A Vision of Rwandan Renewal - in Israel

Shmuel Rosner
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Shmuel Rosner

ATLANTA, Georgia - Anne Heyman took the podium twice at the Jewish Funders Network annual conference - once as part of a panel discussion and once to receive the Sidney Shapiro Tzedakah Award. And she cried both times. Friends say she cries every time she talks about her project. The running joke is that she chokes up even while practicing her speeches in her own kitchen.

Out of the 1,200,000 children who were orphaned after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Heyman wants to help 500. That is, 500 and then another 500. She hopes that after they come to the children's village she is establishing, they will return to their homes, their villages, and help rebuild Rwanda. "She thinks big," says Chaim Peri, former director of the Yemin Orde youth village south of Haifa. "To inculcate in these children they were intended for greatness."

The photos of African landscapes displayed at the entrance to the conference are of the land bought for the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village. A team of architects have already visited Israel to study Yemin Orde, after which this village is to be modeled, both physically and philosophically.

Agahozo Shalom, slated to open its doors in September 2008, will bring together Jewish donors from the United States, African Israeli staffers (Jewish Ethiopian graduates of Yemin Orde) and a rescue operation in Rwanda - all under the Israeli flag. Heyman directs the Heyman-Merrin Family Foundation, and like many of the conference participants, is involved in a family philanthropic organization. It's the new Jewish philanthropy: not just opening the wallet, but deciding where the money goes.

There is fierce competition to attract donors these days. There are many options - U.S.-Jewish community projects, social causes in America, Israel's needs - and then there's Africa.

"The Jewish community," says James Wolfensohn, former World Bank president and previously a U.S. special envoy to Gaza, "cannot ignore what's happening in the rest of the world."

The U.S. Jewish community's incessant pressure on Israel to absorb more and more Ethiopian immigrants can be attributed to this trend, too.

Off the record, one Jewish donor who gives millions to charity every year said: "To tell the truth, Africa needs more help than Israel."

Heyman's project offers a perfect integration of the new Jewish philanthropy model: helping Israel and tikkun olam (literally, repairing the world) - hand-in-hand, albeit sometimes jostling each other just a little.

Agahozo involves investment in Israel and improving the world. Last week here in Atlanta, a short movie was screened about the new project. Racheli Pikado, a Yemin Orde staffer and part of the group that will help establish the Rwandan project, talks about the youth village as a tool to help redefine the Ethiopian identity. The story of the Ethiopian immigration that "starts as a messianic urge and ends ... in the State of Israel," as Peri describes it, becomes for Pikado the way to create a new Jewish-Israeli-African identity.

Yitzhak Elimelech, another Yemin Orde graduate involved in the project, suggests a more practical description: It will help the image of the Ethiopian community.

Heyman, a former South African, is not satisfied with a modern interpretation of her Judaism, but also seeks a footprint in the Zionist vision. She quotes "Altneuland" by Theodor Herzl, who sought to alter the fate of the Jewish People, as well as "to assist in the redemption of Africans." Indeed, she sees the Yemin Orde project as the "fulfillment of Zionism." If Judaism improves the world, Israel must be a "light unto nations."

These are the underpinnings of Zionism, Peri said, agreeing with Heyman, and this process should be renewed.

And if there is renewal, why shouldn't it involve Rwanda?



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