As Rabbi Yosef Yitchak Jacobson spoke Thursday night, Oct. 29, mouths were gaping, eyes engaged, and tissues were in hand. At the Intown Jewish Academy’s ninth annual dinner, people laughed and cried and laughed again during the rabbi’s talk, his animated voice often bellowing into the rafters.

The annual dinner is about celebrating “Jewish life and learning that is innovative, engaging and immersive,” said Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman, co-director of Chabad Intown.

Comparing Rabbi Ari Sollish, the education director at Chabad Intown, to the patriarch Abraham, Rabbi Schusterman said, “It’s a great honor to be able to work with a colleague who has that kind of humility.”

Photo by David R. Cohen Rabbi Yosef Yitchak Jacobson addresses the Intown Jewish Academy annual dinner.

Photo by David R. Cohen
Rabbi Yosef Yitchak Jacobson addresses the Intown Jewish Academy annual dinner.

IJA has grown by leaps and bounds since Rabbi Sollish and his wife, Leah, moved to Atlanta. Thousands of students have taken hundreds of classes.

“Torah is not just an abstract philosophy,” Rabbi Sollish said, but is used to decide legal and medical issues.

The recent Jewish Literacy Initiative course on happiness shattered attendance records, he said.

As part of Chabad Intown’s 18th anniversary, a new program offers three tracks — Jewish Scholars, Jewish Action and Jewish Life-Skills — promoting vertical growth, with more content in a particular area to enable students to “take it to the next level,” Rabbi Sollish said.

Attendees can join any class and are not required to commit to the full track of bundled courses, but “vertical growth systematically comes from the entire track program,” he said.

Karen George spoke about her personal experiences with Chabad Intown and its “pivotal spiritual learning opportunities,” which have enhanced her relationship to G-d, she said.

George lost her 20-year-old son 6½ years ago and wanted to have a Jewish burial. She connected with Chabad and was amazed by the depth she discovered in her heritage.

She quoted the Hebrew saying aiyecha, meaning, “Where are you?” Like Abraham, she asked, are you lech lecha (going forward)?

“Whatever your affiliation, go forward and know that Intown Jewish Academy is there to light your path,” she said.

The main speaker, Rabbi Jacobson, was the first rabbi invited to the Pentagon to deliver the religious keynote address to the U.S. Military Chief of Chaplains and the National Security Agency.

“We live in a generation of profound ignorance,” he said, “and ignorance breeds apathy.”

He said Chabad and the Intown Jewish Academy “create a vibe of intellectual curiosity,” which is how to “rebuild broken hearts and shattered souls.”

He noted that the ark that held the Holy of Holies in the mishkan had two poles that were never removed, even when the mishkan sat stationary in Shiloh for 369 years. Thus, he said, “wherever you have the Torah, you are in the Holy of Holies.”

Jews can open a book of Torah at any time and be connected to our heritage and our true identity. “Discover the story that binds generations in an unbroken chain,” he said.

Rabbi Jacobson explained the five aspects of a soul-based life:

  • Surprise and humility. Humility is an openness to opportunity and new experiences in life rather than allowing the scripts from our past to replay themselves over and over again.
  • Validation within. Confidence is never based on approval, validation and opinions from others. Validation comes from within. Your soul comes from G-d. Only confidence and joy are in G-d’s space.
  • Vulnerability. Don’t fear being raw, real, authentic and vulnerable. We often create masks to protect. When you know your core is valuable and connected to G-d, you can be human and authentic.
  • Sacred space. Under all circumstances, you have a space that remains connected. No matter the depth of sorrow or despair, that spark remains within, a sacred space. The soul is a fragment of G-d; it is indestructible.
  • Be happy, not petty. Never be petty or small. Don’t hold a grudge. Kabbalists say that children don’t hold grudges because they choose to be happy over being right. Adults are the opposite. The soul wants to be happy. Allow it to be.

“The Intown Jewish Academy dinner was an interactive, eye-opening experience,” said Tova Isaacs, who lives in Toco Hills. “Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson was a captivating speaker, making me laugh, shed a tear and, most importantly, helping me understand the five key concepts of how to live a soul-based life.”

He told the story of Edmund Hillary, the first reach the summit of Mount Everest. Though he didn’t originally reach the top, he was honored for his efforts. During the event, he turned to face the mountain, held up his fist, and said, “You beat me the first time, but I’ll beat you the next time because you’ve grown all you’re going to grow … but I’m still growing!”

The next year he succeeded.

“There are many mountains in life that seem insurmountable,” Rabbi Jacobson said. “But as long as we are alive, we never stop growing.”

It’s never too late to reconnect with Torah, to take classes and to grow. While we may feel like a “small speck of dust in a very disturbing universe,” he said, “Torah is an anchor, a connection, an identity, an essence, a very powerful link to the past and future.”