Rabbi Cynthia A. Culpeper

Female, #41740, (16 Jun 1962 - 29 Aug 2005)
Father*Clark G. Culpeper (10 Aug 1932 - 23 Dec 1977)
Mother*Mary A. Schultz
Name Variation She was also known as Culpepper. 
Birth*16 Jun 1962 Cynthia was born at San Mateo Co., California, on 16 Jun 1962.1,2 
SSN*1976 Her Social Security Number was issued in 1976 in California.2 
Death of Father23 Dec 1977 Her father Clark G. Culpeper died on 23 Dec 1977 at San Francisco, San Francisco Co., California.3 
Death*29 Aug 2005 She died at Birmingham, Jefferson Co., Alabama, on 29 Aug 2005 at age 43.4,2 
Burial*31 Aug 2005 Her body was interred on 31 Aug 2005 at Old Knesseth-Israel/Beth-El Cemetery, Birmingham, Jefferson Co., Alabama.4 
Biography* From Catholic school to rabbinate: one woman's path
By Leslie Katz
Jewish Bulletin; 4 Aug 1995, Page 5

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."

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Rabbi from S.F. reveals she has the AIDS virus.
Breaks the news to her congregation in Alabama

By Katherine Seligman
San Francisco Examiner; 24 Mar 1996, Page B-1

It was the most difficult speech of her life, delivered in a place she had lived in long enough to love but not yet wholly trust.

One day early this year Rabbi Cyndie Culpeper stood before her congregation in Montgomery, Ala., and told them she had AIDS. Stepping down from her podium in the crowded chapel, she explained how she had gotten the virus through her work as a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital and asked them not to turn away, to direct their anger at the disease.

"I knew this community, but I didn't know how they'd react," said Culpeper, a 33-year-old San Francisco native who is now Alabama's first Conservative female rabbi and perhaps the only rabbi in the nation to openly disclose she is infected with the AIDS virus.

"But the response was wonderful," she said. "There were 150 people there, and there were 150 hugs."

For four months she had suffered silently, wrestling with whether to tell the 300 members of her congregation. She knew why so many AIDS sufferers hid, how they faced losing jobs, insurance, homes.

Some old friends warned her against going public. "You don't know how they'll react," they told her. "We're talking about Alabama."

In the end she turned to her faith, to Jewish beliefs that she says hold that "teaching is best shown by how we choose to live publicly, not by the silence we maintain privately."

To prepare, she held a "dress rehearsal" with members of Congregation B'nai Emunah, the Sunset District temple she had belonged to since she was a teenager. Choking back tears, she broke the news of her illness to her longtime friends, then asked for help in writing a speech for her own congregation.

"The mood was fantastic," said Rabbi Ted Alexander, who considers Culpeper like another daughter. "Everyone came forward. We love her. She is part of us."

Congregation members helped her revise her speech into the emotional seven-page address she gave in Alabama on July 7, with her mother, brother, Rabbi Alexander and a local AIDS educator standing nearby.

"The Jewish community knows all too well the destructive power of silence, not only in our past, but in our present and future too," she said in her speech. "AIDS needs to be fought and feared, but a person living with AIDS does not need to be, nor should be feared."

Congregation President Bob Taffet describes how people embraced her and the children wrapped themselves around her legs.

"It went right to your heart," he said. "The announcement hurt everybody."

Culpeper had become rabbi at Agudath Israel Synagogue - her first full-time rabbinical position - only in August. A month and a half later, she'd gone to a medical clinic for treatment of what she thought must be strep throat.

The doctor diagnosed thrush, a throat infection rarely seen in healthy adults, and suggested she take an HIV test. The clinic phoned her on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, so Culpeper waited until the holiday was over to get the dreaded news: She is HIV-positive.

A second test yielded the same results but also showed her T-cell count - the number of infection-fighting cells - had fallen to a dangerously low level of 3. A normal count is 1,000.

Although she felt well, the news overwhelmed her. Her life, her plans to one day get married and have a family, suddenly were in jeopardy.

Work was the only escape, and she began accepting every invitation and request for an appearance. She needed to block out how she'd seen friends suffer from AIDS.

"I was a wreck thinking that's how I was going to end up," she said. "I would forget things and think, "Oh my God, I'm getting dementia.' "

Friends in San Francisco helped hook her up with AIDS experts in The City, who in turn helped her find the best treatment in Birmingham.

There are only two documented cases that meet the "gold standard" of proof, where an AIDS infection has been tracked to a specific exposure at San Francisco General Hospital, according to Dr. Julie Gerberding, who has studied the risk of getting HIV through occupational exposure. There are some other suspected cases, which Gerberding believes could include Culpeper.

