The Spark of An Idea
In November of 2005, Agahozo-Shalom Founder Anne Heyman and her husband, Seth Merrin, heard a talk about the Rwandan genocide. At a dinner after the talk, Seth asked the speaker to identify the biggest problem Rwanda faced. The answer was the vast number of orphans with no systemic solution to support their well-being and development. Immediately Anne, a South African-born lawyer and mother of three living in New York City, connected the challenge of the Rwandan orphan population to the similar challenge that Israel faced after the Second World War. When there was a large influx of orphans from the Holocaust, Israel built residential living communities called youth villages. Anne was inspired to bring this model to Rwanda.
Anne began reaching out to people in Israel, Rwanda and the United States to share her idea and learn how to realize her vision. In April 2006, Anne and her team found a model to emulate in the Yemin Orde Youth Village in Israel. That summer, they determined that it was a model that would work extremely well in the Rwandan context.Anne then set about creating a formal structure for the project. In September of 2006, she met with officials at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), an international humanitarian organization, which agreed to house and offer logistical support for the project. By 2007, along with corporate partner Liquidnet Holdings the namesake of our high school, Anne had gathered enough support to break ground and begin constructing the Village. On December 15, 2008, the first 125 students moved in to make Agahozo Shalom their new home. Today, the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village is an independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization home to 500 incredible kids.
A native of South Africa, Anne Heyman graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982 and from the George Washington School of Law in 1986. After two years in private practice, Anne went to work for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, where she worked until the advent of her third child. After leaving the District Attorney’s office Anne was actively engaged in philanthropic work both in and outside of the United States. Her role as former President of the Board of Directors of Dorot reflected her ongoing commitment to the many needs of the homebound and homeless elderly. Her dedication to and work with the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, Young Judaea, Tufts University Hillel, University of Pennsylvania Hillel and the Jewish Community Centers of America showed how important Jewish youth and continuity were to her and her family’s foundation, of which she was the director.
It is with respect to the notion of Tikkun Olam, the Jewish obligation to repair the world, that Anne was most passionate. From active engagement in genocide prevention to educational programs in Israel to the establishment of "Moral Voices," a program designed to inspire college youth to action, to Rwanda, where she spear-headed the creation of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Anne’s commitment to improving the lives of others was unwavering. Anne’s inspiring story has appeared in numerous publications including two recent books, "The Art of Doing Good" by Charles Bronfman and Jeffrey Solomon and "Act Three" by Julie Shifman.
Anne was an avid equestrian and competitive show jumper and passed away after falling from her horse while competing in a masters jumper competition on 31 January 2014. She is survived by her husband, Seth Merrin, children Jason, Jonathan and Jenna, siblings Dan, Lauren and Justin, and her parents Sydney and Hermia.
Will serves as the senior staff person regarding all of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)’s non-sectarian disaster relief programs. In this capacity, he coordinates projects relating to the Rescue, Relief, and Renewal of Jewish communities worldwide and develops non-sectarian programs.
Will is also the Desk Director for Latin America and Europe Community Development at JDC headquarters in New York, a capacity in which he visited Cuba over 30 times. While serving as the Washington representative for JDC he helped secure JDC’s license to work in Cuba, and he helped establish JDC’s programs of community development and Jewish renewal.
Will has worked with U.S. Government agencies and Congressional members to brief them on issues specific to rescue and relief, and with Private Voluntary Organizations (PVOs) in program coordination, partnership development and cooperation. He has also acted as an intermediary to embassies and officials of countries in which JDC is active and has traveled overseas to coordinate and evaluate existing and potential JDC programs in Cuba, China, Somalia, Kenya, Kosovo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Israel, Turkey, the Gaza Strip, Egypt, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Eastern Europe.
