AJ Solomon sat in his car snorting heroin on Thanksgiving morning 2012 when he felt a jolt of introspection. It was the day after he completed an eight-week program at an intensive outpatient facility, and he was starting to learn more about the intoxicating pull of drug addiction and how little control he had.
He turned to his friend, Justin Wolfe: “Should we really be doing this?”
AJ drunkenly dialed Justin the night before, asking if he wanted to go to Camden, N.J., to cop heroin. Justin told AJ they should wait for the morning, when AJ was sober and could drive. AJ woke up at 8 a.m. and immediately texted Justin, but now he was having doubts.
“Dude,” Justin replied. “I’ll just stop if it gets bad. I haven’t done it in a couple weeks.”
AJ and Justin grew up less than 10 miles from each other in southern New Jersey, a pair of Jewish kids with well-off parents and strong support systems. They met through a mutual friend and bonded over a shared secret, an all-consuming craving that altered their minds and upended their priorities. That would bring shame to their families and brought them to that car behind Vito’s Pizza in Cherry Hill.
“It was the last time I saw him,” AJ said.
A month later AJ found himself on the floor of his parents’ kitchen, hugging his knees to his chest, crying. Justin had died. Overdose. AJ wept not because his friend was gone, but because he feared he’d be next. A harrowing question dominated his thoughts: “Am I going to die?”
Rabbi Yosef Lipsker, a spiritual advisor at Caron Treatment Centers in Wernersville, estimated he’s worked with 5,000 Jewish drug addicts over the past 19 years. “The community has never seen anything like this,” he said. “It’s insanity.”
But there’s still a belief in the Jewish community that the opioid epidemic sweeping the nation — and the Philadelphia area — is a problem exclusive to non-Jews. Shanda fur di goyim! Jewish children, the tired stereotype claims, grow up to be doctors. Lawyers, maybe. Not junkies.
The stories of AJ and Justin poke holes in that narrative, illuminating the reality that drug addiction does not discriminate along socioeconomic and religious lines.
‘Life of the party.’
Justin lived an enviable childhood. The family vacationed on the Jersey shore and often spent Sundays at Eagles games at Lincoln Financial Field.
His parents divorced when he was 7, leaving Justin and his brother, Austin, to split time between their father, Gregg, and mother, Cheryl Perpetua. Justin thrived socially and academically, anyway. Teachers adored him both for his intelligence and bubbly personality.
“He lit up the room. As everybody said, he was the life of the party,” Gregg said. “It’s sad to say; I guess he did know how to party.”
Justin turned 15 and soured on family activities, instead hosting friends at his father’s house. He got into drinking, and Gregg sent his son to therapists. The shrinks didn’t help. Justin, his father later learned, had a disease, one that couldn’t be talked out by well-meaning adults with advanced degrees.
Justin enrolled at Drexel University in August 2009, but by the following February he had been kicked out. It proved a harbinger of things to come. He started at Syracuse University in September 2010 and was gone by March 2011. He was re-admitted to Drexel in August 2011, only to be removed by February 2012.
Each expulsion was a product of aberrant behavior, Gregg said, and he chalked it up to his son’s drinking. Justin continued to bring friends to his father’s home when he wasn’t at school, and Gregg kicked out those who didn’t appear sober. Some seemed better adjusted than others.
“AJ was one of the friends in the beginning that was fine,” Gregg said. “He used to come in his suit, all dressed up, because he was [working] with [New Jersey] Gov. [Chris] Christie, and he was a very, very nice young man. Clean cut. Very respectful.”
One afternoon AJ walked in with glassy eyes. “He looked high,” Gregg said. He pulled Justin aside and told him AJ was no longer welcome.
‘I really liked them.’
That AJ got a job on Christie’s advance team was hardly surprising, given his family’s omnipresence in the public sphere. His father, Lee, spent years as an elected official in local politics and ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 1992. In 2006, he was appointed to be a judge in the Superior Court from Camden County.
AJ was Lee’s spitting image growing up. He walked like his father, talked like his father and commanded a room like his father. His older brother, Eric, has Asperger’s syndrome, and so AJ felt extra pressure to succeed.
But after college, Lee grew wary of his son’s behavior.
“My dad was like, ‘Who’s going to take care of your brother when I’m gone?’” AJ said.
Lee didn’t know it yet, but by then, his son was a heroin addict. He experimented with alcohol and marijuana in high school, and with Percocet after his freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. When AJ was 19, Lee got in a bike accident.
“He was prescribed 180 OxyContin 60s and 180 OxyContin 40s. He didn’t like them. He thought they made him feel kind of sick. But I really liked them,” AJ said. “So I did all of them, and I came back to school a full-blown OxyContin addict.”
He used throughout college, keeping his addiction secret. He moved to snorting heroin, a cheaper alternative, his senior year, and graduated on time — albeit with a 2.75 GPA, he said.
One afternoon in August 2012, AJ hopped in a car with Justin and a mutual friend to buy heroin in Camden.
