From Catholic school to rabbinate: one womans path

Cyndie Culpeper was a plaid-uniformed student at a San Francisco Catholic high school when she first showed up on the doorstep of Congregation B'nai Emunah to research a report on Judaism.

Eighteen years later, she is a just-ordained rabbi with a pulpit of her own.

Earlier this week, Culpeper left the Bay Area for Montgomery, Alabama, where she will take the helm of a 180-family Conservative synagogue that she has already led as a student rabbi.

Culpeper's journey from Catholic school girl to Conservative rabbi has been gradual. Her high school report, combined with an unusually curious teenage mind, sparked an interest in Judaism, and study with B'nai Emunah's Rabbi Ted Alexander followed. That in turn led to increasing immersion in the religion, and eventually, to conversion.

"Originally, Judaism's appeal was that there is no one right answer, that Jews within Judaism have a voice," the 33-year-old rabbi says. "We are encouraged to find our own approaches."

Another early appeal for Culpeper, quite simply, was B'nai Emunah, a synagogue in San Francisco's Sunset District that serves some 200 families.

"B'nai Emunah has been my family since day one," says the young rabbi, who has blown shofarim, led services, taught Sunday school and celebrated an adult bat mitzvah there shortly after converting.

Culpeper knew she wanted to convert within a year of beginning to explore Judaism as a teenager. But she waited until age 21. "I wanted my family to know I was making an adult decision," she explains.

Even then, some members of Culpeper's family found her dramatic life change hard to swallow. But many, particularly her mother, have gone out of their way to be extra supportive.

"She has always allowed me my space and asked me many questions," Culpeper says of her mom. "And she has attended Passover seders. I wasn't sure if she was going to come to my ordination. Not only did she come, but so did my brother and my cousins."

As Culpeper's family has gotten used to the idea of her Judaism, her own relationship to the religion has grown and changed. After graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree in nursing, she began work in the often harrowing operating room at San Francisco General Hospital. All along, she continued to increase her level of Jewish knowledge and observance until "I enjoyed practicing and living Judaism so much that I decided to make a career out of it."

That decision meant a move to Manhattan and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Culpeper was the first treasurer of JTS' Women's League, a dorm resident adviser and a player in the Jewish Thespian Society's Hebrew-language productions of "Peter Pan" and "Mary Poppins." She was ordained on May 18 .

Despite her high level of involvement at JTS, it took Culpeper three years to tell her colleagues there that she is a Jew-by-choice.

"I just wanted to be known as a Jew. I just wanted to treated equally," she says. "I didn't want people to say `her Hebrew is so good, especially for someone who converted.'"

She also debated whether to tell her new congregation she is a Jew-by-choice. Ultimately, however, she decided to reveal it the first time she went to Montgomery's Agudath Israel Synagogue as a student rabbi. The response was one of overwhelming acceptance.

"Some people were very appreciative that I came forward," recalls the rabbi, who peppers her speech with Hebrew. "They said `I converted to Judaism too.'"

Culpeper has experienced some resistance from her future congregants in another arena, however. She is the first woman rabbi to head a Conservative synagogue in Alabama, and not everyone is used to the idea.

"There are some members of the community who are not yet comfortable with having a female rabbi, and that has been very hard to deal with," she says. "But it's a very emotional issue for people and I have to realize change takes a lot of time."

That's a message Culpeper is repeating to herself as she leaves the metropolitan Bay Area for a new life in the Deep South.

"It's something that nothing has prepared me for," she admits. "It'll be really different. It'll be exciting."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.