Saturday, October 21, 2023

Sam Woll - A Charismatic, Passionate Pursuer of Peace and Justice

“Rabbi, our Hillel needs to stop buying Coke products.”

This was the first thing Samantha Woll said to me when I started my new job at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in 2004. It was odd hearing Sam call me “Rabbi.” First, I had only very recently been ordained so I still wasn’t used to the title. And, second, I had known Sam since she was in elementary school – a classmate and friend of my younger brother – so the formality felt unnecessary and perhaps dramatic. But Sam was being respectful.

Ban Coke at Hillel? I thought the request seemed odd. I grew up in a home that never had Pepsi because that company adhered to a boycott of Israel when I was a kid. I seem to recall my mom telling me that Jews drink Coke and non-Jews drink Pepsi. Looking back it seems like she was getting her information less from Middle East politics and more from Lenny Bruce.

I listened to Sam’s impassioned arguments that the Coca-Cola corporation was complicit in human rights abuses and environmental violations in Colombia and India. She knew her stuff. I would come to learn that about Sam Woll – agree or disagree with her, she always knew the facts of the case. As Sam continued her argument about why not only Hillel should stop buying Coca-Cola products, but the entire University should suspend their contracts, my mind immediately went to the more than 100 two-liter bottles of Coke and Sprite in the Hillel basement. We put two bottles on every table for Shabbat dinner every Friday night, not to mention all the Coke bottles we served in our daily kosher lunch program and just about every event we hosted in the building. Weekly, we’d receive deliveries of pallets of these Coke bottles. I likely had a 6-pack of Diet Coke in my office at the time and I was most likely sipping on a can as Sam pleaded her case with me. Two thoughts crossed my mind after that conversation with Sam. One, this energetic young person was going to be an amazing congresswoman someday. And, two, what had I gotten myself into with this new job? 

I hadn’t planned to be a Hillel rabbi. After six years at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, I had only looked for jobs at synagogues around the country. But, with a newborn baby and all of our family in the Metro Detroit area, when I got a call from the executive director I jumped at the opportunity. Looking back it was the ideal first job for me as a rabbi. Precisely because of students like Samantha Woll. 

Sam taught me how to listen. She would ride her bicycle with the wide handlebars to Hillel wearing her hippy-slash-Modern Orthodox chic clothing with a large scarf and a bandana in her jet-black curls. Sam was a regular at Shabbat dinners and holiday meals, often bringing her non-Jewish friends to join her. She had friends in just about every faith community on campus. She was involved in anything related to social justice. Sam was the chairperson of both the Tzedek (social action) group and the VIA (Volunteers in Action) group. She seemed to show up at every event. Usually at the tail end. And she’d stay long after most people had left, sticking around to engage in heated discussions. Sam was captivating when she spoke. She always spoke from her heart, but she was whip-smart too. What a combination! When you talked with Sam she would always look you directly in the eyes and her gaze stayed there throughout the discussion. She would let you talk and her active listening skills were evident as she nodded repeatedly to your every argument. But then she would take over and you had no choice but to listen. Our mantra at Hillel was that the students run the show and the staff was there in a supporting role. It was an important first stop for me in my rabbinate because it taught me the value of stepping back and letting the students develop their leadership skills. I learned to hear others' opinions and consider different ways of thinking about a myriad of important topics. I was the rabbi at Hillel, but Samantha Woll was my teacher there. 

Oftentimes, Sam and I would be engaged in a deep conversation at Hillel after Friday night dinner and she would want to continue the discussion so she'd join me on my walk home. I remember watching in awe as Sam debated with an Orthodox student about the Jewish view of abortion during a Passover lunch. From Muslim-Jewish relations to Israel to income inequality to the Coca-Cola corporation, Sam was always fired up. She was a Zionist. She was an advocate. She wanted to fix our broken world. This was Sam’s agenda on a daily basis.

I might not have always agreed with her opinion, but I respected it and I was always left in awe of how much she knew and how much she cared. She truly exemplified tikkun olam, which came from a deep place in her heart. In 2005, Sam was presented with an award at our annual end-of-the-year gala for her dedication to tzedakah (charitable righteousness) and social action.

In more recent years, I relived these discussions with Sam and that fire was still there. Whenever I saw her, she would ask me, "How's Jake?" She was genuinely interested to know how my brother was doing. We sat together at a Hillary Clinton event in 2016. We immediately became engaged in a discussion about the campaign, the impact of the upcoming election, and the issues with which Sam was involved. As Hillary approached our section, Sam handed me her phone and I took a photo of these two remarkable women. 

At the end of February 2020 (right before the pandemic), I was a guest rabbi at a synagogue in Lansing for Shabbat. Seeing Sam's friendly face in the congregation made my day. When I saw her walk into the hallway, I left the service and followed her out so we could catch up. Sam invited me to an Elissa Slotkin event the next day and explained why she found Elissa to be the type of politician she could back 100%. Again, Sam's passion was remarkable and her insight into so many issues was impressive. 

The past couple of summers, Sam and her parents and her sister's family have been at Camp Michigania during the same week as our family. This past summer, Sam eagerly told me about the renovation project of her beloved Downtown Synagogue, where she had been serving as the congregational president. She told me about the work she was doing with Dana Nessel, Michigan's Attorney General. And of course, she told me (with that same fire) about the many social justice initiatives she was working on in the City of Detroit. The revitalization of Detroit was one of Sam's righteous causes and her role as a change agent has been obvious.

Sam was such a kind and generous soul. Sam loved all people. She cared deeply about the livelihood, freedom, and fairness that everyone, from all walks of life, deserved. There’s a photo that’s been circulating on social media of Sam holding a Torah scroll close to her body on the Detroit River Walk. When I first saw the photo I immediately thought that Samantha Woll is literally holding the Torah close to her heart just as she has always held her own torah close to her heart. Her deeply held convictions and her sense of justice – those were the values that made up Sam’s torah

What happened to her is so horrific, so tragic and so terrible. Our broken world is even more broken now that Sam has left us. We've lost one of our globe's best and brightest. May the memory of Samantha Woll be for blessings and may her family and all who loved Sam find comfort during this time of shock and sorrow. 

Rabbi Jason Miller taught Samantha Woll’s 8th grade Mishna class at Hillel Day School as a substitute teacher and had the honor of learning with and from her at the University of Michigan Hillel. He is not the least bit surprised that the University of Michigan suspended its contracts with the Coca-Cola corporation in 2006 as a result of pressure from students like Sam. He also considers himself a better human being for having known Sam Woll, z”l.

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