Anne Heyman, 52, a Jewish philanthropist and humanitarian who founded a Rwandan youth village for children orphaned in that country’s 1994 genocide, died Jan. 31 in a horse-riding accident.
A native of South Africa, she came to the United States in 1976 and lived in Villanova with her family while attending and graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. Heyman died after falling off a horse while participating in a jumping competition at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Florida.
A student at George Washington Law School who went on to graduate from Columbia University Law School, the former Manhattan assistant district attorney was interested in aiding Rwanda after attending a talk in 2005 at Tufts University Hillel.
It took a village to reshape her already successful life: The talk — which was an outgrowth of Moral Voices, a project Heyman had co-created at Hillel for young men and women to do battle against social injustice — was given by a survivor of the Rwandan genocide.
She attended the lecture with her husband, Seth Merrin, whom she had met years earlier while on a post-high school year-long program in Israel sponsored by Young Judaea.
After the talk at Tufts, she and her husband raised $12 million to build Rwanda’s Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village.
The village of 32 homes opened in December 2008, and 500 Rwandans ages 14 to 21 currently live and study there. The village was inspired by the youth villages in Israel that resettled young Jews orphaned by the Holocaust.
One of her favorite causes was Dorot, which uses the services of committed volunteers to aid the elderly in need. She eventually became the group’s chairwoman of the board.
But it was the Rwandan village that claimed a special piece of her heart; indeed, she had just visited there weeks before her death for graduation ceremonies.
It was in January that she posted this Twitter account: “Best part of your day? I got to meet every new kid at ASYV — so different from our grads. Transformation has begun.”
Her brother, Daniel, saw his sister’s transformative effect on others with his own eyes. “She was an amazing person who always had time for everybody.” he says. And the Rwandan village, he asserts, “was her baby.”
But she was willing to share her triumph. “The best goal she wanted of the village was for it to be self-sustainable and replicated” throughout Africa, he says.
With all her work and projects, no one could replace her family, says Daniel, and as wonderful as she was to the outside world, there was nothing more important to her than her roles as mother, wife, daughter and sibling.
“She was just in Philly to help celebrate” her father’s 80th birthday, her brother notes.
“Family was so important — and the horses,” says Daniel.
In addition to her husband, Seth, and brother Daniel, she is survived by her parents, Sydney and Hermia Heyman; a daughter, Jenna; two sons, Jason and Jonathan; a sister, Lauren; and another brother, Justin.
JTA contributed to this report.