A light unto others

After an accident cut her life short, philanthropist Anne Heyman’s legacy of ‘tikkun olam’ lives on in Rwanda and around the world, through her children and the multitudes she helped.

YOUNG JUDAEA volunteers on their week at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village with Yoni Merrin (fourth from left), Anne Heyman’s son. (photo credit: YOUNG JUDEA)
YOUNG JUDAEA volunteers on their week at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village with Yoni Merrin (fourth from left), Anne Heyman’s son.
(photo credit: YOUNG JUDEA)
A tragic horse-riding accident cut short the life of 52-year-old philanthropist Anne Heyman just over a month ago, but the weight of her life’s work will ensure that her legacy will live on forever. The South African- American former attorney founded the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) in 2008 for children orphaned in the Rwandan genocide, modeling it on the Israeli youth village Yemin Orde.
In a summer interview – about half a year before she died – Heyman explained to me that she had established the village out of a sense of obligation to tikkun olam, social activism and the Zionist imperative to be a light unto other nations. These are values that she and her husband, Seth Merrin, firmly instilled in their three children, evidenced by the fact that just weeks after his mother’s sudden death, her son Jonathan “Yoni” Merrin, 19, decided to go ahead with a month-long visit to ASYV he had planned as part of the Young Judaea Year Course.
Yoni had returned home to the US from Israel after his mother was killed, he says over the phone from Rwanda, and while he wasn’t ready to rejoin the year course, he just had to follow through with his plans to visit the village. “It’s my mom’s legacy – a testament to her,” he stresses. “I have friends here [at ASYV], and family that I really wanted to see.”
He describes the inhabitants of the village, whom he and his siblings regard as brothers and sisters, as brilliant, talented and humble people. “It’s a time when I thought we should all be here for each other. The kids and staff and I took it very hard, and it really is a great support system,” says Yoni, who has visited ASYV at least once a year since its founding. He says his parents – who met on Young Judaea Year Course – always told him that the year taught them what it is to be responsible for the global community, and that if you can make a difference, you have an obligation to do so.
Koralie Keza, a 20-year-old Rwandan orphan who is in her final year of studies at the village, learned a similar message from her interactions with Anne. “I learned from her that you come to earth for other people’s benefit – to help the community around you.”
Indeed, the village held a week of commemoration for Anne in which they celebrated her life and achievements. The impact she had on its residents, both directly and indirectly, is clear.
“I remember her as a strong woman and a hero, because she has done a lot… she saved many lives. She saved my life,” Keza tells the Magazine. She says her four years at the village have been the most beautiful of her life. When she graduates she hopes to study marketing in the US or Canada, and to then return to Rwanda to help her country.
This seems to be the aspiration of many of ASYV graduates, as Anne had previously told me, saying that “those who go abroad are all really committed to coming back and giving back to Rwanda.”
Twenty-year-old Xiver Muriukundo says, “Anne was everything to me,” describing her as “an angel who came to Rwanda to accomplish the way of God,” changing his life along with the lives of many others. Anne taught Muriukundo what he was capable of, and enabled him to discover the many talents he unknowingly possessed. He now aims to study political science abroad, to help his country overcome political instability and economic hurdles.
For Bruce Shiniyimana, 19, ASYV gave him a family and hope. He aspires to be a filmmaker when he graduates, and does all he can to support his mother, who was mentally scarred by the genocide and does not acknowledge Bruce as her son. His father was killed in the genocide.
The village’s cooperation with Young Judaea, as well as other Jewish youth organizations such as Hillel, provides a positive experience for both the Rwandans and their foreign guests. Keza says it allows her to learn about another culture and a different perspective on the world, to get to know various personalities and to gain insight into other countries. “It’s really nice having them around,” she says.
Mor Gilboa, a Young Judaea leader who took the group out to Rwanda, says these trips were very important to Anne as a way of teaching the youth the Jewish values of tikkun olam, and making the connections between the Jewish Holocaust and the African genocide.
Nineteen-year-old Stephanie Blitzer of New Jersey has only been at the village for a week when she discusses her experience thus far with the Magazine, but it has already been an eye-opening adventure for her. “It’s amazing here – beautiful. I’ve never seen a place so green and filled with so many nice people,” she gushes over the Rwanda-Israel phone line.
The young people spend their time helping out around the village, be it in the kitchen, on the farm or at the school, and a couple of times a week they perform acts of tikkum olam for the community. For instance, Yoni volunteered in a neighboring town, folding bandages and packing pills. “Everyone seems so grateful to be here, learning from each other and from their teachers,” Blitzer remarks.
Indeed, Anne’s 21-year-old daughter Jenna Merrin identifies gratitude as a key value that she has taken away from ASYV, where like all of Anne’s children, she has spent a significant amount of time. “Since my mom started the village, I have had my eyes open to so many different people and experiences, and all of the people in the village are so grateful to have people who care about them, to have food on their plates, and to have a place to live,” she writes in an email from Brown University, where she is studying psychology. “I used to get annoyed if I had to have a cold shower.”
She has taken the lessons she learned from her Rwandan friends with her to her college life: “I’m sure there are things I still take for granted, but I really try not to and I am a lot more aware than many of my peers, many of whom get really annoyed and complain when the dining hall serves the same meal twice in the same week.”
Merrin says her mother had the amazing ability to live her life exactly the way she told her children to live theirs, and is doing her utmost to follow in her footsteps. Anne started a program called Moral Voices at Tufts University, which focuses on a different topic each year – which has included genocide, food justice, education, human trafficking and gender-based violence – via lectures, panels, screenings, activities and volunteering opportunities. The program has spread to Anne’s old campus at the University of Pennsylvania, and Merrin started it at her own university, where they are currently focusing on genocide and mass atrocities – a topic on which she gained a lot of knowledge from her mother.
“She was actually one of our speakers in the fall, and came to Brown to lead a Moral Voices discussion on how to address a country in the aftermath of genocide,” she adds. “That’s probably the biggest way I’m keeping her legacy alive for right now. I’m hoping to have Moral Voices continue when I leave, and have a little piece of my mom continue at Brown.”
Together with her brother and cousin, she hopes to continue what was slated to be Anne’s next big project – gun control and the fight against gun violence in the US. She says they are focusing on the mental health aspect of the issue, and hope to make a positive change by picking up where Anne left countless others around the world. Merrin states: “All I can do now is live my life in a way that I hope would make her proud, and I do just that. Every day of my life, even before her accident, I tried to live my life with her ideas and ideals in mind, and every day I try to live in a way that would make her proud.”
Despite the far-reaching projects that Anne took upon herself, she never let her loved ones feel neglected. “Family always came first, no matter what,” Yoni emphasizes, saying that Anne’s brother Jesse described it best when he said that when you were with his sister, “you knew that she would be there for you 100 percent.”
“She was there 100% for a lot of people – it’s hard to imagine how many percents she had,” Yoni muses. “And she was the best mom in the world.”