Rabbi Cynthia Culpeper did not want to become known as “the rabbi who grew up Catholic” or “the first Conservative woman rabbi in Alabama.” And she certainly didn’t want to be known as “the AIDS rabbi.” But being a Jew-by-choice and the first pulpit rabbi to announce an HIV-positive diagnosis, she became exactly all three.
Culpeper, a native San Franciscan who studied with Rabbi Ted Alexander of Conservative Congregation B’nai Emunah and then converted to Judaism under his guidance, died Monday, Aug. 29, in Birmingham, Ala., after a 10-year battle with AIDS. She was 43.
Alexander remembered how Culpeper, a Catholic high school student with a report to write about Judaism, appeared at his congregation one Shabbat evening. She asked him questions after the service, returned the next week with more questions, then came back the third week with one more question — how to become Jewish.
One of the nuns at Culpeper’s school later met with the rabbi. She told him, “I know she will not make a good Catholic, so make a good Jew out of her.”
Culpeper waited until she was 21 to convert.
“I wanted my family to know I was making an adult decision,” she told the Jewish Bulletin in 1995.
She became an active member of B’nai Emunah, where she blew the shofar, led services, taught Sunday School and celebrated an adult bat mitzvah shortly after converting.
“Originally, Judaism’s appeal was that there is no one right answer, that Jews within Judaism have a voice,” Culpeper said in 1995. “We are encouraged to find our own approaches.”
Culpeper graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in nursing, and worked at San Francisco General Hospital.
Though she loved nursing, she felt drawn to join the rabbinate and entered the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
After her ordination, she took a pulpit in Montgomery, Ala., where she had served as a student rabbi. She was there less than a year before she learned she was HIV-positive.
Culpeper had continued to work as a nurse at San Francisco General during her semester breaks from Jewish Theological Seminary. It was there that she was accidentally pricked with a needle. She was tested immediately and six months later, with both tests negative.
She came down with thrush shortly before her first High Holy Days as a rabbi. Because healthy adults normally do not get thrush, she was urged to take an HIV test.
She went from having HIV to being diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in two weeks, a process that normally takes years. Her T-cell count was at the extremely low level of 3.
She began treatment in Birmingham but kept news of her condition quiet, finally scheduling a congregational meeting on Jan. 7, 1996.
Although some of her friends advised her to keep her diagnosis a secret, she refused.
Just before the meeting began, she told the congregation’s president what the meeting would be about, and had a representative from Montgomery AIDS Outreach on hand to answer questions.
“This is Torah,” she told the Jewish Bulletin in 1996. “Torah is teaching, and that teaching is best shown by how we choose to live publicly, not by the silence we may maintain privately.”
Alexander flew to Alabama to be with her when she made her announcement.
Her congregation embraced her, with 85 people showing up the next Shabbat service with red ribbons pinned to their lapels. They also set up a fund to help her.
She continued as the full-time rabbi until early 1997, and then moved to Birmingham, where she could receive cutting-edge care through the AIDS research clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
She became a “rabbi at large” in Birmingham, teaching classes and, for a time, speaking to Jewish communities nationally about AIDS. In 2000, she became the first female rabbi to lead religious
services in Poland, conducting High Holy Day services at Beit Warszawa.
She also led a seder at the Jerusalem Open House in 2003, participated in an Israel mission with B’nai Emunah in 2004, and contributed to the anthology “The Women’s Torah Commentary.”
Though Culpeper initially responded positively to experimental drugs — ones she would have been on waiting lists to get if she had been in San Francisco or New York instead of Alabama — her health was a roller coaster of ups and downs. Still, she tried to maintain as busy a schedule as possible.
She was scheduled to assist at this year’s High Holy Days at B’nai Emunah.
Culpeper is survived by her mother, Mary Culpeper of San Francisco, and her brother, Cliff Culpeper of San Francisco.
Larry Brook writes for the Deep South Jewish Voice in Birmingham, Ala.; Alexandra J. Wall is a staff writer for j.