He Went Down Fighting

Denver native Daniel Lewin was dragged kicking and screaming to Israel at age 14. Later he went on to serve in an elite commando unit and to found a pioneering Internet company. At age 31, he became a victim - perhaps the very first - of the 9/11 hijackings.

Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz

Back in the early 1980s, while he was preparing for his bar mitzvah, Danny Lewin already stood out among his peers, his childhood rabbi recalled.

"We'd be going over his Haftarah portion, and he'd tell me that he was going to go home and see what other information he could find out about the prophet we were discussing," said Rabbi Raymond Zwerin, the founder of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in Denver, Colorado.

Daniel Lewin.

"He'd come back two weeks later with a full report, and I'd be thinking to myself that this is pretty unusual. I was training 70-80 kids a year at the time, but very few kids did things like that."

The first boy in his neighborhood to own an Apple II home computer, Lewin later distinguished himself by rising to the rank of captain in Israel's elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit after immigrating with his family. He eventually went on to invent, along with his professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an algorithm that revolutionized how content is delivered over the Internet, which helped him become one of the world's richest high-tech entrepreneurs before he was even 30.

But Lewin never lived to witness the real impact of his discovery. A decade ago, he became one of the first, if not the first, victim of the 9/11 terror attacks, likely killed before his plane hit its target. He was 31 years old at the time.

Lewin's wife, Anne, whom he met in Israel after she immigrated from Belgium, still lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with their two children, Eitan and Itamar. She has since remarried, and three years ago had a third child - a daughter - with her second husband.

Lewin was on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles. At 8:46 A.M., it crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. By chance, Lewin, who had served as an officer in the IDF's much-vaunted anti-terrorism unit, found himself seated in business class among three of the five hijackers on board - Mohammad Atta, Abdulaziz al-Omari and Satam al-Suqami. The FBI told Lewin's parents shortly after the tragedy that their son was probably stabbed to death by al-Suqami while trying to block Atta and Omari from storming the cockpit after they had stabbed a flight attendant. Al-Suqami had been sitting directly behind Lewin. This information was based on a phone call by one of the flight attendants to the American Airlines flight services office at Logan International Airport in Boston not long after the flight had taken off.

Those who knew him were not in the least surprised to learn of his heroism. "I imagine that his sixth sense kicked in when he saw those guys, that he took note and took action," said Marco Greenberg, a New York-based marketing and public relations executive who was one of Lewin's closest friends. "I'd be surprised if he didn't kill one or two of the terrorists before he went down."

Brad Rephen, a New York-based lawyer who used to lift weights with Lewin after he moved with his family to Jerusalem from Denver, finds it hard to believe that knives could have stopped his old friend. "I'm pretty sure that if they had knives, he would have taken them," he said. "I know he'd have fought like a lion."

'I could just see this was a superstar'

Greenberg recalled that he first laid eyes on the teenager from Colorado while registering at Samson's, once a popular gym among the Anglo-Saxon crowd in Jerusalem. Sixteen-year-old Lewin had moved to Israel two years earlier with his parents, Charles and Peggy, both doctors, and his two younger brothers, Michael and Yonatan. "I saw this kid in the corner squatting 300 pounds, and I could just see that this was a superstar," he said. "Only later did I discover that he was a genius as well. Just for the fun of it, he decided to take his SATs and PSATs, and got perfect scores on both."

Although Greenberg was six years older than Lewin, the two quickly struck up a friendship, based "on our common love for the Denver Broncos."

Greenberg is convinced that Lewin's Denver roots helped shape the man he eventually became - the wildly successful entrepreneur who, while still a graduate student at MIT, co-founded Akamai, the Massachusetts-based company that set out to ease the "World Wide Wait" on the web.

"He didn't grow up in one of these cloistered areas of Brooklyn, New York or Brookline, Massachusetts," said Greenberg. "He was less parochial, less sheltered, more used to interacting with people outside the Jewish world. It may sound corny, but people tend to think of the West as the place where anything can be done and anything can happen, and Danny was very much about that. The rugged individualism of the West was definitely part of his character."