"I don't have a problem believing her infection was a result of her work," she said.

The odds of being infected from a contaminated needle is 1 in 300, Gerberding said. Worldwide, there are 79 documented cases of health workers' getting AIDS through a work exposure, though there are another 144 suspected cases. The largest number of those infected are nurses.

Culpeper worked at the hospital full-time for 3 1/2 years and part-time for seven more years when she was home from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

She believes she was exposed in 1994, but says she can't be specific about how because of potential litigation. S.F. General officials have denied her workers' compensation claim.

Culpeper now takes three anti-viral drugs, including a new much-touted protease inhibitor, which have boosted her T-cell count and lowered the amount of detectable virus in her blood. Except for medication side effects - including one scary allergic reaction that sent her temperature soaring - she has been feeling healthy, she said.

Still, she has decided to leave her position in the summer and possibly return to the Bay Area or San Francisco, where she grew up, one of two children in a Catholic family.

Rabbi Alexander recalls how Culpeper came to him at age 15 to ask questions for a school assignment on comparative religion. She stayed for services, then came back on successive Fridays.

Culpeper developed an insatiable curiousity about Judaism, questioning Alexander until he said one night, jokingly, "Any more questions?" and she answered, "How do I become Jewish?"

She later converted, taught Sunday school at B'nai Emunah and continued her close association with the synagogue and its leader.

After completing nursing school at S.F. State, she went to work at S.F. General. She found the work satisfying, but was drawn to study Judaism.

In the late 1980s she left to spend a year working at a hospital in Jerusalem and studying Hebrew before attending the rabbinical seminary in New York.

Ordained in 1995, she job-hunted away from the Bay Area and the congregation where she was so well-known and landed a student position in Montgomery, Ala. The connection was immediate, said Taffet, whose congregation later offered her a full-time position.

"I felt close to her from the start," he said. "With her there is no pretense."

There was no hesitation in hiring a female rabbi, said Taffet, adding that congregation members probably were more surprised that their spiritual leader was a vegetarian than that the person happened to be a woman.

After hearing about her illness, they called, visited and worried over their rabbi.

"I went through weeks of "Rabbi, how are you? I mean, how are you really?' " Culpeper recalled. "It was "Oh Rabbi, I don't want to burden you.' All of a sudden I was in a different category."

But after repeated reassurance, people slowly began sharing their sorrows and joys with her again. She resumed visiting and consoling the sick, celebrating bar mitzvahs and births.

Without reservation, the synagogue's board wants her to stay. Alexander calls their response to her illness "a revelation of love and humanity."

Congregation members now clip out articles for Culpeper on new AIDS drugs. A new temple position of AIDS education coordinator is in the works.

"It amazes me how knowledgeable they've become," said Culpeper. "They know how to pronounce protease inhibitor."

Her life, she said, remains a "roller coaster," with good days and days where she wants to give up on her medication. On days like that she tries to think about Magic Johnson's return to basketball, proof of how people can live with HIV.

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

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Aids Disrupts Rabbi's Life, But Faith Remains Strong
By James D. Davis Religion Editor
Sun-Sentinel; Ft. Lauderdale; 11 Apr 1997, Page 5E

In May 1995, Cynthia Culpeper became a rabbi. In August that year, she was hired at a temple. That October, she was diagnosed with AIDS.

"I never do anything slowly," she offers as a macabre quip.

She doesn't even take speaking tours slowly. Despite her condition, she plans five speeches next week for various South Florida groups.

"I never wanted to be known as the `AIDS rabbi,'" Culpeper, 34, says by phone from Birmingham, Ala., where she lives after resigning from Agudath Israel Synagogue in Montgomery. "But now I see it's not necessarily a bad thing. I see everything through having AIDS, and Judaism helps me deal with that."

She'll discuss her ideas at several meetings this coming week. On Wednesday, she will address an interfaith clergy luncheon at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood. That night, she'll speak at a forum sponsored by the Jewish AIDS Network, a branch of the Broward Jewish Federation.

On Thursday she will address the Broward Board of Rabbis at Temple Beth Shalom, Coconut Creek. Also during the week, Culpeper will talk to high schoolers at Temple Kol Ami in Plantation and the Judaica High School at Temple Beth Orr in Coral Springs.

Growing up in San Francisco, Culpeper converted from Catholicism at the age of 21 while a student nurse. She continued to practice nursing between semesters at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. It was at the hospital, she thinks - the matter is still in pre-trial hearings - that she was exposed to AIDS through a needle prick.

She was tested for AIDS immediately, then was relieved at the negative results. After graduation at the seminary, she was hired at Agudath Israel, not only as the rabbi but singing the prayers as cantor.

