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Anne Heyman MERRIN, a wife, mother, philanthropist and social justice activist, died Friday at the age of 52. The cause was from complications sustained from a horse riding accident during a jumping competition at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in the town of Wellington. Born in South Africa to Sydney and Hermia Heyman, Anne Heyman was the second of four children and raised in Capetown. A born Zionist, athlete and go-getter from an early age, Anne was involved in the Jewish Zionist Youth Movement Habonim and just about every sport offered at her school. One day she picked up a table tennis paddle to learn to play and the next year she became the champion. This was an early indication of the extraordinary woman she would become.
Her family moved to Brookline, Massachusetts when she was 15. While in Brookline, Anne became active in another Zionist youth movement, Young Judaea. As part of her participation in the program, Anne took part in a year-long trip to Israel immediately after graduating High School. During the second week of the program, she met Seth Merrin, the man who would become her husband. Following the year in Israel, Anne returned to the United States where she attended and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982. After graduation, Anne and Seth returned to Israel and spent most of the year there. They then returned to the US so Anne could attend George Washington Law School where she became editor of the Law Review. In 1984 she transferred to Columbia Law School and graduated in 1985.
Anne began her career shortly after as a corporate lawyer at Kronish Lieb Weiner and Hellman. It was during this time that Seth proposed to Anne, who still jokes he could do so, “Only after she received an offer of employment from a respectable law firm.” Two years later she became an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, prosecuting white-collar crime.
Seth and Anne married on August 17, 1986. They had three beautiful children - Jason Liav, Jenna Chen and Jonathan Gavriel. After Jonathan was born in 1994, Anne left her job as a lawyer to devote her time to her family. As a full time mother, Anne exposed her kids to every museum, concert and activity throughout New York City where they lived. The family also traveled the world in the summer where Anne would create activity books for the kids describing the history of the location with fun facts contained in coloring pages, word scrambles and crossword puzzles. Anne and Seth's connection to Israel remained strong and they raised their children with Hebrew as their first language, requiring Anne’s parents to take Hebrew lessons so that they could communicate with their grandchildren. It was while at home with the kids that Anne began her next career as an activist, a philanthropist, and a light unto nations. As with everything Anne did, she did it with incredible passion and involved her entire family.
Anne became involved in Dorot, a Manhattan based organization that mobilizes thousands of volunteers to provide food, service, and companionship to the elderly. In a short time, Anne joined the board and became its chairman. She, along with the amazing team of staff and volunteers, transformed and grew the organization, its capabilities and its reach.
Anne and Seth also became involved with the Jewish Community Center (JCC) Association. They helped create “the Merrin Teen Fellows,” a program which trains and mentors staff that work with Jewish teens in JCCs across the US. The program continues to thrive today. Anne also worked with Rabbi Jeff Summit at Tufts University Hillel to create an ongoing lecture series called “Moral Voices” that invites college youth to get involved and take action against social injustices and moral causes around the world. The program has since been expanded to the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University Hillels. It was during the first year of the program in 2005 where the featured speaker was a famous genocide survivor. During this event Anne began to understand the severity of the orphan problem created by the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and was inspired to take action.
Turning once again to Israel for inspiration, Anne connected the challenge to the similar one Israel faced following the second World War. After the Holocaust, Israel created youth villages that housed, fed, clothed, and educated orphans in order to recreate a family environment of love and safety to help heal. Anne’s vision was to adopt the “youth village” model and bring it to Rwanda.
Not knowing anyone in Rwanda or anything about the country in no way deterred Anne. What she didn't know she learned, whom she had to know, she met. And what resulted would change the world.
Anne raised millions of dollars and recruited an international team from Rwanda, Israel and the United States which included a partnership with Chaim Peri and Yemin Orde, a youth village near Haifa, to make her vision a reality. In August 2007, Anne broke ground for The Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village and in 2008, the village officially opened its doors to its first class of 125 students.
Named by Anne’s daughter Jenna, “Agahozo” is the Kinyarwanda word meaning “a place where tears are dried” and Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace. The model for the village combines three essential elements to encourage intellectual and emotional growth of traumatized youth: the loving support of a family, a structured education and enriching extracurricular programming.
Students of the village are provided with new family stuctures, complete with resident “House Mothers, Brothers and Sisters.” They are also given a world class education and are introduced to extracurricular activities including art, music, and sports. As part of their education, Anne made sure each child was taught the value of “Tikun Olam” – the obligation every person has to try and repair the world – and students were required to find ways to contribute to the greater community on a weekly basis. Among the students, Anne was affectionately known as “mom” or “grandmother.”
Above everything, Anne instilled in the Rwandan students the value that this opportunity was not one they were given, but one that they would have to earn. Anne believed in transformation, and often reminded the students that “if you see far, you will go far.” Each student knew that the future of Rwanda was on their shoulders, that they were being trained to be the country’s future leaders, its greatest hope – and each student rose to the challenge.
By the time the first class graduated in 2013, the village was home to 500 students and a large Rwandan staff. Today, the village and its students continue to thrive. The second class recently graduated and students continue to score remarkably high on national exams. Many graduates have received college scholarships from around the world or have found full time employment. Anne’s efforts have been recognized globally.
Anne is survived by her devoted husband Seth, her loving children Jason, Jenna, and Jonathan, her adoring parents Sydney and Hermia Heyman, her siblings Justin, Dan, and Lauren, her cat Mal, her dog Chewy, her horses Fandango, Alex, and Gillie, and her 750 “grandchildren” in Rwanda. We have lost an incredible daughter, wife, mother, and humanitarian hero.
In lieu of flowers, it is the family's wishes that donations be made to Anne’s life changing project - the Agahozo-Shaom Youth Village (ASYV).
PLAZA JEWISH COMMUNITY CHAPEL