Community mourns loss of Rabbi Cynthia Culpeper, 43

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

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

The results came in on Rosh Hashanah in 1995; when she returned the call after the holy day she was told the test came back positive.

At the time of her diagnosis she was rabbi of Agudath Israel in Montgomery. She continued as the full-time rabbi there until early 1997, then 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 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. She was sick?”

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 him. 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” through an accidental needle stick. She was tested immediately and six months later, with both tests being negative. Usually, if a test is negative after six months, there is nothing to worry about. 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.”

She served Montgomery’s Agudath Israel, then decided to become a pulpit rabbi. Agudath Israel, which has since merged to become Agudath Israel-Etz Ahayem, offered her the full-time position after her 1995 ordination.

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. 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 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, love for children, inspiring and engaging warmth and determination to make the world a better place.”

Though Culpeper initially had positive response to the 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. Still, she tried to maintain as busy a schedule as possible.

Always media-shy, she 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. Then, 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 Days at B’nai Emunah. The September bulletin for Temple Beth-El, the Conservative congregation here, listed a Hebrew crash course and Sunday Shiur that she planned to lead.

The funeral will be on Aug. 31 on 2 p.m. at the Old Beth-El Cemetery in Birmingham.