Then in 1995 she came down with oral thrush, a yeast infection that made it hard to sing. Tested the day before Rosh Hashana, she got the fateful results on Simhat Torah that year.

Culpeper lived for a year in "healthy denial," she says, then decided she had to tell her 300 congregants.

The confession, on a Sabbath in January 1996, drew an avalanche of hugs and offers of help. It was followed by a two-week "invasion of the banana bread loaves," Culpeper says tongue in cheek.

Still, she noticed that they began withdrawing from their rabbi. "People wouldn't touch me," she says, her voice choking. "I can't talk about it. They were wonderful about understanding her condition, but living with what AIDS means is very different."

The congregation extended her employment contract until July of this year, but Culpeper resigned in January because of health problems. She moved 90 miles northward, where she gets treatments at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

She lives in a rented house, within walking distance of a synagogue. She grows hyacinths in "my own Garden of Eden" and enjoys walks with Annie, a mostly golden retriever puppy.

But much of her life nowadays revolves around tests, medicines and tracking her T-cell count. On some days she has energy for little but walking Annie and taking her "meds."And on her "D-Days" - named for bouts of diarrhea - the bathroom is the main room of the house.

"We all need to be doing God's work, and it's frustrating on days when I can't do it," Culpeper says.

She mourns the fact that she will never become a mother or wife. For eight months she dated a university student who knew of her condition. But she broke it off in January. "It was a very stressful relationship," is all she will say.

She often turns to Scripture - "Torah therapy," she calls it - to help her cope. She says the psalms give voice to her feelings of anger and frustration. She is glad to read the cry of Psalm 30: "What profit is there in my death if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?"

Last year before Passover, she compared her condition to that of the ancient Israelites who suffered under Egyptian slavery. "I've learned a new form of slavery: taking my meds. Now I need to find a new definition of freedom."

That definition may be developing as well. For on days when she feels better, and the sun shines, and she can attend temple, she is happy just to put her feet on the ground.

"I have a hard time accepting when people take their lives, like the Heaven's Gate members," Culpeper says. "I've been in the depths of despair. But life is always worth living. There is always something to be learned and gleaned. Every day is precious."

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AIDS Is This Rabbi's Pulpit
"AIDS Is a Jewish Problem Because it is a Human Problem"

By Sandy Naiman
The Toronto Sun; 30 Nov 1997, Page 70

She's called The Rubber Rabbi because of the stash of condoms she carries wherever she goes.

But when I met Cynthia Culpeper - the 35-year-old Catholic who, at 15, decided to convert to Judaism and then switched from a nursing career to embrace life in the Conservative Jewish rabbinate - she looked more fragile than elastic.

She seemed inordinately exhausted after her flight here from Birmingham, Ala., where she now lives close to the 1917 Clinic of the University of Alabama, a state-of-the-art facility treating Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Rabbi Cynthia Culpeper has AIDS.
Though there is a handful of American rabbis with AIDS, so far she is the only one with the courage and integrity not only to admit publicly to her condition, but also to turn it into her own personal pulpit for activism and education.

"Torah means teaching and there is Torah in everything," she says. "There is Torah in AIDS."

Rising Among Women
Culpeper travels all over the continent, speaking to groups of all ages, preaching prevention.

She was in Toronto recently to give the I. Jeffrey Presement Memorial Lecture at Holy Blossom Temple. By telling her story, she also fights the stigma of AIDS, encouraging tolerance and compassion.

"AIDS doesn't discriminate," she says. And today, on the eve of World AIDS Day, it is critical to remember that there is still no cure for AIDS. Far from it. As she often says, quoting Jewish teachings, "The day is short, the work is great... and the Master is insistent."

She stresses, "AIDS is a Jewish problem because it is a human problem. And women are not seen by the medical community to be at risk, until it's too late."

Yet, increasingly women are contracting the virus.

"Current research suggests the probability of transmitting HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, from an HIV-infected man to a non-HIV infected woman is 22%, and from an HIV-infected woman to a non-HIV infected man is 9.3%, over a prolonged period where barrier precautions are not used," writes Tracy Gierman in Why Women Are Vulnerable To HIV (Health Canada, 1994).

The reasons for this dramatic discrepancy lie in physiological differences between the male and the female.

Infection rates among women are rising. The World Health Organization predicts that by the year 2000 there will be 13 million HIV-positive women. In Ontario, 20% of all new HIV-positive diagnoses were among women in 1995; the proportion of AIDS cases in women has increased from 6.1% before 1990 to 9.5% in 1996; and the median age of infection is dropping. At the beginning of the epidemic in the early 1980s, 50% of people infected were older than 30, and 50% were younger. By 1990, that median had dropped to 24.5 years of age.

