While working as a youth director at Temple Beth Sholom in Florida, Miami Beach-native Josh Laurence decided to spend a year studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. "After first traveling to Israel with Birthright, I definitely wanted to return," says Josh. "Then the opportunity presented itself in the form of Pardes's year program—my mentor, Rabbi Robert Davis encouraged me to do it, my friend Miriam Farber registered, and the financial support from Masa Israel made it possible."
Living in Jerusalem, Josh spent his days taking courses in Talmud, Torah, Social Action, Rambam, and Jewish Law. "I'd never taken part in such intense text study and the experience was invaluable," says Josh. "I became a lot more knowledgeable and confident in my abilities to teach others."
When one of his teachers, Rabbi Levi Cooper, invited Josh to his house for Shabbat, Josh was given the opportunity to chant Haftarah at one of the neighborhood synagogues. "It was something I'd done many times at my Reform synagogue back home but it was a completely different experience," says Josh. "While usually there are a handful of people who also know the trop, in the Israeli congregation, people understood exactly what I was saying."
When not in class, Josh had the opportunity to volunteer with PeacePlayers International, and facilitated basketball games for Arab and Israeli youth. On weekends, Josh traveled throughout Israel with friends. During a trip to a few settlements, one of Josh's teachers, Rabbi David Levin-Kruss, at Pardes called to make sure the group was safe. "A professor in an American university would never make such a call," says Josh. "But the faculty at Pardes was like that—always welcoming us to their homes for Shabbat and looking out for us."
As the Youth Activities Director at Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, Florida, Josh feels a lot more equipped for his work. "I can pull so much more meaning when unpacking Jewish texts and that makes me a much better teacher," says Josh. He continues to have weekly Skype study sessions with friends who have continued their studies at Pardes.
Later that year, Josh returned to Israel to travel the country and visit friends. "I think it says a lot about my connection to Israel that I'm willing to drop $1200 on a ticket to return to the place where I just spent a year," says Josh. "After Pardes, I made a commitment to visit the country at least once or twice a year—whether for personal vacation or professional travel." Josh is currently applying to graduate school in education administration and hopes to continue working as an educator in the Reform movement.
"But before continuing on that path, I may head back to Israel for another year or two to study or volunteer," says Josh. "There's nothing like being able to pick up the phone and tell an Israeli friend, I'm going to catch the 405 bus. Meet me on the beach in Tel Aviv.'"