Remembering Sam Woll, the Beating Heart of the Detroit Jewish Community

Sam, your story is far from over. You are inextinguishable.

This piece is in memory of Samantha Woll, the president of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit who was found murdered outside her home on October 21, 2023. She was only 40 years old, and the investigation is ongoing. 

Dear Sam,

It is 7:24 p.m. on Saturday, October 21. I am at Tomatoes Apizza on Halstead, ready for dinner and to reengage with the world. I have ordered a small green pizza and a chocolate piadina and spread out on my own over a table intended for four.

All day, I lounged and recharged, reading “Buy Yourself the Fucking Lillies” by Tara Schuster. I was thinking about how I needed to get you a copy — because sometimes you are totally out of touch with the powerhouse superwoman that you are.

I switch my phone out of airplane mode and there are so many notifications.

I first look at the message from Josh: “I’ve tried calling you a few times. Let me know that you’re ok.”

I respond, “Hey Josh. I had my phone off for Shabbat. I am good. Did something happen?”

And then I call Steph.

And then I know.

You, Sam, were found stabbed outside your home. You, Sam Woll, beacon of light in our tight-knit Jewish community of Detroit, had been murdered. You, my dear friend Sam, were gone.

And that is it. That is forever the line in my life, and the lives of so many others: the line dividing time with and without you. And that line is grossly misplaced. The line is 80 years before its time. The line is a knife cutting all our hearts into halves.

I have 11 years of memories of you, and that is not even a fraction of enough time together, alive.

Photo (L) by Jamie Feldman, Photo (R) courtesy of Yevgeniya Gazman

You came to me — or I came to you — during a time when I needed you most: in the midst of the first off-the-charts manic episode of my life with bipolar disorder. When I attended that first Kabbalat Shabbat at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue that you led, the energy was exhilarating and transcendent. You had such a distinct voice. You annunciated every word. You knew every melody and variation of every blessing and psalm we sang. You took the time to prepare prayers with non-male pronouns for God. I immediately loved being near you as I tried to learn in the hope of one day keeping up.

In synagogue and beyond, you didn’t just lead, but carved a new path forward and empowered others to join you, not as followers, but as leaders in our own right, with a shared love and pride of being Jewish.

I wanted to be with you no matter the ask. So I said yes to anything you invited me to. We canvassed for local politicians together, walking in the rain from door to door. You invited me to parties with local democratic leaders, and I buzzed around as the unofficial photographer, snapping photos of all the amazing women in attendance that night. I watched, under your vision and leadership, as you flipped a deep red district flipped blue.

In turn, you supported my endeavors, like when you came to my storytelling show. You listened as I spoke openly about my diagnosis, and afterward said, “You are an inspiration.” And I couldn’t imagine a higher compliment, especially coming from the person I admired so much.

And then, last November, after a coffee date with our mutual friend Laura, our relationship deepened yet again — from Jewish community members, to inspirations, to friends. During a window of stability in my mental health, I finally felt like an adult version of myself for the first time since high school graduation, and that I could be a better friend to you.

On the night of October 7, 2023, we were together at the Downtown Synagogue. Rabbi Silverman navigated us through that impossible duality of agony and joy as the first day of the war collided into Simchat Torah. We held the Torah scrolls. We went into the streets of Detroit, our city, and danced and sang and walked proudly and defiantly.

As I started walking to my car to head home, I heard my name. I turned around. You invited me to join you and some other long-time members at Cafe D’Mongos. Five of us squeezed into a booth. We ordered drinks and bounced to the live music and overflowed with joy and solidarity.

Because that is who you were: You were at your best surrounded by community. You were effortlessly yet meticulously and proudly Jewish. Your cup overflowed with joy and gratitude. And you knew exactly how to lift up others and empower all to build a community together worthy of God’s presence on earth.

Oh Sam! Your story, our story, is far from over. You are inextinguishable. You inspired and empowered so many. And we will do likewise, in your memory.

Yevgeniya Gazman

Yevgeniya Gazman (she/her/hers) is the founder and creative force of YGazm Art, LLC. She immigrated to the United States at age 9 as a Jewish refugee from the Soviet Union. She is a regular contributing writer to the Detroit Jewish News and Nu? Detroit.

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