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Heyman, 52, a South African-born lawyer, mother of three, and prominent Jewish philanthropist, died after tumbling off a horse during an equestrian competition near Palm Beach, Fla. on Friday.
Nkulikiyimfura received the tragic news around 1 am local time. He gathered the school’s senior staff at 3 am, and then steeled them to break the news to hundreds of students, who were scheduled to wake before dawn for a Saturday morning group run.
“Many of the children were really distraught,” Nkulikiyimfura said. “Anne was more than a founder of the school. She had a really strong influence on their lives.”
“She was a mother to them,” he added.
Psychologists and teachers held sessions for the students throughout the day and will continue to be available in coming days, the director said. Classes will be cancelled for several days of mourning as the school awaits word from Heyman’s family about funeral and memorial arrangements.
Heyman and her husband founded the school nine years ago. She hoped to use Israel’s kibbutzes, which sheltered Jewish orphans after the Holocaust, as a model to help children who lost their parents in the Rwanda genocide, in which 1 million people were killed in a few weeks.
Nkundunkundiye said most of the several hundred students know little about Judaism. But they feel a deep kinship with the Jewish people due to their shared experience as genocide victims — a link that Heyman nurtured.
“The Holocaust has the same history that we face, the same tragedy,” the young man said. “She had an inspiration from Israel, how they dealt with it.”