Dr. Ethan Lazarus, who runs a weight-loss clinic in Denver, was a childhood friend of Lewin's. Both their fathers were psychiatrists, and their two families lived in the same upscale Denver neighborhood, where the boys attended Belleview Elementary School in the Cherry Creek School District. "It was an affluent public school, but we were definitely in the minority there as Jews," recalled Lazarus. Lewin, he says, embraced the outdoorsy Colorado lifestyle and was far from thrilled when his parents decided to pick themselves up and move to Israel.

"He went kicking and screaming," said Lazarus.

When the Lewins moved to Israel, recalled Diane Samet, the former director of the Temple Sinai Hebrew School, her children lost both their babysitter and their computer teacher. "Danny was about 13 or 14 and already a computer genius back then," she recalled. "We had just purchased an Apple II for our boys, and I hired him to give them lessons. The kids loved him so much that they insisted we hire him as their babysitter as well."

Zwerin recalled a conversation he had with the young Lewin when the family decided to make aliyah. "I told him, you know, there are worse places your parents could take you, but I have a feeling you're gonna love it there. And that's what I eventually heard - that he loved it."

Lazarus made two trips with his family to Israel to visit the Lewins after they had settled in Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood.

"The first time I came, you could see he was having a hard time. His room was decorated with American flags and posters of Bruce Springsteen," he recounted. "But by our second visit, he seemed to be doing much better. I remember him playing Paganini on the violin - yeah, that's something that most people don't even know, that he was an extremely gifted violinist - and looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger from all that weight-lifting he was doing."

This ability to embody such contrasts and defy accepted stereotypes was what also set Lewin apart, noted Greenberg. "He was a hugger and a high-fiver, not what you usually associate with a high-tech geek. He was the macho Israeli who spoke with a thick American accent," he said.

"This was a guy who, while working as a teaching assistant at the Technion, was capable of sitting at the dinner table calming a baby in one hand, grading his students' math papers with the other, and at the same time having a heated political discussion with you and never once missing a beat."

Lior Netzer first befriended Lewin in the army, where they served in the same unit, and later joined him at Akamai, where Netzer is now vice-president of mobile network strategy. Lewin, recalled Netzer, was a person who felt a constant need to challenge himself.

"He was a very strong guy who could carry big loads," he recounted. "But once, we were doing this navigational exercise at night, and I noticed that he was having a hard time getting up from a crouching position. This was very unusual for him, so I asked him what happened. It turns out he decided on his own initiative to double the usual load he was assigned just to see if he could do it. That was the type of person he was."

Rephen, too, also recalled that Lewin constantly tried to push his limits and had a penchant for living on the edge. "He loved jumping out of planes and helicopters, and he loved riding motorcycles," he said. "In fact, he had a whole collection of them. He just liked adventure."

The same passion he showed in the weight room, in the battlefield, and in the classroom, he brought to the professional world "with reckless abandon," Greenberg said.

Netzer recalled Lewin demonstrating to a co-worker at Akamai how he expected him to fight one of their competitors at the time: "He had this toy baby in his hand, and he says to the guy: 'Pretend this is our competitor. What are you gonna do?' And then he proceeds to rip off the baby's head and fling it in the air."

Although he was chief technology officer at Akamai and effectively ran the company, said Netzer, Lewin remained a kid at heart. "If he saw you in the corridors, he'd give you a nice whack on the shoulder, or if you happened to be sitting down, he'd give you a kick in the thigh and expect you to come running after him and wrestle him," he said.

Not long after Akamai made its initial public offering, the market crashed, and on September 11, 2001, Lewin was on this way to Los Angeles to try to salvage his baby. He never lived to see it bounce back or to witness the legacy he left behind: With more than 2,000 employees and close to 100,000 servers in 72 countries, Akamai today delivers a huge chunk of worldwide Internet traffic.



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