Judith Hodara is not a rabbi, nor does she have a position in the organized Jewish world.
Still, Hodara, an admissions officer at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, sees herself as an ardent spokesperson for Israel.
"Israel has so much to offer, both regionally and internationally," stated the 38-year-old. "So I try to think, 'How can I really help to establish relationships on behalf of the state of Israel?' "
According to the Center City resident, this attitude was profoundly shaped by her recent participation in a 12-day summit held in Jerusalem.
Run by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the program — called the "Diplomatic Seminar for Young Jewish Leaders" — offered 28 participants from around the world the opportunity to meet with some of Israel's top academics, foreign ministers, journalists and artists.
Among other topics, the program — which has been around for 13 years now — delved into anti-Semitism in the Arab world, the Iranian nuclear threat, the Arab-Israeli peace process and the ideology of radical Islam. Sessions also explored issues within Israeli society, such as Ethiopian immigration, as well as those plaguing parts of the Diaspora, like demographic decline. The schedule even included a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
"We were given incredible access, not only to lectures and engagements, but also to individuals outside of the ministry as a whole," said Hodara. "When you live outside of the country, you understand things from a different perspective than you do when you see these issues playing out."
To that end, the Philadelphian said that the experience altered some of her viewpoints on Israel. Before attending, for instance, Hodara said that she had mixed opinions about the utility of the security fence. But after learning more about it, and even visiting a small section of the fence, she has come to believe that "it's not obstructionist; it's just trying to keep an eye on traffic flow."
Hodara was one of seven Americans invited to attend this year's seminar, and the only Philadelphian.
Leo Vinovezky of the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia said that she was nominated for the program because of her "natural leadership characteristics."
Hodara has long been active in the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee, as well as at her synagogue, Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel. Also, through her role at Wharton, she acts as a liaison to Israeli students.
Other seminar participants hailed from countries like India, Mexico, South Africa, Ukraine, Canada and Australia.
Hodara, whose husband is a Uruguayan Jew, said that this diversity only added to the learning experience.
"It made me realize that as a North American Jew, having the sheer numbers of support is really quite remarkable," she said. "There are only 500 Jews in Ecuador, and 4,500 in India. We talked a lot about our roles within our own communities, and about relationship-building."
Vinovezky underscored the importance of such camaraderie.
"At the end of the day, Israel and the Jewish community are one family," he said. "It's us and you facing the same problems, here and in Israel.
He added: "We need to share our problems together, and to talk about possible solutions."