They ran into the friend’s mom in a parking lot on the way back. “She pulls in, face to face with us, and pulls me out of the car,” AJ said. He tried to hide in his hoodie, but it was no use. His parents were called.
AJ confessed. Sort of. He admitted to using opiates, not heroin, and his parents sent him to an outpatient facility for eight weeks in New Jersey. He spent the next six months going on and off suboxone, numbing his withdrawal symptoms with alcohol, and on and off heroin.
He’d fake the home drug tests his parents administered, pulling a syringe out of his pocket while urinating and hiding it behind the side of his leg to dilute the sample with water.
Finally, Lee laid down an ultimatum: “You’re out of the house. You’re done. If you want to go die, you die. It’s your call. Not mine. But I’m not letting you die here.”
‘I knew he was gone.’
Justin told his mother in March 2012 that he had been using Percocet and OxyContin — like AJ, omitting his heroin use — and Perpetua began taking him to a suboxone doctor. Gregg found out about the Percocet two months later. Because of HIPPA laws, Justin’s doctors couldn’t tell his parents about his omission of using heroin.
Justin’s behavior worsened, and in July 2012, Gregg took away his son’s cell phone and car. Finally, Justin agreed to attend an inpatient facility in Cape May, N.J.
At the last minute he balked. As an inpatient, Justin told his father, he’d be exposed to people who’d used crack cocaine and heroin. “I had to pause for a second,” the father recalled. “[He’s] saying he’s taking pills and if I send him away he’s going to start doing worse things. So he agreed to go to an outpatient.”
Justin seemed to be turning things around. He enrolled at Temple University in September 2012 and pledged Alpha Epsilon Pi. Gregg was proud.
On Dec. 18, 2012, Gregg got a call from Perpetua. Justin was acting odd, she said. He rushed home, and shortly thereafter Justin came over, acting hyper.
Justin peed in a cup and, as Gregg placed the dipstick in the sample, Justin fumbled around in the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt. A fish oil bottle popped out. Father and son reached for it at the same time. Gregg got to it first. “I can’t believe it. You gave me fake urine again,” he said.
Justin, who had been seeing a psychiatrist and was prescribed medication for anxiety and depression, claimed he had merely taken Adderall. Gregg wasn’t having it. “You’re not getting the car for next semester,” he told him. “That’s over.” The son protested, but Gregg stood strong. It was after midnight, and before the father went to sleep, he reminded his son that it was his 54th birthday. “Happy birthday, Dad,” Justin said, before following his father up to his room. Gregg kissed Justin goodnight and shut the door behind him.
He awoke after five hours, immediately threw on sweats and made for Justin’s car, not noticing that the third-floor light was on. He moved the vehicle a mile down the block so Justin couldn’t find it.
When he came back he noticed the light. The television was on, and Justin was lying on the couch, peacefully. “I screamed and screamed and he wouldn’t wake up,” Gregg said.
Justin “was cool when I touched him,” said Vivian Bush, Gregg’s longtime girlfriend. “I knew he was gone, but I didn’t know what else to do. I tried to do CPR on him but … he was gone already.”
Gregg called 911. The paramedics met him at the door and wouldn’t let him upstairs. “I was a complete wreck,” he said. Justin died at age 21.
The paramedics checked Justin’s car, and, under the seat, found an empty heroin bag.
“I don’t count [my own] birthdays anymore. I don’t celebrate,” Gregg said. “It’s meaningless.”
About seven months after Justin’s death, AJ went to an inpatient facility in Florida. He didn’t last long and spent a few weeks living out of his car. He moved on to needles: “If I was awake, I was shooting up every half hour.” Lee tried to prepare himself for life without his son. “Stick a fork in him,” he’d say.
An employee at the Florida facility arranged for AJ to attend a different inpatient program in Prescott, Ariz. On Feb. 28, 2014, AJ left that facility, having completed 30 days, and hopped on a shuttle for the airport in Phoenix. His plan was to fly back to New Jersey, say goodbye, and shoot himself in the head with his father’s gun: “I was going to blow my brains out.”
His parents canceled his credit cards, preventing him from buying a plane ticket. His mother, Dianne, called AJ’s friends and pleaded with them not to help him. “If you enable him to get home, if you give him money, you’ll be killing him,” she told them.
One friend called AJ. Jackson Train, a painter, a musician, the yin to AJ’s yang, who had shared a crib with him when they were babies, asked if AJ was shooting up. “It wasn’t supposed to go this way,” Train said.
That “was the turning point,” AJ said. He called Lee. He told him he was going back to rehab. In the back of the shuttle, surrounded by confused passengers, he dropped to his knees, burst into tears and prayed.
“I prayed to God to relieve the obsession or let me die,” AJ said. “That was the first time I ever felt relief. I didn’t have an obsession to use. … I was just like, ‘I’m here. I’m in the present.’ And I was just, like, tired, and I hadn’t felt that way since I was 14 years old, [when I] had my first drink, smoked weed.
“Everything changed that day.”
