Last Friday, the world lost a leading philanthropist and humanitarian, Anne Heyman, who died during a horse-riding accident at the too-young age of 52. The founder of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, she cleverly harnessed Israeli expertise and experience to help many orphaned during the Rwanda genocide – who now feel orphaned again. For those of us in the Young Judaea world, we lost someone whose life embodied the Jewish communitarian values and idealism we imbibed in the Zionist youth movement growing up – and someone whose warmth and goodness made her a dear friend and cherished member of our extended youth movement family.
Some people’s lifeworks are exaggerated in eulogies; others’ cannot properly be contained within a few short paragraphs, no matter how heartfelt. Anne was one of those larger-than-life doers. All the praise flowing in from all over the world is absolutely justified yet somehow dissatisfying. It misses Anne’s mix of great public deeds with private grace.
Anne, a recovering lawyer, was best known as half of a New York power couple committed to “guerilla philanthropy,” leveraging charitable donations to trigger social and institutional change. Her husband, Seth Merrin, who founded Liquidnet, a company that, according to Forbes “allows institutional investors to trade large blocks of securities without wild swings in prices,” told Forbes when he made its “400 Richest Americans” list that simply writing checks to charity is “not fulfilling. Today’s philanthropy,” he explained, “is about getting your hands dirty and making a difference.”
In that subversive, activist, creative spirit, and believing that, “Caring about others, the Jewish people and the State of Israel, is an imperative,” Anne visited Africa in 2006, with a pioneering vision. Having been born in South Africa, she had a special sensitivity – which many American Jews lack -- to Africa’s challenges. Having met her husband Seth on Young Judaea’s Year Course in Israel from 1978 to 1979, she had a particular awareness of Israel’s resources and needs. And, having immigrated to America, she also shared the guilt so many of us harbor that, as we enjoyed the 1990s’ boom, America did nothing to stop the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandans.
Seeking a systematic approach to the problem of Rwanda’s nearly three million orphans and vulnerable children, Anne thought to apply the Youth Aliyah model for Jewish refugees pioneered by Hadassah and the World Zionist Organization in the 1930s, and epitomized by the Yemin Orde Youth Village today, to teach and empower these suffering youngsters. One added bonus would be sending Israel’s new Ethiopian immigrants back to Africa, this time as trained emissaries. A second bonus would be recruiting other young Jews, from North America and Israel, as counselors and tutors.
It was a Zionist grand slam, bringing Young Judaean values to life. She inspired young people in three continents with a compelling, community-oriented, life-affirming project, using Israel as a framework. She fulfilled Theodor Herzl’s vision of Israel helping Africa, while continuing the good work of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir in Africa, which anti-Israel Soviet propagandists and Arab oil bullies disrupted in the 1970s. And she proved, as she told the Jerusalem Post last year, that “Zionism is not to separate us from the rest of the world, but to help us be a part of the nations of the world.”
In retrospect, it sounds easy, obvious. In practice, it was anything but. It took two years to establish the village, which opened in 2008 – and it took Anne’s persistence, networking, insight and generosity to keep it thriving since. Today, 500 students are learning technical skills along with basic literacy, to become productive citizens – and happy people. Meanwhile, she and Seth supported many other worthy community-building organizations, including the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, the Jewish Community Centers of North America, the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and Young Judaea.
Still, their greatest joint project was their family. Steve Greenberg, a friend and neighbor who introduced me to Anne at Camp Tel Yehudah in 1978 – Seth and I met in the camp’s Chug B’nai Chelm three years earlier -- noted that their oldest son honored his mother on Facebook by saying he had just lost “the greatest person I will ever know.” Despite all its benefits, it is not easy raising good kids amid great wealth, yet the Heyman-Merrins did it. Steve noted that, along with her philanthropic accomplishments, Anne “was equally successful in transmitting their activist values to their three children.” Steve remembered that, amid all her many activities, Anne was also the social director, most likely to keep the Merrins in contact with their family and their closest friends.
My last interaction with Anne was a month ago, when my wife and I helped meet a matching grant she and Seth made to the Schechter Institute, supporting a project that hosts dialogues in schools between Israeli Jews and Arabs to share their respective religious heritages. “Feels good!” she wrote about our budding partnership, and suggested, “Perhaps when we are next in Israel we can visit one of the schools together.” “Road Trip!” I replied – and looked forward to it, because when you made even a tentative, schmoozy arrangement with Anne, you knew she would follow through.
It is hard to fathom that her journey on this earth ended so abruptly, so prematurely, just weeks later. It is heartbreaking to think about the difficult path of mourning and healing her family has now begun. And if, indeed, the Troys and Merrins eventually take that field trip, it will be bittersweet. There will be others to ensure that Anne’s projects continue. But there is no one to take her place. Given how much so many of us appreciated her presence, her absence will be felt ever so broadly and deeply.