I have AIDS, rabbi from S.F. reveals publicly

Rabbi Cyndie Culpeper believes rabbis have a duty to challenge their communities.

Last month she presented her congregants with what is surely one of the most profound spiritual challenges they'll ever face: The rabbi of Agudath Israel Synagogue in Montgomery, Ala., said she has AIDS.

In doing so, the 33-year-old San Francisco native became what is believed to be the first pulpit rabbi to openly tell a congregation she or he has the disease.

"I am telling you this because you are my family," she told Agudath Israel members, "and I hope to feel the support that a family gives."

Culpeper, a Jew-by-choice, said a number of friends tried to dissuade her from going public, saying she had much to risk by doing so. The rabbi, however, never doubted her decision.

"This is Torah," she said of her announcement, which included the information that she contracted the disease through her work as a nurse at S.F. General Hospital. "Torah is teaching, and that teaching is best shown by how we choose to live publicly, not by the silence we may maintain privately."

When Culpeper broke the news to 150 members of her 200-family Conservative congregation at a special meeting Jan. 7, she had no idea what the reaction would be. "I got 150 hugs afterward," she said.

Children wrapped themselves around her legs. And the Shabbat evening following her announcement, all 85 congregants in attendance wore red ribbons, the symbol of AIDS awareness.

The congregation has even set up a Rabbi Cynthia Culpeper Chai Fund to help their rabbi with any future expenses she might incur.

"The most important thing is [that] the congregation is with our rabbi 100 percent. Whatever it takes, we are here to support her," said Col. Bob Taffet, president of Agudath Israel.

At Culpeper's side when she told her congregation of her illness was Rabbi Ted Alexander of San Francisco's Congregation B'nai Emunah, to which Culpeper has belonged since her teens. When she told her congregants she had AIDS, "they were magnificent, magnificent," Alexander said.

His voice choking with emotion, Alexander recalled how Agudath Israel congregants pulled him aside after Culpeper's announcement and said, "`Rabbi, there's one more thing you can do for us. Tell our rabbi to stay with us. We will take good care of her.'"

Culpeper — who led Agudath Israel as a student rabbi and assumed the pulpit there full-time in August of last year — has expressed interest in returning home to San Francisco when her contract expires in July. As of last week, however, she was unsure what she will do.

"There is still plenty of time to make that decision," said Alexander, who said he considers Culpeper "like a daughter."

A graduate of San Francisco State University's nursing program, Culpeper worked in the operating rooms at San Francisco General Hospital before entering rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. During semester breaks, she continued her work as a nurse.

In January 1994, she received an "occupational exposure" at the hospital to AIDS-infected blood. She was tested immediately, and six months later was retested according to usual procedures. Both tests were negative, so she "totally put the incident out of my mind and never thought about it again."

Shortly before the High Holy Days last year, however, Culpeper went to have a sore throat checked. Rather than being diagnosed with strep, as she expected, she was told she had thrush, a yeast infection in the mouth. "Healthy adults do not get thrush," she said.

A barrage of questions followed, along with a recommendation that she be tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That surprised Culpeper, because she had none of the risk factors for contracting HIV, except for the occupational exposure.

The day after Rosh Hashanah, she learned she had tested positive for the virus. From then on, things happened quickly.

Within two weeks, the rabbi went from knowing she was HIV-positive to being diagnosed with AIDS. A person is classified as having AIDS when his or her blood T-cell count dips below 200. Further testing showed Culpeper's T-cell count at 3, which means her immune system was dangerously weakened.

"I couldn't believe it when I heard on the telephone [that I had AIDS]," she recalled, adding that her case is unusual because of the rapidity with which she developed the disease.

Culpeper's T-cell count remarkably has jumped to 42, due to her use of newly marketed and much-touted drugs called protease inhibitors. Those drugs, which disable protease, the key enzyme in HIV, have yielded dramatic results in many patients.

Currently the rabbi is taking the protease inhibitors in conjunction with other drugs, and is feeling "thank God, pretty good." She is receiving medical care at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, 90 miles north of Montgomery.

For the first three months after her diagnosis, Culpepper lived with the knowledge of her illness but decided not to tell the congregation until she sorted out the best way to do it.

Ultimately she explained to her congregants she had contracted AIDS while caring for those in need. "I still [give care] within the context of being a rabbi, but I recognize now more than ever that I am just as much on the receiving end of caring as I am on the giving side of it," she said.

"I believe God cares, too — unconditionally," she added, "regardless of race, creed, color, religion, sexual orientation or practice, and I know that God calls upon us to care unconditionally as well."

Prior to the Jan. 7 meeting, the only person in Montgomery who knew Culpeper had AIDS was Mike Murphree of the Montgomery AIDS Outreach. He fielded questions after the rabbi made her announcement.

Murphree's appearance sent an early message that education will be an important byproduct of Culpeper's announcement. "I didn't want to just drop a bombshell on my people and then say, `OK, deal with this,'" she said.

Taffet, the congregation's president, agreed, saying, "Education is key, and we might as well start with our own."

Recently, Culpeper attended an AIDS-education seminar. Through the connections she made there, the Atlanta Jewish Family Services AIDS Outreach held an educational program at Agudath Israel Jan. 21. More than 110 people from three local congregations attended the event, which was coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Montgomery.

Culpeper was not present at the Jan. 21 session because of a previously planned rabbinic trip to Israel. Coincidentally, her delegation was at the Prime Minister's office waiting to meet with Shimon Peres when Ethiopians rioted outside. They were protesting Israel's policy of discarding their blood because it has a higher incidence of containing the HIV virus.

"Talk about being attached to the issue," Culpeper said. "That was very intense for me."

Following the Jan. 7 meeting, word of Culpeper's condition had traveled quickly. Montgomery-area ministers, said Taffet, have been calling him to ask if they can include the rabbi in their prayers.

Those prayers extend across the country to San Francisco, where at B'nai Emunah, Alexander and others are also praying for their friend's physical and emotional health.

Culpeper first appeared on B'nai Emunah's doorstep while a student at a San Francisco Catholic high school researching a report on Judaism. The report sparked her curiosity in the faith, and study sessions with Alexander followed. By age 21, Culpeper had converted, and as her knowledge of Judaism grew, so did her desire to make it her career.

When she arrived in Montgomery for her first full-time rabbinical position last summer, she shied away from publicity, insisting she did not want to be known solely as the state's first female Conservative pulpit rabbi, or as the rabbi who grew up Catholic.

Likewise, though she has gone public about having AIDS, she does not want to be known now solely for her disease.

"I may be a rabbi with AIDS but please do not call me the AIDS rabbi," she implored of her congregation. "And I am not dying of AIDS, I am living with it, as thousands more are now, too, with longer more complete lives."