Jewish Social Services takes on addiction in Madison, with assist from arm of Brandeis | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Jewish Social Services takes on addiction in Madison, with assist from arm of Brandeis 

Walking through the Beit Olamim cemetery in Madison, Rabbi Renée Bauer recognizes a few names of those who died – often too young – from an addiction-related problem. 

As the director of spiritual care and outreach at Jewish Social Services of Madison since 2016, Bauer provides Jewish spiritual care and counseling, including helping those struggling with addiction. However, she says the Jewish community lacks a response to the real problem of addiction affecting individuals and families in Madison.  

“It doesn’t seem like it’s talked about much in the Jewish community, although the addiction crisis is affecting us,” Bauer says. “It’s an underserved community and a topic we’re not talking about in the Jewish community here.” 

Now a $40,000 grant from the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University is helping Jewish Social Services address the national and local issue of addiction in the Jewish community. “We have not had any consistent addiction support at Jewish Social Services and there has not in the recent past been any Jewish response to addiction in Madison. This will help us begin this work,” Bauer says. 

Jewish Social Services was one of the four recipients of a $160,000 total grant the Charles H. Revson Foundation awarded through the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab to support innovative Jewish spiritual care to address an unmet need in the Madison Jewish community. 

“We’re very grateful that Jewish Social Services of Madison is tackling a very difficult issue in the community and leveraging the training, skills, and deep commitment of chaplaincy within Judaism,” said Wendy Cadge, director of Chaplaincy Innovation Lab. 

At Jewish Social Services the grant will fund education and training for Jewish Social Services staff, community awareness events, and the hope is to form a family support group come spring. 

Also, thanks to the grant, opioid overdose antidote Narcan (naloxone) will be available at Madison-area synagogues. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in March approved the nasal spray, which can reverse opioid overdoses, for over-the-counter sales. “The life-saving drug is also a sign: That we are a community that has our defibrillator on the wall and our Narcan too,” Bauer says. “That sends a message.” 

As a community rabbi, Bauer has provided spiritual care to people were struggling with substance use disorders, as well as support to families. Hearing their stories “just opened something up in me,” Bauer says, and she realized how important Jewish resources can be.

One young woman Bauer regularly counseled had shared with her about how she “thought about drugs all the time” and so wanted to learn how to pray “to help her think of something other than drugs.” Bauer says she shared with the woman and others some Jewish prayers like the Modeh Ani to recite when they wake up in the morning or to get through another day: “It can give them a routine, a grounding to start their day clean.” 

Jen, not her real name at her request, reached out to Bauer after a relapse in 2020. She had started using drugs at 18, when the man she was in a relationship with at the time introduced her to cocaine. Jen, who has autism and was bullied as a child, struggled with severe social anxiety throughout adolescence and adulthood, during which she says “drugs became my best friend.”

Having grown up in a Jewish home, Jen turned to her faith and found Bauer, who was “incredibly kind and humble” and genuinely cared. “I wanted someone to help me find God, and my background is Jewish, so it felt right,” she says in an email. “I knew that if I wanted to get clean for good, I needed to ‘worship’ something higher than the drugs.”