PHILADELPHIA — 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?”
Solomon had drunkenly dialed Wolfe the night before, asking if he wanted to go to Camden, N.J., to cop heroin. Wolfe told Solomon they should wait for the morning, when Solomon was sober and could drive.
Solomon woke up at 8 a.m. and immediately texted Wolfe, but now he was having doubts.
“Dude,” Wolfe replied. “I’ll just stop if it gets bad. I haven’t done it in a couple weeks.”
Solomon and Wolfe 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. It 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,” Solomon said.
A month later Solomon found himself on the floor of his parents’ kitchen, hugging his knees to his chest, crying. Wolfe had died. Overdose. Solomon 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 adviser at Caron Treatment Centers in Wernersville, Pa., 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.”
This is the nation’s opioid crisis. Morphine, codeine, heroin, Vicodin, Percacet and Fentanyl are some of the names of opioids that more than two million Americans have become dependent on or abused.
Opioid overdoses accounted for more than 42,000 deaths in 2016, the most recent year that statistics exist. That’s 116 people a day.
And the opioid epidemic hasn’t shunned Jews. The stories of Solomon and Wolfe illuminate the reality that opioid addiction does not discriminate along socioeconomic, ethnic or religious lines.
‘Life of the party’
Justin Wolfe lived an enviable childhood. His family vacationed on the Jersey Shore and often spent Sundays at Eagles games.
His parents divorced when he was 7, leaving Wolfe and his brother, Austin, to split time between their father, Gregg, and mother, Cheryl Perpetua. Wolfe thrived socially and academically. Teachers adored him both for his intelligence and lively personality.
“He lit up the room. He was the life of the party,” Gregg Wolfe said. “It’s sad to say; I guess he did know how to party.”
Wolfe turned 15 and soured on family activities, instead hosting friends at his father’s house. He got into heavy drinking, and Gregg Wolfe sent his son to therapists. It didn’t help. Wolfe, his father later learned, had a disease, one that couldn’t be talked out by well-meaning professionals with advanced degrees.
Wolfe enrolled at Drexel University in August 2009, but by the following February he had been kicked out. It was 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 Wolfe said, and he chalked it up to his son’s drinking. Wolfe continued to bring friends to his father’s home when he wasn’t at school, and Gregg Wolfe kicked out those who didn’t appear sober. Some seemed better adjusted than others.
“Solomon was one of the friends in the beginning that was fine,” Gregg Wolfe said, referring to AJ. “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, though, Solomon walked in with glassy eyes. “He looked high,” Gregg Wolfe said. He pulled Wolfe aside and told him Solomon was no longer welcome.
‘I really liked them’
That Solomon got a job on Christie’s advance team was hardly surprising, given his family’s prominence 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 judge in the Superior Court from Camden County.
Solomon was Lee Solomon’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 Solomon felt extra pressure to succeed.
But after college, Lee Solomon grew wary of his son’s behavior.
“My dad was like, ‘Who’s going to take care of your brother when I’m gone?’” Solomon said.
Lee Solomon didn’t know it, but by then, AJ Solomon 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 Solomon was 19, Lee Solomon 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,” Solomon 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. In his senior year, he moved to snorting heroin, a cheaper alternative, and graduated on time — albeit with a 2.75 GPA, he said.
One afternoon in August 2012, he hopped in a car with Wolfe and a mutual friend to buy heroin in Camden, N.J.
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,” Solomon said. He tried to hide in his hoodie, but it was no use. His parents were called.
Solomon 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 Solomon had had enough: “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’
Wolfe 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 Wolfe found out about the Percocet two months later. Because of HIPPA laws, Wolfe’s doctors couldn’t tell his parents about his omission of using heroin.
Wolfe’s behavior worsened, and in July 2012, Gregg Wolfe took away his son’s cell phone and car.
Finally, Wolfe agreed to attend an inpatient facility in Cape May, N.J.
At the last minute he balked. As an inpatient, Wolfe 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.”
Wolfe seemed to be turning things around. He enrolled at Temple University in September 2012 and pledged Alpha Epsilon Pi. Gregg Wolfe was proud.
On Dec. 18, 2012, Gregg Wolfe got a call from Perpetua. Wolfe was acting odd, she said. He rushed home, and shortly thereafter Wolfe came over, loopy and hyper.
