President of Detroit synagogue stabbed to death

Local police stress motive not yet known in murder of Samantha Woll, request FBI help with investigation; Jewish federation says ‘no known threats at this time’

Samantha Woll, president of the board at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, in Detroit, was found dead outside her near-downtown home on October 21.  (David Guralnick/Detroit News via AP)
Samantha Woll, president of the board at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, in Detroit, was found dead outside her near-downtown home on October 21. (David Guralnick/Detroit News via AP)

DETROIT — The president of a Detroit synagogue was found dead with stab wounds outside her home on Saturday, as local police cautioned against speculation over the motive for the murder.

Police requested FBI assistance in investigating the slaying of Samantha Woll, 40, who presided over the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, which serves metropolitan Detroit.

“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.”

Police Chief James White urged “that everyone remain patient” while the investigation is underway despite “many unanswered questions.”

“It is important that no conclusions be drawn until all of the available facts are reviewed,” White said in a statement. “An update… will be forthcoming tomorrow.”

The murder came amid escalating tensions in Jewish and Muslim communities across the United States over the Israel-Hamas war sparked by the Gaza-ruling terror group’s deadly onslaught in southern Israel on October 7 and widespread protests against Israel’s military response in Gaza. A public call by a former Hamas terror group leader for global protests against Jews led 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.

Emergency personnel found Woll dead “with multiple stab wounds to her body,” police said. A trail of blood led officers to Woll’s nearby home, “which is where the crime is believed to have occurred.”

The motive in the killing “is unknown,” a police statement added.

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.

A law enforcement agent walks near the scene near the scene where a Detroit synagogue president, Samantha Woll, was found dead in Detroit on October 21, 2023. (David Rodriguez Munoz/Detroit Free Press via AP)

The Detroit office of the FBI told AFP in an email that it “will assist the Detroit Police Department as requested.”

The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit said Jewish security officials have been in touch with law enforcement about the case.

“No evidence has been shared to indicate this was a targeted act motivated by antisemitism,” the federation said in a statement on its Facebook page. “We are all eager to understand the circumstance’s of Samantha’s death.”

It also said “there are no known threats at this time.”

Still, some prominent public figures drew connections between Woll’s murder and the current crisis, among them Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the New York Democrat who is the minority leader in the US House of Representatives.

“While we learn more about the motivation behind this senseless attack, it comes at a time where too many Americans, including our Jewish sisters and brothers, have reason to fear for their safety based on who they are or what they believe,” he said in a statement.

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.”

In this photo released by Kimberly Bush, Samantha Woll, left, poses with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on September 4, 2022, in Royal Oak, Michigan. (Kimberly Bush via AP)

Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli said on Sunday morning that he believed Woll’s death was “to my sorrow” connected to antisemitism and the Israel-Hamas war, but stressed that the authorities investigating the case had given no official information to that effect.

Woll, who led the synagogue since 2022, was also active in Democratic Party affairs, working for US congresswoman Elissa Slotkin and on the campaign of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, the Detroit Free Press said.

“I am shocked, saddened and horrified to learn of Sam’s brutal murder. Sam was as kind a person as I’ve ever known,” Nessel posted on X, formerly Twitter.

Slotkin also commented on X, saying she was “heartbroken at this news.”

Governor Gretchen Whitmer said Woll’s death was heartbreaking and that Michigan State Police were assigned to support the Detroit Police Department in the investigation.

“She was a source of light, a beacon in her community who worked hard to make Michigan a better place,” the governor said.

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.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan issued a statement saying he was “devastated” to learn of Woll’s death.

“Sam’s loss has left a huge hole in the Detroit community,” the mayor said. “This entire city joins with her family and friends in mourning her tragic death.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in southwest Detroit on June 22, 2023. (Corey Williams/AP)

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.

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.

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.”

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