Rabbi Cyndie Culpeper, who may be the first pulpit rabbi to announce to her congregation that she has AIDS, took an extremely courageous step in making her disease public.
She had no way of knowing how her congregation would react when she broke the news. She just knew she had to do it — for herself, for her congregants, and for others with AIDS who do not feel safe revealing they have the disease.
By coming forward, Culpeper is helping to break down stereotypes of who gets the disease. In the Bay Area, where AIDS has a high profile, most of us understand the disease can touch anyone. In other parts of the country, where AIDS is less prevalent, people still cling to outdated beliefs that it only affects homosexuals and drug addicts.
When someone like Culpeper announces she has AIDS, however, it makes it harder to deny the disease hits people of all stations in life — including religious leaders.
The fact she has made her condition public presents a unique opportunity for AIDS education. The rabbi, in fact, has already made it a priority to educate her congregation, particularly the children, about AIDS.
And she has spoken openly with print and broadcast media about her disease in hopes of reaching as many people as possible.
As Culpeper said in her speech to her congregation, "Torah is teaching, and that teaching is best shown by how we choose to live publicly, not by the silence we maintain privately."
Silence kills has been the "motto of many an AIDS awareness button worn in New York and California," Culpeper told her congregants. "The Jewish community knows all too well the destructive power of silence, not only in our past but in our future as well."
Those are words that should guide the Jewish community in caring for people with AIDS, and in rallying behind efforts to find a cure.
Now more than ever there is hope AIDS could become a chronic rather than fatal disease.
Last week researchers announced a new class of drugs called protease inhibitors, combined with existing drugs, can at least temporarily check the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. We should support wide access to those drugs.
In the meantime, our prayers are with Culpeper, and all others living with the disease.