Wolfe peed in a cup and, as Gregg Wolfe placed the dipstick in the sample, Wolfe fumbled around in the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt. A fish oil bottle popped out. Wolfe and Gregg Wolfe reached for it at the same time. Gregg Wolfe got to it first. “I can’t believe it. You gave me fake urine again,” he said.
Wolfe, who had been seeing a psychiatrist and was prescribed medication for anxiety and depression, claimed he had merely taken Adderall. Gregg Wolfe wasn’t having it. “You’re not getting the car for next semester,” he told him. “That’s over.” The son protested, but Gregg Wolfe 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,” Wolfe said, before following his father up to his room. Gregg Wolfe shut the door behind him and locked it.
He awoke after five hours, immediately threw on sweats and made for Wolfe’s car, not noticing that the third-floor light was on. He moved the vehicle a mile down the block so Wolfe couldn’t find it.
When he came back he noticed the light. The television was on, and Wolfe was lying on the couch. “I screamed and screamed and he wouldn’t wake up,” Gregg Wolfe said.
Wolfe “was cool when I touched him,” said Vivian Bush, Gregg Wolfe’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 Wolfe called 911. The paramedics met him at the door and wouldn’t let him upstairs. “I was a complete wreck,” he said. Wolfe died at age 21.
The paramedics checked Wolfe’s car, and, under the seat, found an empty heroin bag.
“I don’t count [my own] birthdays anymore. I don’t celebrate,” Gregg Wolfe said. “It’s meaningless.”
About seven months after Wolfe’s death, Solomon 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 Solomon 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 Solomon to attend a different inpatient program in Prescott, Ariz. On Feb. 28, 2014, Solomon 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 Solomon’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 Solomon. Jackson Train, a painter, a musician, the yin to Solomon’s yang, who had shared a crib with him when they were babies, asked if Solomon was shooting up. “It wasn’t supposed to go this way,” Train said.
That “was the turning point,” Solomon said. He called Lee Solomon. 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,” Solomon 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, Solomon shoved open an unmarked white door at Victory Bay Recovery Center, about 20 miles south of Philadelphia in Laurel Springs, N.J., and was greeted by smiling faces and high-fives: “What’s up, AJ!” “Hey, AJ!” With his charm and easy smile,
Solomon is a natural figurehead of the 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,” Solomon said, grinning.
Along with co-founder Brent Reese, Solomon 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.”
Solomon’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,” Solomon 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 Wolfe died, Gregg Wolfe 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 U.S. House 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 Wolfe’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 Wolfe 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 early 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 Wolfe doesn’t celebrate on Dec. 19 anymore, but on the first anniversary of Wolfe’s death, the father’s 55th birthday, Bush purchased him a pendant emblazoned with Wolfe’s high school graduation photo. He wears it everywhere.
On the last Saturday of August, Gregg Wolfe 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. That way the pendant bearing his son’s face dangles freely.
“In my mind,” Gregg Wolfe 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 Solomon’s parents, but for his father, who is now a justice on the Supreme Court of New Jersey, one stands above the rest.
Solomon 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.
Solomon was the center of attention all night. Dinner was eaten and toasts were made. Late in the evening, Lee Solomon noticed his wife and Solomon 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 Solomon joined her husband upstairs.
“Is everything OK?” he asked.
“Everything’s OK,” she replied. “I finally have my son back.”
Early in his work with JFCS, Gregg Wolfe got a call from Solomon. He was working the 12-step program, he told Gregg Wolfe, and wanted to make amends with the people he had wronged.
“I went to his house, where me and his son used together,” Solomon said, letting out a long exhale.
They sat at the kitchen table in Gregg Wolfe’s home, and Gregg Wolfe listened to thje story of Solomon’s journey. Then he asked some questions: Why couldn’t his son recover, as Solomon had? Would things have been different if he had kicked his son 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,” Solomon said. “It was hard, but I did the best I could.”
Solomon left Gregg Wolfe’s home, off to complete more recovery work, but not before the two men made an agreement. Solomon joined Gregg Wolfe at a Right in Our Backyard event, stepped in front of a microphone and shared his story.
Joshua Needelman is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.