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Philanthropist Anne Heyman Dies in Equestrian Accident

Founder of Sanctuary for Rwandan Orphans Was Inspired by a Talk at Tufts Hillel

Anne Heyman, a former New York City assistant district attorney, social justice advocate, and passionate supporter of Tufts Hillel, passed away unexpectedly in a horseback riding accident on January 31. She was 52. The incident happened in Wellington, Florida, where Heyman fell from her horse during a master’s jumper competition, according to the FTI Consulting Winter Equestrian Festival. She died later during surgery.

Heyman, a New York lawyer and activist, was born in South Africa. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982 and from the George Washington School of Law in 1986. After two years in private practice she went to work for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor.

Leaving the district attorney’s office after her children were born, Heyman became actively engaged in philanthropic efforts in the United States and abroad. She served as president of the board of directors of Dorot, a Jewish charity, reflecting her concern for needs of the homebound and homeless elderly. She also served as a trustee of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, Young Judaea, and the Jewish Community Centers of America, and was director of her family’s foundation.

In recent years, Heyman and her husband, Tufts graduate and trustee Seth Merrin, A82, had turned their attention to helping orphans left behind by the Rwandan genocide of 1994, during which some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

“Together, Anne and Seth have been powerful advocates for justice and compassion,” Tufts University President Anthony P. Monaco said. “We join their family in mourning the loss of Anne. But her leadership will continue to inspire us to work together to build a stronger global community in the days and years to come.”

In 2005, Heyman and Merrin were inspired by hearing Rwandan Paul Rusesabagina speak as part of the Tufts Hillel annual Moral Voices: Merrin Distinguished Lecture Series. Rusesabagina saved the lives of thousands of Rwandans by sheltering them in his hotel during the genocide and was the inspiration for the movie Hotel Rwanda. During his talk, he said that in a country with 1.2 million orphans there is no future unless those children get help.

Heyman drew a connection between the Rwandan orphan population and the orphans from the Holocaust who fled to Israel after World War II. Many of the Holocaust orphans were welcomed into Israeli youth villages, which provided a hybrid of educational and living quarters. Heyman sought to replicate that model in Rwanda.

In 2007, with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, she founded the Agahoza-Shalom Youth Village, a residential and educational community and farm located on 144 acres in rural Rwanda. It welcomed its first 125 students in 2008. Today, the village shelters some 500 children and teenagers. The village now offers shelter to at-risk children as well as orphans of the 1994 genocide. Its name means, “a place to dry one’s tears in peace.”

Heyman presided over the village’s graduation ceremony in Rwanda just two weeks before her death.

“Each of us grieves not only for the passing of a tremendous woman and a true visionary, but also for the loss suffered by her family,” the organization said in an announcement posted on its website, “She has made a remarkable impact on this world and we will continue to work to uphold her legacy.”

Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said in a message on Twitter, “Deeply saddened by sudden passing of Anne Heyman. I know she lives on in many vibrant Rwandan girls she worked hard for.”

In 2009, Tufts Hillel sent an interfaith group of Tufts students to the village through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s short-term service trip program. Visiting the country left an indelible impression on them. “It was an experience that changed everyone's lives,” said participant Ben Gittleson, A11. Tufts students continued to support the village through fundraising and volunteer visits.

Heyman did more than raise millions of dollars to fund the village; she spent as much time as she could there, visiting several times a year. “Every day she thought of those kids, every time I talked to her,” Laurie Franz, a friend and youth village board member, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “She believed in helping people. She had the biggest heart of anybody I know, and she did it continually, honestly, and with so much passion. She was intelligent and beautiful and wise and kind.”

Heyman’s parents and siblings, her husband, and their three children, Jason, Jenna, and Jonathan, who live in Manhattan, survive her. Her obituary in the New York Times also noted that she is survived by her 750 “grandchildren” in Rwanda.