A Champion of Coexistence, Felled by Hatred, Is Laid to Rest

Richard Lakin, Israeli-American killed in Jerusalem terror attack, spent his life working for social justice: from marching with the Civil Rights Movements to teaching Arab and Jewish kids to live in peace.

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Mourners at Richard Lakin's funeral in Beit Shemesh, October 28, 2015.
Mourners at Richard Lakin's funeral in Beit Shemesh, October 28, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

There was no wailing, no loud sobbing or screaming and no, most definitely, no calls for revenge.

Terror victim Richard Lakin’s funeral on Wednesday afternoon felt different, much like the man himself. It was not about rage, undoubtedly felt, or even about sorrow, which was so clearly running deep. Rather, it was about faith: Continued faith in the fundamental goodness of the individual, despite the terrible evil that some people do.

Two weeks ago, two Palestinian men armed with knives and a gun boarded the 78 bus in Jerusalem that Lakin, returning home from a doctor’s visit, was riding. The terrorists viciously attacked the passengers, killing two and injuring 16 others. Lakin, who was shot in the head and then slashed in the face, neck and stomach, succumbed to his injuries on Tuesday.

A gentle, gray-haired retired principle from Newton, Massachusetts, Lakin, moved to Israel 32 years ago with his wife Karen and two children. The 76-year-old American-Israeli was a true believer in social justice and kindness. His Facebook page banner featured a photo of two boys, Arab and Jew, with their arms around each other and the word “coexist” writ large. His frequent tweets called for an end to bullying and the need to foster tolerance and understanding.

Facebook page of Richard Lakin, one of three Israelis killed in October 2015 Jerusalem terror attack. Credit: Screenshot

The book he wrote, “Teaching as an Act of Love,” speaks of putting bureaucracy and testing aside and focusing on creating loving school climates where kindness prevails. His eldest grandchild Shachar recalls that the book she most liked having him read to her when she was growing up was "Charlotte’s Web" – a story of friendship between those who are different.

His life and his activities were all built on the principle that we are all created equal, says his son Micah Lakin Avni. He marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Junior in the 60s and participated in the Civil Rights Movement’s sit-ins as an undergraduate at Boston University and later as a graduate sociology student at the University of Michigan. He spent 15 years as the principal of an elementary school in Glastonbury, Connecticut – the Hopewell School – where he championed efforts to bring in students from inner-city Hartford.

In Israel, Lakin and his wife Karen founded a language school – Learning Alternative – which was known for its small classes and its mix of Jewish and Arab children. He frequently tutored schoolchildren from the Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education, teaching them English and explaining the Civil Rights Movement that he had belonged to in his youth.

“Dad didn’t deal with politics,” says son Avni, "he dealt with people... His motto was: accept everyone. If you smile at a child, that child will smile back. My dad wanted nothing to do with hatred.”

And yet, Avni is forced to admit that hatred, blind hatred, is what killed his father – and to that he cannot turn the other cheek. He has decided to fight back, taking aim at an unusual target.

The day after the bus attack, says Avni, videos glorifying the attackers, inciting to more violence and even giving explicit instructions on how to carry out similar attacks were uploaded onto several social media sites. While sitting at his father’s bedside in the hospital, he researched the phenomenon of online incitement to violence.

Mourners at Richard Lakin's funeral in Beit Shemesh, October 28, 2015.Credit: Reuters

That led him to become the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit against Facebook in a U.S. court, demanding that the social media network company prevent violent, anti-Semitic incitement from being hosted on its platform. Sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter “have an ethical and moral responsibility," Avni maintains. "They just cannot hide behind excuses of free speech.”

Richard Lakin held onto life at Hadassah Hospital for two weeks, surrounded by his wife, children and his eight grandchildren. He was visited by both the lofty - United Nations Secretary General ki-Moon paid respects - and the humble. Students and teachers from the Hand in Hand Center arrived bearing colored posters and prayers. The doctors and nurses, Arab and Jew alike, stress his family, did everything for him. But he never regained consciousnesses.

“This morning I sat down with my four children to eat breakfast, and I pictured Dad sitting there with us, in his suspenders, eating his Special K and a banana,” Avni said in his eulogy. “He always started the day with a banana. And I recalled how he loved to amuse us by pretending to speak Chinese. He would chuckle and we would giggle. He chuckled a lot. And we giggled a lot.”

“How is it that such a kind, beautiful person is struck down in such a horrific and brutal manner? This question echoes in my head,” Avni admitted. “A person could be crippled by this thought.”

“Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people?” Lakin’s son continued plaintively, harkening to Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” What he learnt from that book, Avni said, was “to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world...[and] to reach out to the people around us, and go on living despite it all.”

One cannot keep asking why something happened, Avni continued – but can ask instead how one might respond, “and what we intend to do now that it has happened.”

“I know Dad agreed with this philosophy,” his son said. “Dad was taken from us by hatred and evil. But he would not want us to respond with hatred and evil. He would forgive and guide us to respond with love and kindness.”

“Your beliefs were so universal, above any religion or agenda. And the way you were taken from us, so abruptly and brutally my mind cannot accept it,” Lakin’s daughter Manya said, echoing her brother’s words. “I know the prayers said for you by all faiths have helped to erase the inhumanity of your death.”

It was hard to tell, looking at the hundreds who gathered to pay Lakin their last respects, walking solemnly through the rocky cemetery outside Jerusalem, if many of his Arab friends, colleagues or students were there in attendance. But, as Lakin himself would surely have been the first to point out, we are all so alike, who can really tell who is who - and perhaps more importantly, who cares? We are all equal, similar human beings, he undoubtedly would have said – and, like smiles, our tears, when they fall, are all exactly the same.

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