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Motive Sought For Detroit Synagogue Leader Murder

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“I am asking that everyone remain patient while investigators carefully examine every aspect of the available evidence,” said Detroit police chief James E. White.

Menachem Wecker


Detroit police found Samantha Woll, 40, president of the egalitarian Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, dead outside her home on Saturday morning. A trail of blood leading back to her home indicated to the police that she was stabbed multiple times there, the Detroit Free Press reported.

“My heart aches that we have lost someone so dedicated to serving others in such a senseless act. I’ll miss her relentless desire to serve and her bright smile seemingly everywhere across the Detroit area,” wrote Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), for whom Woll worked as deputy district director from 2019 to 2021.

In the representative’s office, Woll did “what came so naturally to her: helping others and serving constituents,” Slotkin added. “Separately, in politics and in the Jewish community, she dedicated her short life to building understanding across faiths, bringing light in the face of darkness.”

Woll also worked for six months in 2022 as political director on the campaign to elect Dana Nessel as Michigan attorney general.

“I am shocked, saddened and horrified to learn of Sam’s brutal murder. Sam was as kind a person as I’ve ever known,” the attorney general wrote. “She was driven by her sincere love of her community, state and country. Sam truly used her faith and activism to create a better place for everyone.”

James E. White, chief of the Detroit Police Department, wrote on Saturday evening that “understandably, this crime leaves many unanswered questions.”

“This matter is under investigation, and I am asking that everyone remain patient while investigators carefully examine every aspect of the available evidence,” White added. “It is important that no conclusions be drawn until all of the available facts are reviewed. An update on the investigation will be forthcoming tomorrow.”

Rabbi Jason Miller, a technology entrepreneur in the Detroit area who founded the 15-year-old Kosher Michigan certification agency and who officiates at Jewish events, told JNS that he had been numb all day since hearing about his friend’s death.

Woll was an elementary school classmate of Miller’s younger brother at Hillel Day School in Michigan, and Miller would serve as a substitute teacher for their Mishnah class. “I could tell right away how smart Sam was,” he told JNS.

Woll came often to the University of Michigan Hillel—where Miller was associate director, and Woll’s younger sister led the student board—for Shabbat services and meals “as well as anything related to social justice,” Miller said.

“Oftentimes, Sam and I would be engaged in a deep conversation at Hillel after Friday night dinner, and she would want to continue the discussion—sometimes a heated debate—so she’d join me on my walk home,” Miller told JNS.

“From Muslim-Jewish relations to Israel to reproductive rights to income inequality, Sam was always fired up,” Miller said. “She wanted to fix our broken world. This was her agenda on a daily basis.”

Even when Miller disagreed with Woll’s opinion, he respected her and was “left in awe of how much she knew and how much she cared,” he said. “She truly exemplified tikkun olam, which came from a deep place in her heart.”

In more recent discussions with Woll, Miller found “that fire was still there,” he said. “Sam’s passion was remarkable and her insight into so many issues was impressive.”

“Sam was such a kind and generous soul. Sam loved all people. She cared deeply about the livelihood, the freedom and the fairness of everyone from all walks of life,” he said. “What happened to her is so horrific, so tragic and so terrible. Our broken world is even more broken today. We’ve lost one of our globe’s best and brightest.”

Heightened tensions

Woll also served as a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC)/AJC Detroit and was a longtime American Jewish Committee lay leader.

“At this time of heightened tensions for the Jewish community around the world, it is important that all law enforcement agencies involved ensure a thorough investigation into this heinous crime and quickly apprehend and bring to justice the murderer,” the AJC stated.

“We are absolutely heartbroken over the murder of Sam Woll, a thoughtful and beloved leader, neighbor, and member of the JCRC/AJC family,” stated Asher Lopatin, a rabbi and director of JCRC/AJC Detroit. “She will forever be remembered as a ray of sunlight to all who knew her.”

“Sam personified the sacred Jewish duty of tikkun olam, to repair the world,” stated Ted Deutch, the CEO of AJC. “She was only 40 years old, and yet as a Jewish leader she had already made a profound impact in her community.”

The Detroit Jewish News named Woll to its “36 under 36” list in 2017. “By extending her hand and creating space for connection between Muslims and Jews, she has exemplified the values of healing the world,” the paper noted.

B’nai B’rith International noted that police hadn’t announced a motive. “But in time of heightened antisemitism, we are monitoring,” the organization stated.

“While the motives behind her death are yet unclear, it is worth noting that violent antisemitism has been on the rise across the United States,” wrote StandWithUs.

Huge hole in the community

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan wrote that Woll was “one of Detroit’s great young leaders.”

“Just weeks ago, I shared a day of joy with Sam at the dedication of the newly renovated Downtown Synagogue. It was a project she successfully led with great pride and enthusiasm,” Duggan stated. “Sam’s loss has left a huge hole in the Detroit community. This entire city joins with her family and friends in mourning her tragic death.”

Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue
The Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit. Credit: Dwight Burdette/Wikipedia.

“Sam was an endlessly positive, brilliant, creative, supportive, beautiful friend with a big heart and wonderful smile,” wrote Stephanie Chang, a member of the Michigan Senate. “Detroit, Michigan and the world were so lucky to have her light shine for the 40 years.” (Woll served as campaign manager on Chang’s campaign for six months in 2022.)

Mia Farrow, the actress, noted that it was “too late for Samantha Woll,” but “We must find a way to stop hatred and to raise our children to respect those of other faiths, races, nationalities.”

“Absolutely horrifying,” wrote Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women. “My heart breaks for her whole community. Such a tremendous loss.”

Randi Weingarten, who heads a teachers’ union, noted that a six-year-old child was “stabbed to death in Chicago because of Islamophobia; today a Jewish young adult stabbed to death. Heinous, hateful crimes.”

Although U.S. President Joe Biden released a statement about the murder of the boy, the president has yet to comment on the murder of Woll. Biden also mentioned the Muslim boy in an Oval Office address, about “the U.S. response to Hamas’s terrorist attacks against Israel and Russia’s ongoing brutal war Against Ukraine,” last week. “We must, without equivocation, denounce antisemitism. We must also, without equivocation, denounce Islamophobia,” he said in the address.

Writing on Facebook, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) called Woll a “friend and a member of our organizing community.”

“I have no words. She always had a sweet smile to offer and the warmest eyes to greet you. Our community is devastated and we are shocked,” the congresswoman wrote.

However, some, including Ellie Cohanim, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, have suggested that the congresswoman’s anti-Israel comments are to blame.

“I point my finger at Rep. Rashida Tlaib for spreading a blood libel against Israel and Jews,” Cohanim wrote. “Now, a Jewish member of Tlaib’s district—the president of a synagogue—Samantha Woll was found stabbed to death.”

The funeral will be held on Sunday at 3 p.m. at Hebrew Memorial Chapel in Oak Park, Mich., and via livestream.

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