Samantha Woll, Detroit synagogue president, found stabbed to death outside her home
Samantha Woll, president of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit, welcomes attendees to the congregation’s centennial celebration and groundbreaking on a major renovation project, Aug. 14, 2022.
Photo: Andrew Lapin/Jewish Telegraphic Agency

By Ron Kampeas

(JTA) — Samantha Woll, a Democratic activist and prominent Jewish lay leader in Detroit, was stabbed to death outside her home.

Police found Woll, 40, at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday in the city’s Lafayette Park neighborhood, local media said. She had been stabbed multiple times and was unresponsive. A trail of blood led to her home, which police believe may be the scene of the crime, the Detroit Free Press reported. No motive was known.

Woll’s murder comes at a time of high alert for U.S. Jews, following Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel Oct. 7 and widespread protests against Israel’s ensuing war in Gaza. A public call by a former Hamas leader for global protests against Jews caused some Jewish institutions to close or fortify themselves last week, including in the Detroit area, which is home to one of the largest Palestinian communities in the United States.

Local authorities offered no indication of a connection between current events and Woll’s murder, and Jewish leaders cautioned against jumping to conclusions. “As we mourn her tragic passing, we urge the community to refrain from speculation and allow law enforcement to gather facts,” the Anti-Defamation League’s Michigan office said in a statement on X.

“There are no known threats to the community at this time,” the Jewish Federation of Detroit said in an alert to the community. “No evidence has been shared to indicate this was a targeted act motivated by antisemitism.”

Still, some prominent public figures drew connections between Woll’s murder and the current crisis. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who is Jewish, linked Woll’s death to the reportedly anti-Muslim murder last week of a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy in Chicago. Eric Ward, executive vice president of Race Forward, a racial justice advocacy group, wrote on X, “We who are responsible for irresponsible rhetoric and tone setting aren’t the ones burying our dead. Please, please, please. Be serious in your leadership and know your words can be the accessory to murder here and abroad.”

Woll was the president of the non-denominational Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, one of  the only Jewish congregations left in the city of Detroit. Since last year, she has led an ambitious expansion of the synagogue which aimed to make it a central part of the renewal of the city’s Jewish community.

“We are shocked and saddened to learn of the unexpected death of Samantha Woll, our Board President,” the synagogue said in an alert it sent its congregants. “At this point we do not have more information, but will share more when it becomes available.”

In 2017, the Detroit Jewish News listed Woll as one of its 36 Jews to watch under the age of 36. In particular, it noted her role in cofounding the Muslim-Jewish Forum of Detroit. “By extending her hand and creating space for connection between Muslims and Jews, she has exemplified the values of healing the world,” it said.

She was also politically active, having previously worked for U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, the Jewish Democrat now running for Senate, and last year on the reelection campaign of Dana Nessel, Michigan’s Jewish attorney general.

Nessel, Slotkin and other Michigan political figures paid tribute to Woll on social media. Slotkin, writing on X, formerly known as Twitter, recalled a woman as dedicated to her politics as she was to her faith. Woll was Slotkin’s deputy district director from 2019 to 2021.

“Separately, in politics & in the Jewish community, she dedicated her short life to building understanding across faiths, bringing light in the face of darkness,” she said.

Hannah Lindow, who was a spokeswoman for Slotkin when Woll worked for the congresswoman, recalled Woll’s warmth. “Sam’s smile is unforgettable,” Lindow said in an email. “That she lent her energy and optimism to improve the lives of those around her is a blessing. I am grateful to have known her immense kindness and deep dedication to service.”

Noah Arbit, a state legislator who was her friend, wrote on Facebook that Woll “believed in the city and the people of Detroit, and her deep commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people reflected in all of her work.”

Andy Levin, the former Democratic congressman, met Woll in 2016 when he helped found Detroit Jews for Justice. The group launched that fall with a retreat at a campground in western Michigan. There was an exercise where participants paired off for “one on ones”, where they exchanged insights. Levin was paired with Woll.

“She was so full of idealism, and passion for justice, and so after that, we always stayed close,” he said. “I can’t process losing Sam Woll at the age of 40. That’s not what’s supposed to happen. I can’t believe I won’t see her. I cannot believe I won’t see her when I go to a Detroit Jews for Justice event or go to the Downtown Synagogue or go to the Eastern Market.”

Rashida Tlaib, the Detroit-area Democratic congresswoman, who is Palestinian-American, wrote on Facebook, “My friend, and a member of our organizing community, Sam Woll, was murdered. 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. Please keep her family and our community in your prayers.”

Throughout her adult life, Woll was active in the Jewish community, including at the University of Michigan’s Hillel and as a co-chairwoman of the American Jewish Committee’s ACCESS Detroit Young Leadership Program. She was also on the board of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan.

Halie Soifer, the CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, and a Michigander, had been aware of Woll as a rising star, and saw Woll’s skills as a leader on a JDCA lobbying day in June. The Michigan JDCA faction chose Woll to help lead discussions with the state’s lawmakers on abortion access, threats to democracy, antisemitism and Israel.

“She was chosen to speak and lead a portion of the meeting because she was such a gifted leader and advocate and she spoke with passion and deep commitment to these issues, she tied in personal stories” Soifer recalled in an interview. “This is devastating.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan recalled dedicating the rebuilt Downtown Synagogue, a $6 million project, with Woll in August.

“Just weeks ago, I shared a day of joy with Sam at the dedication of the newly renovated Downtown Synagogue,” he said in a statement. “It was a project she successfully led with great pride and enthusiasm.”

The synagogue, founded in 1921, was one of only two free standing Jewish place of worship remaining in the city, along with a Chabad center. Woll sought to make the synagogue a locus of a Jewish revival as the children and grandchildren of Jews who decades ago moved to the suburbs are returning as the city undergoes a renewal.

At the groundbreaking a year earlier, Woll likened the synagogue’s renewal to ancient works of the Jewish people.

“In the coming together to build and renovate a physical space, this has also been a very spiritual act, in a way similar to building the Temple in Biblical times,” she said.

Woll is survived by her parents, Margo and Douglas Woll, and her sister, Monica.

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