Esther Rabizadeh, the petite, Iranian-born Rabizadeh recently explained her newly launched campaign to revive the ancient greeting, “Shalom Aleichem.”
Esther Rabizadeh was welcomed as a keynote speaker at Camden County Hadassah’s recent board meeting. The petite, Iranian-born Rabizadeh explained her newly launched campaign to revive the ancient greeting, “Shalom Aleichem.” Her message is simple: “Our past secures our future. Shalom Aleichem. Aleichem Ha Shalom. Pass it on. Here is a way each of us can create peace, because Jews, as the People of the Book, believe in the power of words. Each time we open our mouths, we can connect to peace and bring this holy gift to the world.”
Rabizadeh immigrated to the United States with her husband Rahmat after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, moving to Cherry Hill and studying at Gratz College.
According to Rabizadeh, “The greeting of ‘Shalom Aleichem’ is an easy way to open the door to connect us to our history. It bonds us. It unites us. ‘Shalom Aleichem’ is a blessing of restoring peace in the world — our Jewish dream, not only for us, but for the whole world.”
One year ago, Rabizadeh, who has been a Jewish educator for more than two decades, began encouraging Jews of all backgrounds and levels of observance to greet one another with “Shalom Aleichem.” “The correct response to this greeting is, ‘Aleichem Ha Shalom’ or simply ‘Aleichem Shalom,’ ” she says helpfully.
Rabizadeh, who believes that as Jews, we are bound to the power of words, is passionate about encouraging others to utilize the power of their words. Choosing this phrase, “Shalom Aleichem,” which translates as “peace unto you,” as the focus of her new campaign, is a way of honoring and acknowledging the ancient greeting.
She cites her parents and an older brother as the influences that strengthened Jewish roots and identity. “They were real Zionists, and gave me great pride in being Jewish,” she says. “They would be so proud of what we are trying to do to bring Jews together in these programs. I could not do all of this without the constant help and support of my husband, Rahmat, and my daughter, Haleh.”
While Rabizadeh is actively working on her grassroots campaign to spread the use of this greeting among Jews across the country, the earlier projects she created have taken root and seem to be thriving.
In 2011, Rabizadeh envisioned a Shabbat Package Program that would distribute packages weekly at local hospitals in South Jersey.
“I didn’t see anything like this in my area, and I wanted to bring the spirit of Shabbat to patients — to help them at a difficult time in their lives to have something nice to enjoy, and a Jewish custom to connect with.”
According to Rabizadeh, “Over the last four years, we have visited with over 3,000 patients before Shabbat at Virtua Hospital in Voorhees and Marlton and at the Rehab Center.”
Then two years ago, Rabizadeh created B’Not Israel. This diverse group of women works together to read the book of psalms twice each week. Many had no previous background in or experience with doing this. Rabizadeh coordinates a program whereby each woman recites a few psalms daily from her own home, and together, the group completes the entire entire book of psalms, or Tehillim, as they are called in Hebrew, twice within the span of a week.
The book of psalms, many of which comprise King David’s personal prayers, express and convey every possible human experience and emotion, from our deepest gratitude for life’s blessings to our inner yearnings and pleas, and from our greatest joys to our deepest sorrows. Yet, the psalms are not universally known by Jews, as Rabizadeh learned.
“I observed that the non-Jews I met knew more about the book of psalms, even though it is a Jewish text,” she said. “Often, non-Jewish women know these prayers by heart — many recite them daily, and won’t leave the house without saying them. In looking at how seriously these secular but spiritual women take saying psalms, you might think it was a Christian book. I decided I had to get more Jews to be involved saying Tehillim.”
“Within three weeks of starting the Tehillim group, which we call ‘B’Not Israel,’ or ‘Daughters of Israel,’ 23 women signed up. The women have come to love this, finding something meaningful to them in what they read each day.”
It quickly spread by word of mouth. “We have about 175 women in the group now, from all religious backgrounds and affiliations, from ages 15 to 75,” she happily related. “Some of them do this with their children and grandchildren, and they say them in whatever is their native language: French, Farsi, Russian, English or Hebrew. Because the women are doing this in their own homes, I invite them to come to my home for Rosh Chodesh to hear a speaker and meet one another.”
Like B’not Israel, Rabizadeh envisions that her Shalom Aleichem campaign can spread the vital message of peace by appealing to and transcending Jews of all backgrounds, observance
levels, and ages. “The women in B’not have embraced the idea. They love and enjoy using this greeting. They say it bonds and connects us. It unifies and comforts us. Just the word ‘Shalom’ is comforting, since Shalom is one of God’s names.”
On oztorah.com, Rabbi Dr. Apple, Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue of Sydney, Australia confirms this, saying: “the Talmud says the name of God is peace.”
Interestingly, the construction of the phrase, “Shalom Aleichem,” is plural and not singular, even when you’re greeting just one person. It doesn’t seem to be a mistake in grammar, either. According to Rabbi Apple, “There is a beautiful saying in the Zohar: ‘God is Shalom, His name is Shalom, and all is bound together in Shalom.’ Hence, Shalom Aleichem means not only ‘peace be upon you’, but ‘God be with you’, and it is a prayer that the person we greet may, with all mankind, be blessed by the Divine Presence.” That explanation succinctly explains why the greeting is plural.
After sharing her idea with personal friends and professional colleagues in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Boston, New York, Maryland and California, Rabizadeh invested in making and distributing T-shirts and wristbands to spread her idea further. “With emails, phone calls, and text messages, we’ve been able to contact and connect Jewish leaders of all types and ages to help generate more excitement around this project,” she enthused.
Today, she is getting help spreading the greeting. “I know Hebrew school teachers and principals who wear the shirts in their schools,” she said. “I am in touch with cantors and rabbis from different states who love the idea. They tell me they really want to make this idea grow. DVDs and YouTube are next.”