Rabbi returns to Berkeley synagogue of her youth

As a child growing up in Berkeley, Rebekah Stern spent summers frolicking at Camp Kee Tov.

Today she supervises it.

Overseeing youth programs such as the camp is one of the responsibilities Stern assumed as Congregation Beth El’s associate rabbi, a post she took up last summer. She says she couldn’t be happier to have come back to the temple of her childhood.

“What I remember as a kid was I loved being here,” Stern says of the Reform synagogue in North Berkeley. “The place always felt alive. It was fun. The place feels very much alive now, maybe even more so.”

Rabbi Rebekah Stern

Stern, 34, has joined Senior Rabbi Yoel Kahn in serving the synagogue, which claims more than 530 member households. She handles everything from lifecycle events and pastoral counseling to education and camp.

Stern came to Beth El after three years serving as assistant rabbi at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame.

It’s rare for a rabbi to end up working at the congregation of her youth, yet the stars aligned just right for Stern, a married mother of two living in Albany.

“A big part of my formative Jewish experience was singing in the [Beth El] choir,” she recalls. “Being part of the music then with Cantor Brian Reich and [choir director] Achi Ben Shalom, I remember a calming, warm feeling that has stuck with me ever since.”

During her college years, Stern earned money serving as a song leader at Camp Kee Tov and attended a leadership session at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa — experiences that opened the door to a career as a Jewish professional.

After graduating U.C. Berkeley with a degree in psychology, she considered law school, but instead found herself drawn to the rabbinate. So she began interviewing rabbis.

“They told me, ‘I love my work. It’s extremely fulfilling. The balance is hard between family life and professional life, but I love it and I think you would love it, too,’ ” Stern says.

In 2005, she started at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She spent a year in Israel with her husband, Sean Holcombe (whom she met at a Jewish music educators conference in Wisconsin).

In her final year at HUC, Stern began an internship at Peninsula Temple Sholom — a mere three months after her daughter was born. That meant regular commuting between the Bay Area and Los Angeles so she could complete her course work.

After her ordination, Stern ended up staying on at Peninsula Temple Sholom. Now she’s back where she started, and she didn’t come in aiming to make big changes right away.

“The synagogue is a second home,” Stern says, “a place we come to find comfort. So we have to be careful about the ways we shake that up. Of course, it has to be shaken up, otherwise we get fossilized. But we have to be careful.”

She says Beth El has been growing, thanks in part to a strategic plan put in place years ago. Aimed at engaging and retaining existing members, the plan prescribes more “in-reach” than outreach.

“We are growing at a time when a lot of synagogues are not,” Stern says. At Beth El, she adds, “when people need support during challenging times, the message goes out and people respond. Needs are met. As a congregation, if we can focus on providing opportunities to connect, I’m not worried about the future of the Jewish community.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.