On a sunny August morning more than four years later, AJ shoved open an unmarked white door at Victory Bay Recovery Center and was greeted by smiling faces and high-fives: “What’s up, AJ!” “Hey, AJ!” With his charm and easy smile, AJ is a natural figurehead of the Laurel Springs outpatient substance abuse treatment and rehab center.
“Hey AJ, when am I beating you in Ping-Pong?” a Victory Bay client asked, playfully. “I’ve never been beaten,” AJ said, grinning.
Along with co-founder Brent Reese, AJ founded Victory Bay in February 2017. He doesn’t have a clinical background, but he might have something more important: street cred.
“I’m just lucky I didn’t use today,” he said. “I’m grateful I’m an addict. My life now is more fulfilling than it ever was, even before I was doing hard drugs. I feel like I have a purpose. I feel like most people don’t find their purpose at 23.”
AJ’s philosophy for recovery is rooted in the 12-step program, which relies heavily on faith.
He implores recovering addicts to try finding something bigger than themselves. It isn’t an easy ask.
“How do you explain to the public that the answer is something that anyone can have? That’s love? I don’t know. It sounds so f—ing cheesy,” AJ said. “The truth is, we’re going to keep giving people pharmaceuticals, to treat pharmaceuticals, and they’re going to keep dying.”
‘Not my son, not my daughter.’
Two weeks after Justin died, Gregg went back to work. “Believe me, for the longest time, I felt like crawling into a hole and never coming out,” he said. But he had responsibilities. He had to care for Bush. He had to care for Austin. He had to go back to work; he’s the owner of the court reporting and litigation support firm, Kaplan Leaman & Wolfe.
And he used his story to help others. He appeared before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on April 26, 2013, advocating for changes to the HIPPA laws that prevented him from learning the full extent of Justin’s use.
He partnered with Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Southern New Jersey and launched Right in Our Backyard, a traveling group of parents who have lost children to drug overdoses, recovering addicts, police officers and a therapist, who make presentations at high schools, synagogues and churches about the ills of opioid abuse. Gregg implores parents to have their children sign power of attorney forms when they are 18. This way, parents can obtain medical information pertaining to their children into adulthood.
“Every parent, a lot of Jewish parents — and gentile parents — sit there and say, ‘Not my son, not my daughter,’” he said. “I remember Justin saying to me, when I wanted to put him into a rehab, ‘I don’t want to bring shame to my family.’”
Gregg doesn’t celebrate on Dec. 19 anymore, but on the first anniversary of Justin’s death, the father’s 55th birthday, Bush purchased him a pendant emblazoned with Justin high school graduation photo. He wears it everywhere.
On the last Saturday of August, Gregg climbed on his boat, which is named Just In Heaven, and took a seat around a circular table. Bush sat next to him. The top button of his shirt was left undone. It always is, and not because he wants to make a fashion statement. The pendant bearing his son’s face dangles freely.
“In my mind,” Gregg says, tugging on the pendant, “he sees everything I do.”
‘I finally have my son back.’
The past four years have produced no shortage of proud moments for AJ’s parents, but for his father, who is now a justice for the Supreme Court of New Jersey, one stands above the rest.
AJ flew in from Arizona for Thanksgiving 2015. Sober for more than one year, he walked in the door with a bouquet of fresh flowers, made a beeline for Dianne and handed her the bouquet:
“This is for you,” he said.
AJ was the center of attention all night. Dinner was eaten and toasts were made. Late in the evening, Lee noticed his wife and AJ talking in the living room. He got nervous, remembering the verbal sparring mother and son waged against one another during the throes of AJ’s addiction.
It was hours before Dianne joined her husband upstairs.
“Is everything OK?” he asked.
“Everything’s OK,” she replied. “I finally have my son back.”
Early on in his work with JFCS, Gregg got a call from AJ. He was working the 12-step program, he told Gregg, and wanted to make amends with the people he had wronged.
“I went to his house, where me and his son used together,” AJ said, letting out a long exhale.
They sat at the kitchen table in Gregg’s Voorhees Township home, and Gregg listened to AJ’s journey. Then he asked some questions: Why couldn’t his son recover, as AJ had? Would things have been different if he had kicked Justin out? What was it?
“He wanted me to be able to answer questions that I couldn’t answer, that don’t really have an answer, unfortunately,” AJ said. “It was hard, but I did the best I could.”
AJ left Gregg’s home, off to complete more recovery work, but not before the two men made an agreement. AJ joined Gregg at a Right in Our Backyard event, stepped in front of a microphone and shared his story.
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Those struggling with opioid addiction, or who know someone struggling with opioid addiction, are encouraged to contact JFCS of Southern New Jersey, which offers Right In Our Backyard, a free community awareness program, for tweens, teens and their parents. They are happy to come to schools, community based organizations and/or houses of worship in Southern New Jersey. If you would like to learn more about this interactive, thought-provoking workshop, please contact Meredith Cohen, Director of Special Projects & Compliance at (856) 424-1333. They can also contact Sara Waxman at [email protected], JFCS of Greater Philadelphia Family Life Educator.