Before joining JDC, Will was the Executive Director of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews in Washington, DC, and in that capacity he briefed President George Bush on the condition of Ethiopian Jews in Israel and those remaining in Ethiopia; he worked closely with the Special Israeli Envoy as liaison to the U.S. Government in the planning and implementation of Operation Solomon; he established the Congressional Caucus for Ethiopian Jews; advised State Department officials and members of Congress on Ethiopian Jewry, and spoke to groups nationwide on the plight of the Ethiopian community.
Will has a master’s degree and Ph.D. in Political Science.
Sifa Nsengimana, may she rest in peace, passed away in a tragic car accident in South Africa on November 23, 2012. Her loss is felt deeply not only by the Agahozo-Shalom Community but by many whose lives she touched, all around the world. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where her family settled after fleeing the 1962 Tutsi Massacre in Rwanda and following a childhood marked by poverty, separation, fear, discrimination, and tragedy, Sifa lived an adolescence characterized by wars and exile. In November of 1993, she immigrated to Canada, and began a new life, turning the page on the days where soldiers in Burundi had her dig holes to bury fallen rebels. Five months later, her entire extended family (more than 85 people) were killed in the 1994 Rwandan Tutsi genocide, which claimed nearly one million lives in 100 days.
Marked by the genocide and longing for peace and justice, Sifa became an advocate for the voiceless, working on behalf of women and children in conflict zones. She was the director, and later co-chair, of the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur before joining the Agahozo-Shalom project in 2006. Within Agahozo-Shalom, Sifa’s ability to rally and galvanize people into action became central to turning 144 acres of wild land into a beautiful youth village in less than two years; and her optimistic approach helped build a team and programs which are today the pride of Rwanda and serving as a model for other organizations/countries. As the project’s adviser, her ongoing counsel and leadership ensured that the core values and mission of the Village were carried out in line with the spirit and realities of Rwanda, while building a world class institution. Sifa will always be remembered for her commitment to making the world a better place for all its inhabitants. Her generosity of spirit and tireless work on behalf of those less fortunate will continue to inspire countless others to do the same.
With more than 25 years of experience in the financial sector at financial and software firms, Tina longed to do something more with her life, with a particular interest in being involved in social action work. In December of 2005, Tina’s friend Anne Heyman, shared her idea of a youth village she was thinking about building in Rwanda. The idea stuck with Tina and in February of 2006, she left her full-time job to work with Anne on her project. She saw this as the perfect opportunity to work alongside Anne in her friend’s endeavor and to bring new meaning to her life. Tina has been with Anne every step of the way in Agahozo-Shalom's growth, bringing years of project management and organizational skills to the team, as well as the drive to help kids in Rwanda. She could not be more proud of the Village and the incredible work being done to make the difference in the lives of the kids at Agahozo-Shalom.
Originally from Los Angeles, Gideon holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of California at Berkeley. After graduating, he moved to Israel and spent several years first as a counselor and, later, as coordinator for Young Judaea's Year Course Program for American high-school graduates, before he left to work at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). It was nearly 10 years ago that Gideon Herscher first met Anne Heyman in the JDC cafeteria in Israel. At that time, Gideon's primary responsibilities at the JDC included the development and implementation of programs and partnerships for vulnerable populations in Israel, with a specific focus on minimizing education gaps between Ethiopian-Israeli youngsters and their veteran classmates. Since then, Gideon has moved forward in JDC to pursue humanitarian work in Ethiopia where he oversaw a number of JDC's operations.
In 2009, Gideon served as JDC's point person for emergency activity across Israel's Southern Region. Working with government partners and program directors, Gideon continues to fulfill this role as trauma relief efforts are implemented for the most vulnerable citizens in the Gaza border region. In 2010, Gideon relocated to Haiti to serve as JDC's director of relief efforts and lead reconstruction efforts in Port au Prince and Haiti's countryside. Throughout Gideon's journey at JDC, he has proudly served as the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village's point person and coordinator in Israel. In this volunteer capacity, he has organized and hosted several delegations of key Rwandan partners in Israel and has worked with Israeli partners and organizations on the ground to organize and share Israel's youth village expertise and experience with Rwanda.