Remembering Samantha Woll

As the trial of Samantha Woll’s accused killer approaches, a heartbroken community honors her memory and secures her legacy of ”tikkun olam.”
Samantha Woll, 40, president of the Isaac Agree Down- town Synagogue, was killed Oct. 21, 2023. // Photograph by Jamie Feldman

The one thing Samantha Woll’s family would like you to know is that Sam was the kindest person you could ever meet. “She treated everyone with respect and dignity and a smile,” says her younger sister, Dr. Monica Woll Rosen. “It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from — she was just so nice to you. If you complimented the scarf she was wearing, she would take it off and give it to you. She was very generous.”

Only now can Sam’s mother, Dr. Margo Woll, bear to discuss her older daughter again, past and present tenses colliding. “Sam was the kindest, most empathetic human being that I know. I’m not just saying that because she’s my daughter. She was as kind to a baby as she was to someone 100 years old. I got so many wonderful letters — all ages, all races, all kinds of people …” Her voice falters. “I can’t believe she’s gone. It’s just so unreal.”

The Woll family has had a six months no one would ask for. On Oct. 21, 2023, in a crime that made headlines worldwide, their daughter and sister, a 40-year-old synagogue president, political manager, and social justice activist, was stabbed to death during a predawn home invasion in Lafayette Park, a downtown neighborhood. Expressions of grief, disbelief, and shock flooded the news and the internet, from friends, co-workers, politicians. She was eulogized in the halls of Congress by U.S. Reps. Elissa Slotkin — Sam’s former boss — and Rashida Tlaib.

“Sam was a friend and ally in our social justice family,” Tlaib tells Hour Detroit. “She was an inspiration to all of us, always organizing for a better world — from progressive politics to building bridges between our Jewish and Muslim communities. I will always remember her smile. We all miss her dearly, and we will continue to demand justice for Sam and her family.”

Authorities insist her murder had no connection to the Israel-Hamas war.

In Judaism, there is a principle called tikkun olam, Hebrew for “healing the world.” For Sam and many other Jews, this concept of fixing society’s ills defines their faith and their actions. Sam came from a family of doctors — her father, Douglas, is a retired internist; her mother is a retired dentist; her sister an OB-GYN. But Sam applied her healing powers to social justice and political change, the kind that wore a smile, not a scowl.

Sam was laid to rest the day after she died, according to Jewish tradition. About 1,000 people attended her funeral at the Hebrew Memorial Home in Oak Park. At the cemetery, they waited turns to shovel dirt into her grave, at first using the back of the spade, also per Jewish tradition: to make it harder, to reinforce the task’s onerous nature.

They said a wrenching goodbye to a woman who lived a life of large ideas and small acts of kindness. Who ran at least a mile a day, rain or shine. Who had food allergies. Who loved music, especially opera and classical; who owned many, many books and had a giant Israeli flag tacked to her wall. Who listened as if you were the only person on Earth in that moment, her eyes fixed on yours as she nodded emphatically. Who often texted heart emojis to her close friends. Who helped start an interfaith forum where Muslims and Jews could find common ground. Who built community one person, one friendship, at a time. Her mother recalls the “special bond” people felt with her, even if they’d only just met.

Douglas, Sam, and Margo Woll on a rooftop in downtown Detroit. // Photograph by Jamie Feldman

Sam grew up in West Bloomfield and attended services at Congregation Beth Ahm with her family. She traveled extensively as an adult to see what the world could teach her. After college, she spent four summers working at a rape crisis center in Israel. In 2011, when she was visiting Spain, the economic protests occurred; she checked out of her hotel to join the protester encampments.

This instinct to heal through helping “was something she always felt, even as a little girl,” says Margo, who traces Sam’s awakening to the third grade at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, when she did a school project on Martin Luther King Jr. and read his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“It really resonated with her,” Margo says. “She always felt injustices in the world, that she had a roof over her head and didn’t have to worry about food or clothes, and there were people in the world who did not have anything. And even as a little girl, that always stayed with her — that it wasn’t fair and that things needed to be done about it.”

Creative and artistic, a straight-A student, Sam attended the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts summer program and the Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School, where she wrote for the school paper. As a teenager, she volunteered for a group called the Friendship Circle, which mentored children with developmental disabilities. It is now a thriving nonprofit that aids and supports 3,000 metro Detroiters with disabilities and their families. “She always had that big heart for the less fortunate,” Margo says.

At the University of Michigan, Sam majored in medieval studies and wrote for The Michigan Daily, focusing on social justice issues in print while advocating for progressive causes in the public square. In The Times of Israel, one friend, Rachel M. Roth, remembered Sam as “the very definition of life. … She wore brightly colored tie-dye t-shirts with the many causes she supported bannered across the front: flowers for battered women’s shelters, PRIDE shirts, friendship circles, danceathons, improving education in urban settings, for Israel, for Muslim-Jewish dialogue, for peace. She was an unwavering ally.”

Paul Spurgeon met Sam when both were running for student government; they became fast friends.

“At the time, she had dreadlocks, so she had a very striking appearance. I mean, she was just beautiful,” he recalls. And while Sam was a feminist Zionist, she left room for — even welcomed — differing viewpoints and beliefs. And she did not shy away from taking on major corporations.

