Michelle (left) and Jeff Leopold remember their son Trevor in their home in Greenbrae, Aug 27, 2023. The Leopolds' son Trevor died four years ago at the age of 18 when he took an oxycodone pill he didn’t know was laced with fentanyl. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Michelle (left) and Jeff Leopold remember their son Trevor in their home in Greenbrae, Aug 27, 2023. The Leopolds' son Trevor died four years ago at the age of 18 when he took an oxycodone pill he didn’t know was laced with fentanyl. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

The fentanyl crisis is taking the lives of young Jews

Updated at 11:10 a.m., Sept. 5

Cameron Fuller and his father spoke on the phone nearly every day. So Eric Fuller worried last February when his son failed to return a call. One day turned into two, two days turned to three, and by then he knew something was wrong.

The elder Fuller, who lives near San Diego, contacted the landlord of Cameron’s San Francisco apartment and told him, “‘Please go over and tell me what I’m dealing with.”

Cameron was found dead in his bed. A toxicology report determined the cause of death: overdose from fentanyl. Cameron Fuller, who hailed from a “classic culturally Jewish family,” his dad said, loved film, music, travel and golf. He was 30 years old.  

Cameron’s use of fentanyl was unwitting. He likely had no idea the cocaine he took the night before had been laced with the synthetic opioid, which is “100 times more potent than morphine,” according to the Drug Enforcement Agency

“It rips your heart open and leaves a hole,” Fuller said of his son’s death, “and you find the memories to fill that hole. It isn’t recoverable. You just learn to live with the time you had him in your life for 30 years, and there was a lot of good in that.”

Developed 64 years ago, fentanyl has legitimate pharmaceutical use as a pain reliever. However, illicit manufacture and trafficking of it as a street drug — often disguised as counterfeit prescription pills — has been deadly; synthetic opioids, chief among them fentanyl, contributed to about 110,000 deaths last year alone. 

Although no studies have specifically examined the impact of fentanyl on the Jewish community, a 2020 survey conducted by UJA–Federation New York found that “10% of Jewish adult respondents indicated that they have a substance abuse problem.” The survey included adults of “all levels of observance, religious belief and belonging to Jewish communal organizations.” 

Eric Fuller said his son was not an opioid addict, but was “someone who liked to drink, liked to smoke weed, and sometimes succumbed to the temptation of party drugs.” He added: “The scourge of fentanyl, which has infested San Francisco, changed the calculus of risk.”

The risk can be higher for young people. The parents of Greenbrae teen Trevor Leopold said their son resisted help when it came to drug use. Michelle and Jeff Leopold watched helplessly as Trevor became a habitual cannabis user two years after his bar mitzvah at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. The drug caused violent outbursts, according to his parents, including one time when he physically struck his mother. 

A place of remembrance dedicated to Trevor Leopold next to the front door of his parents' home in Greenbrae. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
A place of remembrance dedicated to Trevor Leopold next to the front door of his parents’ home in Greenbrae. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

“It was a very turbulent four years for everyone involved,” Jeff Leopold said. “For a lot of it, he didn’t want help. He made the decision to go backwards.”

Added Michelle Leopold: “He resisted his diagnosis: cannabis use disorder. He refused to take medicine after his first round of rehab, preferring to self-medicate. A lot of it was about anxiety, but the good thing that came out of the different rehab programs was there was always a family counseling component. So Trevor was getting the tools in his tool belt to get through his addiction disease.”

By the late summer of 2019, Trevor had completed an out-of-state rehab program, graduated high school and enrolled at Sonoma State University. Things were looking up.

But one day in November of that year, according to witnesses, Trevor purchased and ingested what he thought was an oxycodone pill. A toxicology report later confirmed it had been laced with fentanyl. He died in his dorm room, at the age of 18.

“One thing I wonder,” his mother said. “If that pill hadn’t been laced with fentanyl, would Trevor still be alive? There’s a good possibility he would. It was supposed to be oxycodone. [That] does not kill you. That’s what’s happening with young adults. They don’t know about fentanyl, and even if they do know,  they think they’re invincible.”

