On 9/11, Remembering Danny Lewin

By | September 11, 2020

By Joel Leyden
Israel News Agency

New York — September 11, 2020 … As America marks the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks that claimed nearly 3,000 lives, the Israel News Agency focuses on the death of one victim. His name is Daniel Lewin, a man who defines the word hero.

It is believed that Danny Lewin was the first victim of 9/11. Seated in seat 9B aboard American Airlines Flight 11, he saw Islamic Jihadists Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari, sitting in front of him, rise and walk over to the cockpit. According to calls from flight attendants Betty Ong and Madeline Amy Sweeney to air traffic officials, later documented in the 9/11 Commission’s report, Lewin responded within seconds. Having served as an officer in the Sayeret Matkal, the Israel Defense Forces’ most elite anti-terror unit, he moved to take down the terrorists.

As Lewin focused on what was taking place at the front of the aircraft, he never saw the man behind him in seat 10B, Satam al-Suqami, who took out a knife and slit his throat.

Less than 30 minutes later, at 8:46 a.m., the plane crashed into One World Trade Center, the North Tower.

Danny was the co-founder of Akamai Technologies. A resident of the Boston area, a young 31 years of age, Danny was born to be a leader and an inspiration to all he met. He excelled in each and every one of his endeavors, whether it be as a distinguished IDF soldier, student, scientist, business figure and family man. With a multitude of interests, and a larger than life presence, Danny’s passion, brilliant mind and warm smile were only some of his endearing qualities.

Dedicated to his family, Danny possessed a unique ability to balance both the daily demands of academia and the workplace, with a constant flow of affection for his wife and children.

While his accomplishments began to grow, along with his circle of friends, his modesty remained intact. He founded Akamai Technologies, in 1998, with his professor F. Tom Leighton and fellow graduate student, Jonathan Seelig. In a short time, and under Danny’s dedicated leadership and vision, Akamai grew to be one of the top technology companies in the world.

As chief technology officer, he was responsible for Akamai’s research and development strategy, creating innovative Internet infrastructure services that would produce an entirely new industry segment, and change the way people and companies distribute content, data, and applications.

Akamai at the time of Danny’s death had 1,100 employees and a large global customer base.

Born in Denver, Colorado, Danny immigrated to Israel with his family in 1984. Upon completing public high school, ORT, in Jerusalem, Danny served for four years in the Israel Defense Forces. He earned the rank of captain in the IDF’s most respected combat unit.

Following his active military service, Danny was married in Jerusalem and began studies at the Technion, Israel’s highly respected technology university in Haifa. Soon after, Danny worked at IBM’s research laboratory in Haifa, where he was a full-time research fellow and project leader while simultaneously completing two undergraduate degrees, computer science and mathematics summa cum laude, and celebrating the birth of his first son.

In 1995, the Technion named him the year’s Outstanding Student in Computer Engineering. At IBM, Danny was responsible for the development and support of the company’s Genesys system, a processor verification tool that is used widely within IBM and in other companies such as AMD & SGS Thompson.

In 1996, Danny and his wife, Anne, welcomed their second son and moved to Cambridge, Mass. where he received a scholarship to study at MIT under the tutelage of MIT Professor, and soon to become close friend, Tom Leighton.

He published and presented several breakthrough papers at top computer science conferences and received several awards, including the 1998 Morris Joseph Lewin Award for Best Masterworks Thesis Presentation at MIT.

His Master’s thesis included some of the fundamental algorithms that embrace the core of Akamai’s services. He received a Master’s degree from MIT in 1997 and was a Ph.D. candidate in the Algorithms groups at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science upon his death.

His passion for risk, and an affinity for speed and freedom, was also demonstrated by his love for motorcycles, sports cars, and skiing. His love of country and appreciation for culture was shown in his early training in classical music and his knowledge of Israel’s politics and history.

Of all the challenges Danny took on, the IDF Sayeret Matkal – the legendary commando unit that shaped many of Israel’s modern-day leaders, from Ehud Barak to Benjamin Netanyahu – Lewin stood out. At a shiva call after Lewin’s murder, for example, one army friend recalled observing Lewin during one exhausting exercise and was surprised when noticing the usually fit runner lagging a bit behind. When the friend asked Lewin if everything was alright, Danny smiled and said that he thought the unit’s training was insufficiently rigorous and had therefore decided to challenge himself and pack his bag with twice as much weight.

Danny left behind one of the most creative and successful technologies the world has ever known and a legacy that urges us, as he had urged himself, to rise up, work harder, demand better and believe that everything is possible.

In addition to his many friends and colleagues, he is survived by a close-knit family. Danny was a devoted husband to Anne, his companion throughout adulthood, a fellow immigrant to Israel, and a student and teacher of art and literature; a loving father to sons Eitan and Itamar; loyal son of Drs. Charles and Peggy Levine, and brother to Jonathan and Michael, of Jerusalem.

Leighton, who helped keep Akamai going in the dark days after Lewin’s death, witnessed Akamai becoming a multibillion-dollar company active in cybersecurity. He thinks that Lewin may have gone in that direction, using both his mathematical mind and his military training to fight terrorism.

“I think he could have done whatever he decided he wanted to do,” says Leighton. “I think his potential was limitless.”

Lewin’s legacy is highly honored at Akamai. His portrait, painted by the mother of an employee, hangs in the lobby of the company’s headquarters at Cambridge Center. Every year, on September 11,  Leighton and company executives hold a memorial tribute  to Lewin in a small courtyard adjacent to Akamai.

In the far corner of the square,  they dedicated an apple tree to Danny and at its roots is a plaque in his name. A block away,  the intersection of Main and Vassar streets was named Danny Lewin Square. 

Today, Akamai has offices around the world,  more than 3,500 employees, and a market capitalization of $6.9 billion. In 2012, the company purchased the Israeli company Cotendo, one of its largest competitors,  in a deal valued at $268 million. With the acquisition, Akamai finally realized Danny’s dream of a presence in Israel. 

One thing is almost certain, that Lewin was the first person to die in the 9/11 attacks. He responded without doubt or delay as a confident and skilled IDF combat fighter would respond in seeing those around him being threatened.

He gave his life to save others. Danny may not have been able to save Flight 11, but he has left us with sacred values that have and will continue to inspire thousands in the days and years to come. That we need not be passive passengers in this short trek of life but rather brave pilots who strive to protect and defend the path ahead for our family, friends and even the strangers who sit among us.

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