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Jewish Journal

Anne Heyman, in memoriam

by Stephen D. Smith

February 3, 2014 | 2:03 pm

Anne Heyman, 52, the pioneering founder of Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, a community for children orphaned during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, died in an equestrian accident on Friday, Feb.1 in Palm Beach, Florida.  The South African-born Heyman modeled Agohozo on Israeli youth villages.   It is now home to 500 children.

We live in times of deep turmoil, where hope is a rare commodity.  Even among the most optimistic, creating meaning out of profound loss is hard fought.  After genocide it takes vision to see the possibility of life again, it takes soul to build a home and give an education - a foundation for future - to children robbed of parents.  It also takes a woman to know how to create a family of orphans. One with family units, homes and mothers at the heart of its community.

Agohozo Shalom is a haven in Rwanda - it is village, school, and kibbutz, all rolled into one. When you stand in the middle of the village, hills and lakes stretch as far as the eye can see, silence, blue skies and a farmer across the valley.  Then the lunch time bell rings and four hundred beautifully dressed hungry high schoolers stream down the hill and into the cavernous dining room - everyone of them is an orphan, every one of them is also literate and on track to University or vocational training.

The dinner hall buzzes and clatters as all four hundred students eat in one sitting on long benches.  I am perched next to my travel companion, Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone, sandwiched between bright eyed, ravenous kids, keen to practice their English. Renee turned to me and said "Do you know what it takes to nurture these orphans into the human beings they are today? The woman that did this truly deserves the Nobel Prize!"

Anne Heyman had the the stillness of a mill pond, the zeal of a prophet, the soul of a mother.  When first you met her, her understated attire, the simple language she chose, the sincerity of her tone, all belied the woman of steel behind her fair facade.  She talked about 'The Village', as she called the project she founded in Rwanda, as if it really were the neighborhood, of the same name, just a few blocks away from us in lower Manhattan.  She traveled to Rwanda like it was no further than Tribeca. She had to be there, among the people she loved. She was drawn there and they filled her soul.

Tzedakah is a well practiced tradition within the Jewish world, which has become increasingly equated with the word charity, though its real sense is based on its root word 'righteous' - working to create a just, or fairer world. In recent years Anne Heyman brought us back to its meaning in quite remarkable ways. She took the words 'social action' ever so seriously, taking action and personally creating change in a society.

[Related: Rob Eshman on Agahozo Shalom Youth Village]

Her philanthropy was true to the definition of the term itself - she really had a 'love of people' which far transcended the transactional nature of giving charity.  Her philanthropy began with seeing the true potential in everyone.  That is why she was not simply supporting orphans in Rwanda because there was a need, but because she believed in them as people.

Anne Heyman used the financial resources she had at her disposal with generosity that far exceeded the call of duty.  But the real contribution she made was the complete giving of herself to others, always in the field (often literally), creating life from dirt, value from waste.  No amount of money buys values.  She not only bought a hill and then built a community on it. She needed electricity, so she built the largest solar plant in Sub-saharan Africa - so that the rest of Rwanda would get power too. She changed the meter on philanthropy from cash to commitment, and proved it can go further than you could ever imagine.

At times I worried for Anne.  She was so far ahead, she seemed alone.  Many knew about her work, she was lauded for her courage and thanked for her leadership, but few really understand what she was doing on their behalf.  How brave and lonely it could be.  I saw her tearful at times.  I also saw pure determination as she knew social values happen when change takes place - and create change she did.  I also saw the joy she expressed that can only come with one hundred graduates, all of whom had no hope, leaving Agohozo Shalom with the knowledge that are just as valuable as everyone else in this world, equipped and self reliant.

The great Jewish thinker Maimonides identified eight levels of Tzedakah, the highest being to enable others to be self reliant.  Agohozo Shalom Youth Village exemplified the highest form of philanthropy, borne out of justice, fairness, love of your fellow human beings, whoever they are, wherever they are.  It is a beacon of Jewish values in what was the heart of darkness.

Anne Heyman gave a gift to the world that will always be with us.


Stephen D. Smith PhD is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation, UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education and USC Adjunct Professor of Religion.

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