Blog Post : Celebrate Anne Heyman - Michael Kasdan, NYU '13

Celebrate Anne Heyman - Michael Kasdan, NYU '13 | tfigueroa | Feb 11, 2014

Michael Kasdan, NYU '13, who is spending a year at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda as a JDC Service Corp Volunteer, shares his reflections of Anne Heyman in his blog post titled "Anne." 

"All I want is to follow the advice given by Elihu, the son of Berachel of old, who said 'I will speak that I may find relief'; for there is a redemptive quality for an agitated mind in the spoken word, and a tormented soul finds peace in confessing."
- Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Lonely Man of Faith

This is one of the most difficult pieces I’ve had to write. As some of you may have heard, the village experienced a tragedy this weekend, one which we are only beginning to comprehend. It is with a very heavy heart and a profound sense of sorrow that we learned of the untimely passing of Anne Heyman, founder and “grandmother” of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village.

When Sarah the Matriarch passed away, the Bible tells us, Abraham “came to eulogize Sarah, and to cry over her” (Genesis 23:2). There were two aspects to her death- one markedly collective, the other intensely personal. Sarah was a powerful force of good in an otherwise corrupt and chaotic society. She was also Abraham’s life-partner. Her passing signified both of these losses. First, that something vital was lacking in the world needed to be acknowledged. Then, and only then, could Abraham experience his personal grief.

Since its inception, Agahozo-Shalom was always cared for by its own matriarch: Anne Heyman. Her wisdom, love, spirit, and determination have made her into a role-model for everyone she encountered. My personal sorrow cannot compare to that of her family and close friends. But what was true of Sarah is true of Anne: the world just lost one its most fundamental pillars, a guiding force and beacon of hope for anyone in need.

Nine years ago, Anne attended a lecture outlining the obstacles that post-genocide Rwanda faces. Moved by the stories she heard and compelled to help in any way possible, she asked the speaker what he considers to be Rwanda’s biggest challenge. In an instant he responded: the orphan situation. The genocide had torn families apart, and there were now over 820,000 orphans (about 25% of the youth population) throughout the country. In order to ensure a thriving and stable future, Rwanda needed a method to turn its vulnerable youth into socially responsible citizens. Remembering what her own people had faced in the 1950’s, Anne immediately got to work. She looked toward Yemin Orde, a successful Israeli Youth Village, as a model. Unphased by the hurdles that lay ahead, she solicited the help of a number of international organizations and devoted all of her time and energy to making her dream a reality. Anne’s work, the perfect combination of inspiration and perspiration, paid off and the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village was built.
Over the years, the kids at the village began to look up to Anne- not just for her warmth and compassion, but for what she represented: living proof that we CAN make a difference in the world. As these kids knew all too well, their lives would not be on their current path if it wasn't for Anne’s dissatisfaction with the status quo. She had intended to create responsible, self-sufficient young adults. Yet, by inspiring these kids to grab society’s biggest problems by the horns, she accomplished so much more.

Anne’s death, too, represented much to the kids at the village. On a basic level, many of them were concerned that ASYV may be forced to shut down. Anne was more than the founder of the village; she was the face of it. Further, the lives of many of these kids had been a series of tragedies and catastrophes. Life at Agahozo-Shalom was supposed to be different. They were supposed to be safe here. And yet, here they are, forced to grapple with how someone else so beloved could be taken away. “She was a mother to all the children here,” the village director commented, “Most of them are saying, ‘God, why have you made me an orphan a second time?’”

I have only personally known Anne since September, when I began working in the Agahozo-Shalom office in Manhattan. Over the next three months, my time with her mostly consisted of ASYV’s weekly Development Meetings. Though these interactions were brief, certain moments will always stick with me. She viewed every challenge as an opportunity, not an obstacle. The word “no” just wasn't in her dictionary. On one of my first days on the job, when Anne was merely a name I heard in the office, one of my colleagues remarked, “the thing about Anne is, she makes it look easy.”

At the beginning, I was actually afraid of Anne. To me, she was this “go-getter” who I assumed would have a domineering and “in-your-face” personality. And then I met her. True, she is noticeably passionate and determined, but Anne is also your classic Jewish mother. My first few minutes with her was basically a friendly game of Jewish geography. And trust me, she’s good.

But I think what struck me most about Anne is how a pioneer and visionary, in every sense of the word, could also be so intimately involved in the lives of the students at ASYV. Any time we wanted assistance from someone at the village, she always knew which student to ask. It was as though she knew the extra-curricular activities of 500 kids! Members of an organization generally know the name of their leader, I thought, but the leader usually doesn't know the names of all the members. But then I remembered: for Anne this wasn't an organization, it was her family.

How such a tragedy could have occurred is a theological problem that has existed since the dawn of man. Of all the people in this world, was Anne Heyman really the one we could live without? Why is a place named for the Kinyarwanda word “Agahozo,” meaning “tears are dried,” forced to experience such intense sorrow? In short, is there justice in this world?

The problem of why bad things happen to good people was vexing even to Judaism’s wisest and most spiritual leaders. Kings David and Solomon pondered it; as did the prophets Habakkuk and Jeremiah. Indeed, next week’s Torah portion tells of Moses who directly saw the splendor of the Almighty, and yet begged God to explain why He does the things He does: “Inform me now as to your ways, that I may understand you… instruct me regarding your glory” (Exodus 33:13, 18).

It is, however, the book of Job that provides us with the most concrete example of the suffering of the righteous. Job was a simple family man, devoting his life to helping others and serving his Creator. He was “whole-hearted and upright; he feared the Lord and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). Even God could only brag about His most trusted servant to the other heavenly beings. And then, for almost no reason at all, Job was stripped of everything of value. He saw his wealth disappear and his friends abandon him. He experienced the most painful of illnesses and the decimation of his entire family.

As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik observes, there are two ways to question suffering- one philosophical, the other teleological; one descriptive, and one normative. Throughout most of his experience, Job made the mistake of approaching suffering from the first vantage point. He was more concerned with explaining why such a thing could have occurred than with what he should do about it. This reaction prompted anger and avoidance from God. So long as Job spent his time contemplating reasons and motives, evil and divine justice, God reprimanded him.

This, then, is the lesson of Job: there is no answer to why such tragedies could occur. It is beyond comprehension. “Therefore have I uttered that which I understood not, things too wondrous for me, which I knew not” (Job 42:3). But that does not mean we are helpless. We may not understand tragedy, but we can grow from it. The great question of “why did this happen?” needs to be replaced by “how am I going to respond?”

This weekend, we lost one of our greatest paradigms of the power of the human spirit. Anne’s life, though short, has affected the lives of countless individuals around the world. It is up to each of us to figure out what we are going to take away from her example. For me, I will look to Anne’s spirit, generosity, and unwavering commitment. She taught me to never underestimate my abilities and instilled in me the belief that with the proper effort, I CAN make a difference. This, I hope, will stick with me as long as I live. Now I must ask: what will YOU do to ensure that Anne’s legacy lives on?

One final note. Anne’s passing also corresponded with Rwanda’s National Heroes Day, a public holiday commemorating the countless lives lost in service of the country. While Anne may not have died for Rwanda, she certainly lived for it. Indeed, the theme of this year’s holiday was “Heroism is the foundation of dignity and development.” And there is no doubt that all Anne has managed to build is a testament to that.

Anne, I do not know if you are in a better place. But I do know that wherever you are is now better for having you there.