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Cynthia Culpeper Dies, Rabbi Who Battled AIDS

September 15, 2005 By:
Larry Brook, Deep South Jewish Voice
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Birmingham, Ala.

Rabbi Cynthia Culpeper, the first pulpit rabbi to announce being diagnosed with AIDS, died Aug. 29 after a 10-year battle with complications associated with the disease.

Culpeper, 43, was diagnosed after coming down with thrush in 1995 shortly before her first Rosh Hashanah after being ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary. Because healthy adults do not tend to get thrush, she was urged to take an HIV test.

At the time of her diagnosis, she was rabbi of Agudath Israel in Montgomery, Ala. She continued as the full-time rabbi there until early 1997, when she moved to Birmingham, where she was receiving cutting-edge care through the AIDS research clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

She became a "rabbi at large" for 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 the Passover seder at the Jerusalem Open House in 2003, and in 2004 participated in an Israel mission with her hometown congregation, B'nai Emunah in San Francisco.

B'nai Emunah Rabbi Ted Alexander called Culpeper's death "a horrible tragedy," and noted how active she was on the congregational trip last year. Though Culpeper had to use a cane, "she was fabulous. She outran everybody."

Alexander remembered how Culpeper appeared at his congregation one Shabbat evening, a Catholic high school student with a report to write about Judaism. She asked him questions after the service, returned the next week with more questions, then came back the third week with one question: how to become Jewish.

One of the nuns at Culpeper's school later met with Alexander. Instead of telling him to stay away, she said Culpeper confided in her, and said, "I know she will not make a good Catholic, so make a good Jew out of her."

Culpeper converted to Judaism as an adult, then decided to pursue the rabbinate to deepen her personal commitment.

A graduate of the San Francisco State nursing program, she worked at San Francisco General Hospital during semester breaks from JTS. In January 1994, she received an "occupational exposure" to HIV through an accidental needle stick. After a test for HIV came back negative six months later, she "totally put the incident out of my mind and never thought about it again."

Because of her background as a nurse, she envisioned going into hospital chaplaincy, but decided to take a student pulpit to get the idea of being a pulpit rabbi "out of my system."

After being diagnosed in September 1995, she went from having HIV to being diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in two weeks, a process that normally takes years.

She began treatment in Birmingham, but kept news of her condition quiet, finally scheduling a congregational meeting for Jan. 7, 1996. 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.

She was hesitant about the type of reaction she would get from her congregants, but afterward got "150 hugs" from the 150 congregants in attendance.

JoAnn Rousso, director of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama, said "everybody is sad" to hear the news. "She had a real close relationship with many people in Montgomery that she maintained through the years."

Richard Friedman, executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, said Culpeper "illuminated the Birmingham Jewish community with her dedication to Judaism and love for children, inspiring and engaging warmth and determination to make the world a better place."

Always media-shy, Culpeper insisted that she did not want to be known as the rabbi that grew up Catholic, or as the first full-time female rabbi in Alabama.

So, too, she did not want to be known just as "the AIDS rabbi."

She contributed to "The Women's Torah Commentary," and was scheduled to assist at this year's High Holy Day services at B'nai Emunah. The September bulletin for Temple Beth-El, the Conservative congregation here, listed a Hebrew crash course and Sunday class that she planned to lead.

Culpeper is survived by her mother, Mary Culpeper of San Francisco, and brother Cliff Culpeper, also of San Francisco.

 

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