PHILADELPHIA — In high school, Lindsey Vuolo was an "Ambassador for Unity," traveling from Philadelphia to Netivot to build ties between the diaspora and Israel.
These days, the 20-year-old Yardley-native is one of Hugh Hefner's ambassadors of beauty, shedding her clothes — but not her Jewish identity — for Playboy magazine as Ms. November 2001.
Vuolo's racy photo spread is accompanied by an innocent snap-shot taken at the time of her bat mitzvah at Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Newtown, Pa., and the accompanying profile offers reflections on her 1999 teen tour to Israel, which was cosponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
"It was an amazing trip," she was quoted as saying in Playboy. "Being in Jerusalem was so emotional for me — I broke down and cried."
All of which begs the question: What's a nice Jewish girl like her doing in a magazine like that?
"I'm proud to be Jewish, and I'm proud to have this title," Vuolo said in an interview. "I don't think any of the girls are looked at as just sex objects in [Playboy], because the pictures are done tastefully. It's a classy magazine."
Vuolo, a communications major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania had done some modeling locally, but she never viewed posing for Playboy as an aspiration. When her friend Kristy encouraged her to submit pictures, Vuolo told her, "If you want me to do it, you take the pictures and send it." A few months later, Vuolo was invited to join the exclusive ranks of the Playboy playmates.
Eventually, of course, she had to tell her parents. Her mother is of Russian descent. Her Italian father converted to Judaism.
"My whole family has been supportive. They haven't gotten negative complaints from anyone," she said. She was a little nervous last month, however, when she attended Yom Kippur services with them at Shir Ami.
"Nobody said anything at services. I felt like everyone knew. You know how people watch you," she said. Vuolo recognizes that some people in the Jewish community will think she acted immorally, but she disagrees with the notion that she is being reduced to the sum of her parts.
"I feel its not objectifying anyone because I choose to do it," she said in her defense. "I look at it as a major accomplishment. All I ask is, if you don't accept what I'm doing, respect what I'm doing."
Moreover, Vuolo hopes the fame that comes with being a centerfold will give her the opportunity to speak up as a proud, successful Jewish woman.
"I hope its going to be a positive thing," she said. "I know that I'm not a politician or a scholar, but if I had the chance to speak, people would listen to me."
Vuolo is not the first Jewish woman to succumb to the allure of Playboy or the flesh industry in general.
"I think the question is not why she chooses to do it, but really what magazines like this convey about women as objects," said Susan Weidman Schneider, editor of Lilith, the New York-based Jewish feminist magazine.
"It's just disheartening that we haven't evolved to an understanding of a mutual human sexuality beyond adolescent fantasy, especially on the part of men, who are Playboy's main readership."