January 27, 2020

A funeral for Richard Lakin

“I want to thank him for teaching me how to ride a bike.  And for watching 'Charlotte's Web' with me over and over again.”  The granddaughter of the gentle man lying on a bier, shrouded in his tallit, began to weep.  Her mother, one of Richard Lakin's two children, rushed forward to comfort her child.  In the small, crowded room, filled with women and men, mostly in their thirties and forties, tears began to flow.

“His love overcomes even the brutality of the way he died” continued his granddaughter, fighting her way through the mounting sorrow.  “I can't believe I will never talk to him again.”

Along with all the older mourners gathered who had lost people they love, I wanted to say to this teenager, soon to celebrate her 17th birthday, “Yes, yes, you will talk to him again.  You will talk to him in your dreams, when you feel lonely, when you remember his voice and his hugs.  He is your grandfather forever and ever.”  But like everyone else, in silent submission to her pain, I kept quiet.

Richard Lakin was killed in a terror attack in Jerusalem in October 2015. Photo from Facebook

Richard Lakin made aliyah thirty years ago and met his death in a savage terrorist attack on a Jerusalem bus.  He fought valiantly through several operations before he succumbed.  The day he died our Sinai Temple group was meeting with entrepreneur Eli Wurtman, who grew up close to Lakin's son, Micah.  When our travel guide Orit Topf, told me the funeral would be in Beth Shemesh the next day, I decided to go along with a few members from our group.

We did not know what to anticipate. Funerals that get covered in the Middle East are usually bellicose affairs, with anguished accusations as prominent as weeping and mourning. We had seen the shock waves still rippling through Israel: hotels reported cancellations, tourist sites were far less crowded than before, and shops putting up “sale” signs left and right. Tension and anger was to be expected.

Yet everyone who read about him knew that Lakin's life was the antithesis of his death.  He and his wife Karen were active in the civil right movement where they grew up and believed deeply in the possibility of coexistence in their chosen home of Israel.  Back in the states they had created Camp King-Together, formed after the assassination of Martin Luther King, so children from different backgrounds could “get to know each other and establish a lasting and meaningful relationship.”

In 1984 the family came to Israel and on a fateful day thirty years later Richard was riding the bus in Jerusalem's Armon Hanatziv section. He is the third fatality from the attack carried out by two teenage terrorists from the adjoining Arab neighborhood of Jebl Mukaber.  Haim Haviv, age 78 and Alon Govberg, 51, were also killed and several others wounded.

Conducting the service was Rabbi Gilad Kariv, CEO of the Reform movement in Israel.  He spoke in measured Hebrew cadences, noting that last week's parasha was about the journey of Abraham to the land, and Richard Lakin's journey was also one of passion and devotion.  He pointedly referred to the knife wielded by Abraham at the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, a knife designated by God and prevented from doing harm, and contrasted it to the knife that fell on Richard and his fellow passengers, a murderous implement that did appalling and grievous harm.

Rabbi Kariv framed the sorrow, quoting the Mishna and Bialik, offering questions but no answers.  It was Lakin's family — his wife Karen and son Micah, his daughter  Manya, and in particular his granddaughter Shachar– who gave the love and color to a man whose life was devoted to education and affection.  Lakin spent years as a principal in Glastonbury Conn.,  and there published a book called “Teaching as an Act of Love.”  Once he arrived in Israel he began teaching English to children, both Israeli and Palestinian.  His Facebook page reads at the top “coexist” with a peace sign.  His every impulse was kindness and his every path was peace. This is the man that two Arab teens, aged 13 and 15, decided they needed to stab and shoot until he was lost to those whom he loved.

Walking with the long procession to the gravesite, I listened.  There was not a word of fury.  No one shook a fist or uttered an imprecation.  There were no promises of revenge or hints of hatred.  There was an overwhelming sadness; how could such a man come to such an end?  The procession, like the service, was a paradigm of dignity and closeness and solemn reckoning with the end of a beautiful life. I wish the world had been able to walk with us, to see whom we lost, and who mourns him.  To see the soul of a people.  Instead this devout spirit will be swallowed up in bromides about the “cycle” of terror.

When Lakin's wife Karen spoke, struggling to make it through her few words, she cited Frost's famous poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  She quoted the final stanza:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But I've got promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep.

She whispered that Richard still had far to go, his work was undone, there was much more he wanted to do.  Then she promised that she, and her family, and her community, would continue the journey begun by the partner of her life. 

A brutal murder does not become evil because its victim is a kind and giving man.  But the evil is made more poignant, more painful and far more clear when the person who is targeted has done everything in his power to improve the lives of people like those who chose to slaughter him.  God's image shined through Richard Lakin and was betrayed by those who killed him.

After his body was lowered and the grave covered and the final prayers were said, we all looked at each other with sadness.  The sadness was for Lakin and his family of course, but not only for him.  It was for Israel.  We have recited the El Maleh Rachamim too many times. Dirt has been dropped on the bodies of women, men and children cruelly taken since before the first day this state was founded. I knew how many in that group had gone not to one but to countless such funerals, hoping even as hope slipped away, wondering themselves how much longer decent and even noble lives would be silenced by savagery.  And we stood ringed around the grave knowing something that compounds the pain, that the loss of an Israeli to an act of terror would not for a moment disturb the sleep of a complacent world.

Still, standing around the grave of a fellow Jew who had given so much, it was not about the world.  It was not even about the callous and evil youths who had committed this murder.  It was about an exemplary life and the enduring solidarity and support of the Jewish people.  The kaddish was for Richard Lakin, but it was for all of us, for the dreams that have died and the promise that is mourned, again and again, by a people that so desperately wants to live in peace.