Five years ago, several adult members of Adath Israel in Merion Station realized that the Conservative congregation had let its United Synagogue Youth chapter lapse into inactivity. A group of eighth-graders, alerted to the problem, decided to take up the task and restart the chapter; among them was Matan Silberstein, who became the group's president.
Now 18 and set to graduate this spring from Lower Merion High School, Silberstein has since risen through the ranks of the Conservative movement's 15,000-member worldwide youth group. Last month, he defeated two other candidates to become USY's next international president, a one-year term that will involve travel throughout the United States and Israel.
"Most teenagers don't think their voice can make a difference. I think it's important to let them know that they have a voice," says Silberstein, adding that part of his job will be to try to get USY members more involved in the Conservative movement and other Jewish causes.
Silberstein was elected at the group's conference held last month in Philadelphia. There, Silberstein's predecessor, Mordy Greenspan, gave his farewell address as president and challenged the nearly 1,200 teens present to reinvigorate what he deemed a struggling religious movement.
"The [Conservative] movement is struggling. I think there's a lot people can do about it, especially coming from the youth perspective," says Silberstein, who was born in Israel but has lived most of his life in Bala Cynwyd. "My grandparents' generation worked so hard so we could live Jewish lives; they planted seeds so we could have the shade."
He hopes to promote everything from basketball leagues to community-service projects, which might attract students who don't attend USY's more religious-based activities. Eventually, Silberstein feels, those teens would be exposed to the values of Conservative Judaism and grow to become more active.
Silberstein thinks USY involvement has been a great way for him to meet friends and build valuable skills, but he says he's donated so much of his time to the cause because he believes in the balance that Conservative Judaism tries to strike between tradition and innovation.
The volunteer position will take Silberstein around America and to Canada on subsidized trips to meet with leaders of the movement's 17 regions. He will spend this summer with other youth-group members on the road – with 10th- and 11th-graders touring the country, then with 12th-graders on the USY Pilgrimage to Poland and Israel.
In the fall, Silberstein, who wants to study Middle East politics in college, plans to be in Israel as part of Nativ, USY's year-long leadership program.
He says the group has had a considerable impact on his life: "It's a very tight-knit community with a lot of good people."
In addition to his USY duties, Silberstein serves as co-president of the Israel Club at Lower Merion High School. The student organization received more attention than it expected last spring when several flyers announcing the club's first meeting were defaced with swastikas.
The same symbol turned up on classroom doors 10 days later, prompting many to wonder whether anti-Semitism was increasing at a school that has a significant Jewish population.
"For me, it showed that there are people out there who either are too ignorant to realize the significance of that symbol or actually have anti-Semitic feelings," says Silberstein, reflecting on the experience.
Silberstein notes that the club is doing quite well. In fact, between Ariel Sharon's stroke and the controversy surrounding Steven Spielberg's new film "Munich," the students have had plenty to discuss at meetings.