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Creating Shalom and Safe Spaces

Ari Rosen fights for inclusion and empowering others.

Ari Rosen (Photos courtesy)

The term “hineni” translates to “here I am” in Hebrew. As a transmasculine, nonbinary member of the Jewish community, Ari Rosen embodies what it means to be fully, authentically themselves. The fundraiser and activist fights for visibility in their community, all while championing the causes they hold near to their heart.

“I am the director of philanthropy at the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston,” Rosen explains. “Our purpose is to strengthen and sustain the Jewish community through fundraising. We create programs that help Jewish families engage across the widest spectrum of Jewish life, and in Houston we feel like a big tent. We want to include as many folks [as possible] who identify as Jewish—be they multiracial, LGBTQ, different ages, [or from] different denominations within the Jewish faith. Our tagline is that we are the convener, connector, funder, and innovator of the Houston Jewish community.”

Rosen is in a unique position at their full-time job, saying, “I’m definitely the only trans or nonbinary person at the Federation. There are times when it’s been kind of lonely—a little isolating, where you just feel like you kind of have to navigate all of this on your own. After I got top surgery, however, my colleagues were super supportive and even offered to send a Shabbat dinner for our family. It really highlighted how I am able to bring my full self to work.”

Inspiring colleagues to include their pronouns in email signatures is a step Rosen has taken toward championing inclusion in the workplace. “There’s such a range of Jewish practice and different denominations, so I’ve never felt like I had to choose between being queer, trans, or Jewish. I’ve always been able to find a synagogue, or a community that welcomed me. And if one didn’t exist, I’m the kind of person that is going to build it.” They fondly reminisce about one such initiative. “When I lived in Seattle, a friend of mine and I started a queer Jewish group for folks in their 20s and 30s. That group is still going today, and it’s amazing to see.”

Ari Rosen (center) with their partner, Elaine, and two children.

The two-gendered verbiage in Jewish teachings has proven taxing for Rosen. “In Hebrew, everything is male or female, so it’s been challenging from a language perspective,” they explain. “If you’re called to read from the Torah, there’s certain components where you’ll be referred to as the son or daughter of so-and-so. Another example is the bar and bat mitzvahs for boys and girls.” Rosen is hopeful for a pendulum swing in a more inclusive direction, saying, “There’s been amazing stuff happening across the country where people are coming up with new words and versions of all of these things that aren’t so gendered.”

When Rosen isn’t fighting for change, having recently led an LGBTQ forum for the Greater Houston Jewish community and fundraised for the Federation, they’re raising two children with their partner, Elaine. “We’ve been together for about eight years, and we met in Seattle,” Rosen explains. “I always joke that I had to go all the way to Seattle to find a queer, Jewish Texan. She grew up in San Antonio and we met through a mutual friend. We always joke that that’s one way we knew we were meant to be together. The other is because our last names go together so perfectly to make a new last name for our children—Rosenklein.”

Rosen also proudly serves on the board of directors for Grace Place, a local nonprofit that supports and empowers youth of all sexualities and gender identities experiencing homelessness. “Grace Place’s model and approach is the complete opposite of the ‘savior’ mentality. The system has failed these youth, and there’s nothing wrong with them whatsoever. We’re going to meet them where they’re at and find out what they need and what they want,” Rosen says passionately. “We give them opportunities to advocate for themselves, and leadership skills to build connections. To me, it’s the gold-standard model for this type of work.”

Having been accepted unconditionally by their family, including their father who is a prominent rabbi in Houston, Rosen still understands there is much work to be done each day to create a more inclusive world. “My family was super-accepting and made it clear that they love me. My dad even began speaking from the pulpit about different LGBT issues.”

Ultimately, despite the country’s ongoing political antagonism, Rosen is guided by faith and hope in the future, citing the progress already being made and the youth who carry the torch of queer Jewish people from the past and present. “This next generation of queer and trans youth is not putting up with anything! They’re saying, ‘You will provide a gender-neutral bathroom, and you will call us by the correct name.’ It’s obviously a big challenge. We’re getting a lot of opposition and terrible laws passed, but I’ve just been really encouraged by this next generation.”


Zach McKenzie

Zachary McKenzie is a marketing professional and freelance writer in Houston, TX. He received his bachelor's degree from The University of Texas at Austin in 2014 and has lived in Houston since. Zachary is a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters and enjoys spending his free time with friends, exploring the richness and diversity of Houston.
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