Though some users become addicted to opioids such as fentanyl, the drug has proved insidious because so many victims — Cameron and Trevor likely among them — never knew they were taking it.

Jessica Schiller lost a daughter to fentanyl, and worries she may lose a son to it, too. The Mill Valley resident lived every parent’s worst nightmare when daughter Naomi, 20, completed 50 days of detox and rehab, only to seek out fentanyl somewhere in San Francisco’s Tenderloin days after she was released. She died from an overdose in July of last year.

“Everyone loved her,” Schiller said of her daughter. “She had a huge group of friends, she was brilliant, wise, kind, a radiant old soul. Here was Naomi, a sweet girl, straight As, yet going down the path of opioids.”

Jessica Schiller
Jessica Schiller

Jessica Schiller grew up in an Orthodox home, lived in Israel for a time, joined the Israel Defense Forces and married an Israeli. Eventually settling in Marin, the Schillers attended services at both Congregation Rodef Sholom and Congregation Kol Shofar, and had three children in local Jewish day schools. Naomi started using drugs while in high school and struggled with addiction from then on.

“She left NYU in her second semester of her second year,” Schiller said of her daughter. “In February of 2022, I got her into a detox in Los Angeles, but she ended up leaving. She was missing for a long time. I drove from Marin to L.A. to look for her, driving the streets of Venice. She was deep in her addiction.” 

Schiller eventually located her daughter.  She learned Naomi had been severely beaten by a drug dealer, requiring hospitalization. In May 2022, Naomi agreed to re-enter rehab at a facility in Watsonville. 

She got clean.

“I picked her up after 50 days,” remembered her mother. “I was so overjoyed to see her.  I said, ‘You’re not going to stay home alone.’ She spent one last night with me, then was supposed to go to a friend’s house.” 

Naomi Schiller
Naomi Schiller through the years. She died at the age of 20 after a stint in rehab. (Photo/Courtesy)

That was the plan. While Schiller headed out of town, thinking she’d return to see her daughter start fresh. Instead, Naomi headed for the Tenderloin, and that night got high at the home of a friend.

The next day, Schiller got a call from that friend. “They told me Naomi was gone,” she said. The Marin County coroner confirmed she died from fentanyl, “drowning in a bathtub. After 50 days of being clean, then one time.”

Naomi’s brother, Tomer, who similarly struggles with opioid addiction, was declared a missing person for a three-week period in August. Jessica Schiller knew her son was wandering around the Tenderloin, getting high. Finally, Tomer was spotted, and reunited with his mother. He is now back in detox.

“It’s been a long saga of patience and determination to try to get him clean,” she said. “At a certain point, I can’t get this person to choose sobriety; they have to choose it for themselves. Any kid in the Bay Area knows all you have to do is take an Uber to the Tenderloin. It’s drug tourism.”

Nearly 110,00 people died in the U.S. from drug overdoses last year. A recent New York Times report noted that fentanyl and other synthetic opioids contributed to about 68% of those deaths. Today, synthetic opioids are contributing to an average of 3,400 emergency room visits and 190 fatal overdoses every day in the United States, according to the Times.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, an average of 16 people are dying of overdoses every week. In 2020, the highest year for accidental overdoses in S.F. on record, 725 people died, a figure almost three times higher than Covid deaths that year.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced in April that SFPD had seized more than 60 kilograms of illegal fentanyl so far in 2023, which she said amounted to “over 30 million lethal doses of the deadly drug. This is an increase of 160% over the same time period last year,” her statement read.

The drug seizures didn’t come in time to save Cameron Fuller.

Born in La Jolla, Cameron moved to San Francisco to study cinema at San Francisco State University, settling permanently in the city. For several years, he worked at the 4 Star Theater on Clement Street.

Cameron Fuller (left) with his dad, Eric. Cameron was 30 years old when he died of an accidental drug overdose in his San Francisco apartment. (Photo/Courtesy)
Cameron Fuller (left) with his dad, Eric. Cameron was 30 years old when he died of an accidental drug overdose in his San Francisco apartment. (Photo/Courtesy)

By the time of his death, he had built up a bustling real estate photography and videography business, working with agents listing houses and doing video tours of properties.

