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'I'm in pain as well': Grief over synagogue shooting goes beyond religious lines at Duluth vigil

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Deborah Petersen-Perlman (right) puts her arm around Toby Sillanpa, both of Duluth, as they listen to speakers and music during the vigil at Lake Avenue Plaza Monday for the victims of the Tree of Life shooting. More than 100 people attended the event. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 7
Ben Yokel of Cotton, service leader, speaks in Hebrew between speakers during Monday's vigil saying: "You may not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds." More than 100 people attended the event. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com 3 / 7
Therese Campbell of Duluth reacts as the names of those killed by the gunman in the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh are read. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 7
Marianne Connelly (left) give Therese Campbell a hug before the start of the vigil. Both live in Duluth. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 7
Deborah Petersen-Perlman rings a bell for each place of worship where congregants were killed by gun violence during Monday's vigil in Duluth. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com 6 / 7
Danny Frank of Duluth sings and plays guitar during the Duluth vigil for the victims of the Tree of Life shootings in Pittsburgh. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com7 / 7

Jim Perlman was reciting lines from the late Minnesota poet Ruth Brin when his emotions caught up with him.

"God of rain and wind, of growth and mystery;

God of sun and storm clouds, of creation and wonder ..." he read.

He started to falter, but pressed on, his voice choking:

"In your infinite mercy and lovingkindness, continue us in life;

Create our worlds afresh."

The hopeful words seemed almost incongruous, given the context. Perlman's reading came during a vigil over the noon hour on Monday at Lake Avenue and Superior Street in remembrance of the 11 victims of the shooting on Saturday at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue.

More than a hundred people gathered outdoors for Duluth's observance. It's a corner of downtown that has seen its share of noisy, raucous protests. But this observance was quiet and somber, with faces turned away from the passing traffic. They gathered under gray skies, some wearing fleece jackets and knit hats, with a few yarmulkes in evidence.

One man held a sign reading, "Will trade racists for refugees." Several held signs with the words "Disarm Hate" in rainbow colors. But most hands were empty.

At several times during the half-hour vigil, Ben Yokel repeated the same lines from Leviticus 19:16, first in Hebrew, then in English:

"Lo, ta'amod, al dam, re'echa."

"You may not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds."

Both Perlman and Yokel are members of Temple Israel, Duluth's synagogue. But the vigil went well beyond the region's Jewish population, as people from a broad spectrum shared in the painful time of reflection.

Claudie Washington, past president of the NAACP in Duluth, seemed barely able to put his thoughts into words.

"I'm in pain as well. I'm troubled by what has happened to us," Washington said, before leading the group with his deep bass voice in singing, "We Shall Overcome."

Political and policy issues had an entree in the vigil. Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, noting that Election Day is next week, suggested voters keep in mind frequent instances of gun violence.

"You have a chance to consider how events like this weigh in on the policies that can create safety or instill fear," she said.

Kathy Nelson, pastor of Peace United Church of Christ, noted that Tree of Life Synagogue, like her congregation, has "a witness of welcome to refugees."

The accused killer, Robert Bowers, had ranted online against HIAS, a Jewish immigration advocacy organization, Nelson said.

Referring to the Honduran caravan crossing Mexico in hopes of entering the United States, Nelson said, "Bowers' anti-HIAS post came at the end of a week in which our president sowed fear about migrant families in Central America."

As the vigil neared its close, Yokel read the names of each of the Tree of Life dead, including that of 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, a Holocaust survivor.

Earlier, the names of other congregations that have been affected by gun violence were read: Sikh Temple of Wisconsin; the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, S.C.; and First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

The vigil was interspersed with songs led by Temple Israel member Danny Frank. He described them later as songs of hope and songs of "how we carry ourselves as Jewish people."

Frank said he learned of the Tree of Life shooting on Saturday just after he finished leading children in the synagogue's religious school in singing.

"I was definitely stunned and heartbroken in thinking (that) we have this community of people upstairs praying; I'm downstairs in the classroom playing music with the kids, and it could just as easily have been Temple Israel," Frank said.

Temple Israel already has an officer stationed during the high holiday of Rosh Hashanah, Frank said. "But the thought that on a weekly basis we would have to have some sort of security in a place like Duluth, or really anywhere — it's a little staggering to me. ... I don't believe that any house of worship in our country should need that."