The brutal murder of Detroit Jewish community leader Samantha Woll has left feelings of intense grief and confusion, but some say they take solace in an assurance from police that there is no evidence suggesting her stabbing was motivated by antisemitism.
The Detroit Police Department continues to investigate after Woll was found dead Saturday morning in a pool of blood outside her home in the Lafayette Park neighborhood.
DPD Chief James White said Monday that police are interviewing multiple persons of interest, but have no reason to believe the incident was motivated by antisemitism. White said during an afternoon news conference that the murderer is believed to have worked alone and does not pose a risk to the Jewish community at large.
“That is what we know at this time,” White said. “There are several factors that have led us to this conclusion. We are not in a position to discuss all of them at this point.”
Woll became president of the board of directors at Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in 2022. The synagogue reopened to the public in August after a decade-long fundraising and renovation effort that Woll played a key role in. Rabbi Ariana Silverman, who leads the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, said Woll was integral to the Jewish community.
“When Sam would come into the sanctuary, she would catch my eyes and she would smile,” Silverman said during a eulogy at Woll’s funeral on Sunday. “Sam’s incredible smile was contagious. No matter what I was doing, I couldn’t help but smile back.”
When BridgeDetroit interviewed Woll in August, she was excited about the future and expressed a strong motivation to rejuvenate the Jewish community in Detroit.
“When I moved to the city, one of the first things I did was look for a Jewish community and find this beautiful place,” Woll said in August. “I walked in and there was singing, and it was lively and people were really welcoming. I was hooked.”
Tony Dillof is a board member of the Reconstructionist Congregation of Detroit who also lives “a stone’s throw” from Woll. He said Monday that Detroit Jews feel a “general relief” that police have said there is no evidence suggesting her death was a hate crime.
“Relations between Jews and Muslims in Detroit are not at a point of high-tension and aggravation, probably less than other cities in the United States,” Dillof said. “Part of that is because we had people like Sam who worked to improve relations and reach out to the other side.”
Rabbi Asher Lopatin said Woll was a strong progressive voice who had a “non-binary” approach to political discussions that allowed her to bridge divides with people who disagreed with her. Woll was known for having a beautiful smile and nodding as people spoke to her, Lopatin said, which showed her attentiveness.
Woll’s death sent shockwaves through the Jewish community, and comes asthey are dealing with grief stemming from Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israeli civilians, Lopatin said.
“This is a traumatized, scared community,” Lopatin said. “When one of our own, and one we’re so proud of, is so brutally killed, it is very scary. While we have very strong differences with many in the Muslim and Arab American community, we have very good relations with those communities.”
Woll was founder of the Muslim-Jewish Forum in Detroit, which sought to build relationships between young people in those communities. Her death drew national attention on social media from people who speculated the attack may have been a response to Israel’s war with Hamas, a group viewed by the U.S. and many other nations as a terrorist organization.
Several peaceful demonstrations and vigils condemning the killing of Palestinian civilians have been held in metro Detroit this month, led by Palestinian Americans with relatives in Gaza.
Statements from the American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League of Michigan noted Woll’s death comes during a time of heightened tensions for the Jewish community, but urged the community to refrain from speculation. New York Mayor Eric Adams, who represents the largest community of Jews in the world, said Woll’s brutal death “feeds into the fear our Jewish brothers and sisters are feeling.”
White was adamant that the evidence does not suggest a hate crime.
“This is a two-day investigation that is ongoing, but we were very cautious in (not) making that declaration too early,” White said. “We did a lot of work that gave us the confidence we have now that it’s not (a hate crime) as we stand here right now. We’re not ruling out anything. We’re looking at every aspect of this case. We’re going to go where the information and evidence takes us.”
Dillof said it’s inappropriate to speculate on the cause of Woll’s death while police are still investigating.
“Whatever the circumstances of her death were, this is a tragedy,” he said.
Lopatin said Woll was loyal to the Jewish community and a proud Zionist, but sought compassion and did not make enemies.
“When we think of people who are in passionate disagreement and even anger, when we think ‘how could those people ever get along,’ think of Sam,” Lopatin said. “Sam was loved by everybody. Think of Sam’s smile and her ability to see the humanity in every individual.”
Woll served as the co-chair of the American Jewish Committee’s ACCESS Detroit Young Leadership Program and a board member of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan. She was raised in West Bloomfield and moved back to Detroit in 2012 after working in California, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Woll worked on the campaigns of prominent Michigan Democrats including U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, and Attorney General Dana Nessel.
Nessel and Chang spoke highly of Woll during tearful eulogies at her funeral, calling her a tenacious advocate for equal rights. Chang said Woll’s work with inter-faith leaders made a lasting impact.
“Samantha Woll may have been the nicest person I have ever met or will ever meet in my lifetime,” Nessel said Sunday. “Her killer will not rob us of the memory of her joy and warmth and kindness she leaves behind in all of us and all she’s done.”
Police: Working theories, no suspects
Woll left a wedding late Friday and returned to her home around 12:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 21. A 911 call led police to Woll’s body around 6:30 a.m. that morning, where Woll was pronounced dead, White said.
Police discovered a trail of blood leading to her home, where police believe the crime occurred. White said police believe Woll had been lying outside her home for “quite a while” before being found.
White said police have a “working theory” on the possible motive, but declined to reveal specifics. He said there were no signs of forced entry in Woll’s home. White declined to say whether persons of interest that police are interviewing were known to Woll.
White said Woll’s body had several stab wounds, but declined to provide additional details that he said are only known to police and the murderer.
“That number (of stab wounds) is important for us to keep close,” White said. “It could be one piece of evidence that breaks the case open, if we’re talking to the right suspect who would know that.”
Cpl. Dan Donakowski told BridgeDetroit on Monday that police are interviewing neighbors and working with the FBI to review forensic evidence. White said police are reviewing Green Light surveillance footage and other cameras to find possible suspects. This includes seeking warrants on Amazon Ring doorbell cameras from neighboring homes.
“One of the things that’s of particular interest to us is when she left the wedding, does a vehicle appear with her and more than one stop?,” White said. “We’ll be tracking her entire route digitally that she took from the wedding to see if anyone was following.”
White said residents who live near Woll’s home on Joliet Place have no reason to fear for their safety. Dillof said the neighborhood feels like an “oasis.” It’s protected by trees, with distinctive homes designed by renowned 20th-century architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
“Although we have low-level crime, for example car break-ins, there have been no acts of serious violence perpetrated by outsiders to my knowledge. This was something nobody expected and tragic that it befell Sam.”
Her funeral Sunday afternoon brought roughly 1,000 people to Hebrew Memorial Chapel in Oak Park. Friends and family described her as a committed advocate for social justice. Dr. Monica Woll Rosen said her sister’s last text message was a heart emoji, and another friend received birthday flowers Woll sent before her death.
Rosen said her sister “deeply wanted peace” and “forged a path to feel more connected with humanity.”
“Teaching kindness matters and so does living it,” Rosen said in a Sunday eulogy. “We would do well to follow in Sam’s footsteps even when others in our midst choose not to.”