In 2004, she argued that the University of Michigan Hillel, and indeed the entire university, should boycott Coca-Cola products because of the company’s purported human rights and environmental abuses in South America. She handed out pamphlets that read “Coke kills.” (In 2005, U-M did divest, but quickly reversed course.) This kind of full-throated advocacy landed Sam in many leadership clubs in school.

Though she was never a rabbi, Sam often helped lead services at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue. // Photograph by Jamie Feldman

“She never wanted to tear the towers down,” Spurgeon says. “She wanted to change them from the inside.”

He offers an example. At the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue (or IADS) on Griswold Street, Sam’s religious home from 2012 until her death, the first thing she did was join the Ritual Committee. Sam was a creative, out-of-the-box thinker, but she “loved ritual above all,” Spurgeon says. “She liked the idea of participating in this activity as a piece of a larger historical, very old tradition.” And of changing it from the inside: “She made sure that the genders being used for God were not solely the masculine but the feminine, too. It was through her participation on the Ritual Committee that she made that happen.”

Some reports mistakenly called her a rabbi, but Sam could hold her own with the Torah. Since IADS had no rabbi from 2003 to 2016, Sam and other lay leaders led the services in Hebrew. Yevgeniya Gazman, an attorney and artist who met Sam at the synagogue, remembers how impressed she was by the feat: “For a normal person, it takes months of preparation” to read the scrolls, “but her fluency was at a level [where] she could pick it up with little preparation.”

Sam rose to president of the board of IADS, Detroit’s only remaining freestanding synagogue. “Sam has always believed in reviving the Jewish community of Detroit,” her sister says. “It was very important to her.” Her father, Douglas, had grown up in the city before moving to the suburbs, part of a migration that sapped the city’s Jewish population.

Founded in 1921 and named for a Russian émigré, the congregation had bought the four-story building, a former men’s clothing store, in 1964. It was in rough shape: The top two floors were condemned and unused. “The hot water didn’t work,” Margo recalls, “and the elevator didn’t work. The sanctuary was on the second floor, so people with disabilities couldn’t go to the service, which really bothered Sam. The kitchen wasn’t usable. It was dilapidated and run down.”

Today, after a $5 million-plus fundraising effort and two years of construction, the synagogue has been transformed, with bright new community spaces, a children’s play area, and a functioning elevator so everyone can attend services. It looks every inch the “hub for Jewish life” Sam and the rest of the board had envisioned.

“I grew up [hearing] narratives that the city had seen its better days and it was not going to turn around,” she told BridgeDetroit in August of 2023, when the renovation was unveiled to much fanfare. “Being here and seeing all of the energy and spirit of people, there’s a new narrative in town.”

Meanwhile, Sam was also building an impressive résumé as a political consultant. She did field and volunteer work for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and was an official Detroit organizer for Hillary Clinton’s in 2016 before helping a host of Michigan politicians win office. In 2019, Sam took a job as a staffer for U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, spending a lot of time in Lansing. When the pandemic struck, she returned to Detroit and moved into the co-op in Lafayette Park.

From left: Margo, Sam, Monica, and Monica’s husband and children at the IADS grand reopening. // Photograph by Jamie Feldman

“She loved it because she could get up every morning and run down to the river,” Margo says.

Laura De Palma knew Sam in college, where “she was one of my social justice ‘sheroes.’ I remember meeting her at a political event and was blown away by her ability to connect.” Years later, they worked together on Stephanie Chang’s state House reelection campaign and Dana Nessel’s successful run for attorney general. “Sam had this incredible gift of building the most sincere and deep and authentic relationships. … She made people feel loved and valued.”

In the early morning hours of Oct. 21, hours before she died, Sam texted several friends heart emojis. De Palma was one of them. She believes that Sam would “want us to continue the work to create a more socially and environmentally just, inclusive, and equitable world. She would want us to build bridges and deepen relationships, especially during times of crisis. She would want us to carry on and move toward each other, not away from each other.”

Sam turned 40 last June. She booked the outdoor dining area at Coriander Kitchen & Farm in Jefferson Chalmers and invited 30 close friends and family members to a party. Sam had reason to celebrate. She was fielding job offers and was about to embark on the next round of fundraising for IADS’s remaining renovations. After a life of moving around, she’d planted roots.

Looking back, Sam’s sister, Monica, is glad she had that party, surrounded by people who loved her and whom she loved back, for she would never have another birthday.

For the Woll family, the last six months have been a time of grief and prayer, of accepting post-humous awards on Sam’s behalf, of honoring Sam’s memory as they brace for the trial of her accused murderer, scheduled to start on June 10. It’s sure to be closely watched, but Monica is planning some counterprogramming.

“After Sam passed, in her memory, I’ve been running a mile. I started once a week with friends, and now we’re up to 6 miles. And every week, we add a little bit more. And we decided, because she did this for her mental health and her fitness, to make a run in her memory.”

The 5K run, called “In Step with Sam: A Legacy Run,” takes place June 9 in Ann Arbor, with the proceeds going to a new foundation supporting the causes Sam believed in. One foot in front of the other, they will carry on.

This story originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of Hour Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on May 6.