, Connelly, Tracy O’Connor, Andrews, Weldai, Rubin, and Luise for their successful efforts in making this event so beautiful. “Their efforts showed as we had different faiths, different cultures, and different ethnicities all coming together to celebrate Hanukkah and remind ourselves that despite the challenges we face, the light will always dispel the darkness which in turn reminds us that there is hope. It meant everything to me. From community spirit to the message of hope, I couldn’t be prouder.”
Connelly’s “hope for next year is that we can also have celebrations for other holidays like Kwanzaa, Solstice, etc.”
If any Malden High students who celebrate Kwanzaa are interested in helping organize an event, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The photos used in this article were edited by Brandon Wong.