Attack in Israel fatal to a Newton-bred champion of harmony
A retired elementary school principal from Newton who wrote a book about kindness in the classroom and worked for cross-cultural understanding in Israel died Tuesday, two weeks after being shot and stabbed repeatedly in a Jerusalem terror attack.
Richard Lakin, a 76-year-old grandfather who spent the last three decades living in Israel, was riding a public bus Oct. 13 when two Palestinian men armed with a knife and gun began shooting and stabbing passengers, in the first of a wave of attacks that day.
Lakin was shot in the head and stabbed repeatedly in the stomach and elsewhere, his son said. He never regained consciousness and spent two weeks on life support before succumbing from multiple organ failure and sepsis.
“What happened to him is horrific, but I think it’s important to describe it,” his son, Micah Avni, said in a phone interview from Jerusalem. “What you have is a gentle elementary school principal sitting on a bus, brutalized. There’s no social justification for that.
“People can agree; people can disagree; people can want change,” he added, but what happened to his father is “not a political statement; it’s not a vote; it’s not dissidence. It is brutal, brutal violence.”
Avni said the attack on his father was especially jarring because of Lakin’s commitment to social justice.
Lakin participated in sit-ins and was active in the US civil rights movement as an undergraduate at Boston University and graduate student at the University of Michigan. Later, after moving with his family to Israel, he spent decades trying to foster tolerance and understanding among Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Arabs, and Christians.
To the end, the banner on his Facebook page was a photo of two boys — one wearing a kippah, or Jewish skullcap, the other a keffiyeh, or Arab headscarf — with their arms around each other, beneath the word “coexist,” the letters formed partly from different religious symbols.
“My father’s core message in life was teaching kindness and respect,” said Avni, who has adopted a Hebrew last name in Israel.
Lakin grew up as the older of two boys in Newton, where his mother was a nurse and his father was active in the Jewish community, serving as president of the New England branch of the Conservative Judaism movement and helping to found the Solomon Schecter Day School. He still has family in Massachusetts, including his brother, Irwin, a retired Carver dentist, and a nephew, Joshua, who lives in Boston.
Lakin studied sociology in graduate school at Michigan but switched careers in the 1960s after working on a research project about elementary education, becoming a teacher and administrator, his son said.
Returning to New England, Lakin raised his family outside Hartford and spent 15 years as principal of a Glastonbury, Conn., elementary school. A two-month trip to Israel led him to spend a year on a kibbutz — along with his wife, Karen, and children Micah and Manya — and move to Israel permanently in 1984.
In Jerusalem, Lakin and his wife, a special education teacher in the United States, established a language school called the Learning Alternative, where they taught English in small groups while deliberately bringing Jewish, Israeli Arab, and Palestinian children together, their son said. Lakin was also active with an organization that promoted coexistence and respect.
In retirement, he continued to tutor and wrote a book called “Teaching as an Act of Love.” He had touched scores of people in Jerusalem, and his many students included the children of both the chief doctor and head nurse — one Jewish and one Israeli Arab, respectively — at the Hadassah Medical Center trauma unit where he spent his final weeks.
That nurse, his son said, “was the first person to come into the room after my father had passed away, to pass her condolences on to my mother and sister and me. We had a good cry together.”
Last week, Lakin and his family received a hospital visit on the same day from Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, and from students and teachers at the Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education, bearing a multilingual poster praying for his recovery.
While Lakin was hospitalized, his family signed his name as lead plaintiff on a class-action suit against Facebook filed in New York by 20,000 Israelis — not to seek financial damages but to compel the company to curb the sharing of content that they argued encourages violent terror against Israeli Jews.
Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, met with Karen Lakin on Saturday while leading a five-member delegation to Israel. Shrage said he was especially moved by a quote from one of Lakin’s eight grandchildren, who had been asked by a reporter what her grandfather would have made of the surge of violence and the faltered peace process. “There are many options, but hatred is not one of them,” Shrage said, quoting the granddaughter.