Cameron’s family was “not religiously observant,” his father said. “He grew up with cultural, big, loud Judaism. His mother remarried, and his step-grandmother was a Holocaust survivor [who] often hosted Friday night Shabbat.”

Eric Fuller described his son as a big man — 6-foot-1 — but “at his core, sweet and funny.” He recalled the time his son phoned his sister “saying he needed her to come and buy him some shoes. Cameron said, ‘I saw [a homeless man] who had no shoes, so I gave mine to him.’”

Cameron made news late last year, albeit anonymously, when he fell victim to a violent antisemitic attack. In December, a man later identified as Eduardo Navarro Perez approached Fuller on Haight Street and asked if he was Jewish. When Fuller replied yes, Perez struck him with a skateboard and made disparaging remarks about Jews.

Perez was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon, as well as with a hate crime.

The Perez family later asked the DA to consider mental health diversion rather than jail time for the accused. “The DA asked Cameron how he would feel about it,” his father recalled. “He was absolutely in favor of it, saying this person would be better off.”

As for the night Cameron died, Eric Fuller believes his son went on a date the evening of Feb. 23, and recreational cocaine use was involved. But he doesn’t know the identity of his son’s date or any other details. All he can do is mourn.

“I know to a certainty that this was an accident on Cameron’s part,” he said. “The week prior, he had been playing golf with me in Nevada. We had a lovely week. The last thing I got to say to him in person was to tell him I love him and to hug him, and he said the same to me.”

The Leopolds believe their son similarly did not know he was taking something laced with fentanyl, in this case a pill. Trevor’s death triggered an outpouring of support from the Rodef Sholom community. “When Trevor passed away, we immediately called Rabbi Stacy [Friedman],” said Jeff Leopold.

Michelle Leopold and her son Parker have matching tattoos in honor of Trevor. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Michelle Leopold and her son Parker have matching tattoos in honor of Trevor. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

“I ran to their house,” remembered Friedman, at the time not knowing the full story. “The first [thing] is to be present, and to hold them in their grief and their wailing,” she said, recalling that night. “I tried to be a presence of light to help shine the way for them, not to turn something that is dark into light, because nothing about it was OK, but rather create a space for them to be accompanied through this dark place, and then to guide them through ritual.”

Added Michelle Leopold: “The memorial service was standing room only at Rodef Sholom, with people all the way to the back. There definitely was an outpouring of love. The shiva at our house was also standing room only, with friends, people from the temple, people from Sunday school.”

Not every Jewish family dealing with addiction enjoys the level of support the Leopolds experienced. Marla Kaufman, who used to live in Orange County and now lives in Seattle, describes herself as “that [Jewish] family… I was on the synagogue board, I did development for the day school. We sent our kids to Israel, to camp, we attended Shabbat. Yet when this came through our door like a Mack truck, we were treated differently.”

The Mack truck was her son’s substance abuse disorder, which surfaced in 2006 when he was 16. Although some people in her synagogue community offered sympathy and support, others did not.

“We had to send our child out of state for help and [word] got out,” Kaufman recalled. “I felt people were looking at us and whispering. I remember going to the Israel fair the year we sent him away. The volunteer checking us in was a friend whose kids did sleepovers at our house, and she couldn’t even look at me. I went home and sobbed. It just felt very sad that the place that was the guide for my Jewish life just wasn’t available to us in our darkest time.”

The stigma she felt is not uncommon. Confronting the opioid crisis and substance abuse in general requires overcoming what Rabbi Paul Steinberg calls “the stigma of shame.”

We bring casseroles to people who have cancer, but we do nothing for the heroin addict.

“There’s this idea that the shikker [inebriated person] is a goy,” said Steinberg, the rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon since July 2016, author of “Recovery, the 12 Steps and Jewish Spirituality” and a recovering alcoholic himself.

Rabbi Paul Steinberg
Rabbi Paul Steinberg

“If you look at the history of our tradition, it’s not true. It’s not just that Jews become addicted. It’s that they don’t want to talk about it. They don’t have a place to go, so it only isolates families and individuals even more. We bring casseroles to people who have cancer, but we do nothing for the heroin addict.”

