Rabbi Stern

Congregation Beth El is fortunate to welcome Rabbi Rebekah Stern as our newest clergy member starting this summer. Rabbi Stern says it’s “thrilling to be coming back to a place where my Judaism began and to help others find their way on their Jewish journeys.” 

She added that “the opportunity to contribute to [Beth El], which was instrumental to my Jewishness, is a joy and an honor.” Rabbi Stern will assist Rabbi Kahn with services, life cycle events and pastoral care. She will also focus on all our education programs at Beth El, such as the b’nei mitzvah program and the religious school. 

Rabbi Stern’s parents joined the congregation in the mid-1980s and they enrolled her and her brother, Alexander, in BENS.  When Rabbi Stern finished there, she attended Beth El’s religious school (now called Kadima), went to Camp Kee Tov during the summers, sang in the junior choir and later became a bat mitzvah at Beth El. 

Rabbi Stern is fluent in French, having spent two years in Paris in middle school with her family while her father, a professor of education at UC Berkeley, worked for the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). Although she admitted that at the time she was “totally miserable,” she now says the experience of living abroad “was worth it 110%.” Upon deciding to become a rabbi, Rabbi Stern attended rabbinical school at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).  

During her final year there, she served as rabbinic intern at Peninsula Temple Sholom (PTS) in Burlingame (a congregation with a membership of 750 families). In order to do so, she and her family returned to live in the Bay Area that year, and Rabbi Stern commuted weekly to Los Angeles to finish her classes. 

In addition to her rabbinic ordination, Rabbi Stern earned Master’s degrees in Hebrew Letters and in Jewish Education from HUC-JIR. At the end of her internship year at PTS, Rabbi Stern was engaged full-time as assistant rabbi. She has served in this capacity for the last three years, living in Albany with her family and commuting to Burlingame six days each week.  

Rabbi Stern is married to Sean Holcombe, who is originally from Phoenix. They have two children, Leora (4), who attends BENS, and Jonathan (1). Sean is a licensed marriage and family therapist who practices home-based family therapy, runs a men’s group for new fathers and serves as a clinician in a crisis stabilization unit in Solano County. The couple met one summer at Hava Nashira, the Reform Movement’s annual conference for Jewish music educators, held in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. 

Sean and Rabbi Stern married in 2004 as she was accepted into the rabbinical program, which included spending a year together in Israel. The same summer that she and Sean were at Hava Nashira, Rabbi Stern also worked as a counselor at URJ Camp Newman, which was then under the assistant directorship of Debra Sagan Massey, Beth El’s director of education. At that time, Camp Newman was experimenting in training song leaders, for which Rabbi Stern said there is still “a real need. Qualified song leaders are in short supply,” she ​added. The then-program director of UC Berkeley Hillel, Josh Miller, taught Rabbi Stern how to play guitar, so that she could lead services in the Reform minyan there. She has always been interested in music; in fact, she sang in choruses and in an a capella group throughout high school and at UC Berkeley. She also worked as a song leader at Camp Kee Tov during the summers of 2000 and 2001.

Rabbi Stern did not always know that she wanted to become a rabbi, although she said she was always the most interested of her immediate family — which was not particularly religious — in Jewish ritual. While at UC Berkeley, Rabbi Stern chose a major in psychology with a minor in anthropology because, although she did not then know what she wanted to do professionally, she knew she “wanted to do something with people.”

At the time of her graduation, Rabbi Stern thought she might want to be a lawyer. She explored her options first through career counseling, then did informational interviews with attorneys that she or her family knew in order to find out more about the practice of law. She also worked in a law firm as a case clerk. “The attorneys always asked me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? You have to be really sure’,” which gave her pause, she said.

As part of the career counseling process, Rabbi Stern took a battery of interest tests and worked with a career counselor who was not Jewish and was “very objective,” who had a big impact on her. An interest in religious life came out of those tests and, while she was a song leader in a number of Jewish communities, she had the opportunity to observe and talk with different rabbis at their work. She figured out that she wanted to “work cooperatively with people a majority of the time and not to be in conflict [such as in the practice of law].”

When asked, these rabbis uniformly said that they loved what they did, even though they admitted that there were numerous time and boundary challenges. The rabbis uniformly encouraged Rabbi Stern to consider studying for the rabbinate. We’re glad they did!

Please join us in welcoming Rabbi Stern to her new post at Congregation Beth El.

Rabbi Stern's Recent D'rashot (Sermons):

Yom Kippur 5776:
"A Call to Action in the Season of Awakening"