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Detroit Jewish leader’s death reverberates in community already reeling from losses abroad

Samantha Woll
Hebrew Memorial Chapel
Samantha Woll

Update: Wednesday, November 8, 5:10 p.m.

Detroit Police said Wednesday that they have arrested a suspect in the October stabbing death of Samantha Woll, the former president of a Detroit synagogue.

Police said the details of the case will remain confidential, so they did not release the name of the suspect, a potential motive, or any other details.

Officers have said Woll’s death was not motivated by antisemitism. Last month, Detroit Police Chief James White said he does not believe that any other communities are in danger in connection with the attack.

Original post: Monday, October 23, 6:19 p.m.

The Detroit Police Department says the killing of the president of a Detroit synagogue was not the result of antisemitism.

Detroit Police Chief James White has not named or arrested a suspect yet, but he says the details of Samantha Woll’s death do not point towards a hate crime.

Samantha Woll, 40, was found Saturday morning with multiple stab wounds and a trail of blood leading back to her home.

Woll was the president of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue and was involved in many interfaith organizations, including the Muslim-Jewish Forum of Detroit.

She was heavily involved in local, state, and national politics, working for U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (MI-07), Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, and state Sen. Stephanie Chang.

Safety concerns high amid Middle East situation

Woll’s death comes at a moment of high tension in metro Detroit’s Jewish and Muslim communities, as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues after an attack by Hamas that Israeli officials say killed 1,400 people and took hundreds of hostages.

Palestinian officials say more than 5,000 people have died, including 436 in the last 24 hours, as Israel continues to conduct airstrikes.

“I think and, you know, with everything going on, the Jewish community has been very scared and nervous and on edge,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin of the Kehillat Etz Chayim in Oak Park. Lopatin is also the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which Woll had been a part of. “And I know other communities as well, the Muslim community also probably. So we've all been on our edge.”

Chief White tacitly acknowledged this anxiety during a Monday press conference, and sought to reassure the public that investigators believe the person who killed Woll acted alone – and that Woll’s killer does not pose a danger to the greater public.

“We're always concerned with retaliation with any homicide and certainly the international situation that we find ourselves in now brings us additional concern,” White said. “Our goal is to be transparent with the community, be transparent as to where we are to alleviate concerns that those may have that others are at risk.”

“Everyone loved Sam”: Woll brought people together in life, in work

Woll’s death came with an outpouring of support from local community members, politicians and people around the world.

“We have in this room Muslims and Hindus, Catholics and Christians and Jews and all kinds of races,” Lopatin told the crowd of hundreds gathered at Woll’s memorial on Sunday. “And everyone, everyone loved Sam and was affirmed by Sam.”

Speaker after speaker noted Woll’s kindness and ability to bring people together.

“Whenever someone would say, ‘Tell me about your sister.’ I would answer,” Woll’s sister Monica Woll Rosen said. “There was literally not anyone more caring or thoughtful than you. If someone complimented something of yours, you took it off and gave it to them. There is nothing you wouldn't do for your family and friends.”

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, whose campaign Woll worked on, also spoke at the memorial.

“Sam was said to be kind and caring and compassionate, sincere, loving, a tenacious advocate and supporter of social justice, a woman of great faith with a passion for equal treatment for all people in every space. This was not an opinion. This was a fact. This wasn't just how Sam presented to some people. It was how Sam treated each and every person who ever came into her life.”

In an interview with Michigan Radio, Lopatin noted the pain of Woll’s loss, “and yet I really want people to continue her legacy,” he said. “And I think there's been so much tough news over the last few weeks and we might want to give up on peace and on hope and all of these kind of things. … And yet I still see her smiling down and saying, don't give up. We can, we can do this. ... And that's what I want people to hold on to.”

Briana Rice is Michigan Public's criminal justice reporter. She's focused on what Detroiters need to feel safe and whether they're getting it.
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