Kaufman said Steinberg’s book “saved her life” and played a role in inspiring her to found JANN, the Jewish Addiction Awareness Network, which, according to its website, “connects families and individuals to information, support, tools, and Jewish perspectives to help them face addiction and work toward recovery.”

Among her achievements, Kaufman helped spearhead the nationwide proliferation of Serenity Shabbats, which are Jewish services that address addiction issues, and frame them in a Jewish context.

“I put an emphasis on educating everybody else,” she said, “because you never know when everybody else will be affected.  I want to teach the Jewish community to treat this like any other disease, like any other mental health problem.”

She said her son (whose identity she wishes to protect) has beaten his addiction and is now leading a productive, sober life.

Kaufman isn’t the only mother who turned grief into action. Michelle Leopold did the same, launching #WeAreNotAlone, a resource to connect families dealing with addiction with others going through the same crisis.

Her anti-drug activism started the day her son died.

Michelle Leopold points to a board of memories of her late son Trevor and her work fighting fentanyl in Marin. His former bedroom is now Michelle's office and a place of reflection. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins.)Fentanyl, Michelle Leopold, Jeff Leopold
Michelle Leopold points to a board of memories of her late son Trevor and her work fighting fentanyl in Marin. His former bedroom is now Michelle’s office and a place of reflection. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins.)

“I turned to Jeff and said, ‘We need to be honest about this.’ When Trevor was in his addiction, that was his story to tell. I did not share his story up to that point, but I felt compelled to talk about it in order to save lives. I started speaking out day one, and it got bigger and bigger.”

Others in the Jewish community are stepping up to confront the addiction crisis.

Rabbi Sue Reinhold
Rabbi Sue Reinhold

Rabbi Sue Reinhold of Berkeley knows well the challenges of substance abuse and its impact on families. A recovering alcoholic, Reinhold founded Addict Torah, a pastoral counseling service that specializes in helping people with addictive behaviors. She agrees with Rabbi Steinberg that too many Jews are in denial about the impact of addiction on the Jewish community.

“We are a minority in a majority culture,” she said, “and we want to present our best face. There is also this thinking that Jews don’t have the wiring for addiction. I hear that repeated even from people who know my background. But one in five Americans has a substance abuse disorder, and one in two queer Americans is estimated to have substance abuse issues. In the Bay Area, if you do the math, this is a significant issue.”

Approaching drug counseling from a Torah perspective adds intriguing dimensions to  Reinhold’s work with clients. “Freeing the captive is a very high Jewish value,” she said, “and people are held captive to their substances. It is a form of slavery. The Torah tells us, ‘Do not remain indifferent.’”

Steinberg sees addiction as something practically unavoidable for the Jewish community — and anyone else in America, for that matter.

“We are inculcated into a very toxic culture,” the rabbi said. “Two-thirds [of American adults] are on prescription medications for some illness, and that’s not including self-medicating with illicit drugs and alcohol. We could also talk about food, gambling, the internet, shopping, self-mutilation, sugar, caffeine. This is all part of our culture.”

Like Reinhold, Steinberg takes a Jewish approach to substance abuse counseling.

“You’re not a bad person, not a bad Jew,” he said of people struggling with addiction. “You’re sick and you need help.That’s why we have the Torah: To have a life of meaning and purpose.”

Meaning and purpose aside, all Eric Fuller knows is that he has endured every parent’s worst nightmare — and now faces a life without his son. Yet he doesn’t dwell on how Cameron died, but on how he lived.

“You recognize [his absence] when you want him to tell him something,” Fuller said. “It just bites you. The only way you deal with this is you have to find a new relationship with him. So we have a lot of pictures around the house now. It keeps him in the front of my mind.”  

Added Jessica Schiller: “Losing a child is a profoundly horrible human experience. I felt it for months after. I used to be able to cry all day long, and now it’s less frequent. Your heart adjusts, your body adjusts, and then you’re driving and you start sobbing. I just miss my daughter. The grief doesn’t go away.”

Corrected Sept. 5 to reflect Marla Kaufman’s current city of residence.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.