Culpeper contracted HIV in an "occupational exposure," a needle prick in a surgical procedure in 1994. She was working as a nurse in her native San Francisco to finance her rabbinical training at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary.

Only 0.03% of all HIV transmissions occur this way but in her case, the virus was atypical, very fast moving.

She tested negative at the time of exposure and six months later. Very unusual. In most cases, HIV does not become symptomatic for 10 years. In the fall of 1995, two months after her ordination, newly installed as rabbi of a Montgomery, Ala., congregation, just prior to the High Holidays, she was bothered with a sore throat, which turned out to be thrush.

"Healthy adults do not get thrush," she says.

A recommendation she be tested for HIV shocked her.

"I had none of the risk factors. I wasn't sexually active. I had never had a blood transfusion and I was not and never had been an intravenous drug user. That needle prick had tested negative."

But the day after Rosh Hoshana, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar, she learned she was HIV-positive. Within two weeks, she was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.

She had a T-cell count of 3. HIV develops into AIDS when an infected person's T-cell count in their blood falls below 200 or when an AIDS-related illness is contracted. A normal T-cell count is around 1,000.

"I've never done anything slowly," Culpeper quips. "This turned out to be a blessing and a curse. My HIV-positive friends watched their numbers fall. I started off with AIDS. I felt healthy. I seem to have a weakened strain of the disease."

Outpouring of Support
For four months, Culpeper agonized secretly over whether to come out to her congregation about her condition. When she did, in a seven-page "state of the synagogue" address from her pulpit on a snowy day in January 1996, she was greeted with an outpouring of support and "150 hugs."

But AIDS changes everything. She was forced to resign her Montgomery pulpit later that year to be closer to her medical support in Birmingham.

"I felt I was no longer a rabbi. I had no sense of what direction I was headed," she reflects.

"But in the Jewish community of Birmingham, I've found different, creative ways to still be a rabbi. Life has always delivered interesting things to my doorstep.

"One of my missions is trying to bring the state of Alabama into the 20th century before we enter the 21st century. They certainly don't need me as an AIDS activist in San Francisco."

Admitting that her weakened strain of the virus, so far, has proven immune to all drugs currently used to combat the virus, she tries every experimental drug developed.

She's just started using a new non-nucleoside called Sustiva, or DMP-266, not yet approved in Canada.

"I just hope I will last until something new comes along," she says.

"In the meantime, the only vaccine to protect ourselves is education. AIDS is 100% preventable and we all have a part to play in bringing an end to this pandemic."

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Doctors Fighting AIDS Worry About 'Late Failures'
By Elyse Tanouye, WSJ Staff Reporter
Walt Street Journal, 1 Feb 1999

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Rabbi Cynthia Culpeper, 36 years old, was diagnosed with the AIDS virus three years ago, just after beginning her first rabbinical job at a Montgomery, Ala., synagogue.

Her doctor, Michael Saag, director of the AIDS clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, immediately put her on powerful combinations of AIDS drugs, including the then-experimental protease inhibitors. Like so many other patients, she saw the HIV in her blood drop to undetectable levels, and she remained in good health for two years.

But last year, the virus came roaring back. Since then she has battled infection after infection, including three bouts of pneumonia. And now doctors say she's an example of a devastating new development in the fight against AIDS: "late failures" who responded well to the new drug therapies and then suddenly stopped responding.

Dr. Saag, who was one of the first doctors in the world to use the new drugs and witness their awesome power in subduing HIV, is both baffled and alarmed. Over the past year, he has observed many patients like Rabbi Culpeper.

"We're seeing a lot of people who have resistant virus; for whatever reason, their viral load is up and we can't get it back down," he says. "People who lost control go in a downward spiral and ultimately die. They just waste away and die." Dr. Saag estimates that half of his patients who previously did well on the drugs are seeing the virus return.

'Impressive Enemy'
Scott Hammer, chief of infectious diseases at Columbia Presbyterian medical center in New York, says the virus is returning in some of his patients whose viruses were previously undetectable using the most sensitive of tests. In San Francisco, Donald Abrams, another top AIDS doctor, says he has some patients who have responded to the drugs for up to three years and are "now starting to have changes in their numbers" of virus copies in their blood samples. "No one presumes the drugs will work forever," Dr. Abrams says. "The virus has always been a very impressive enemy."

At an AIDS conference in Chicago this week, researchers are expected to report disheartening findings from Merck & Co.'s long-running trial of a regimen including its drug Crixivan. According to the research, the percentage of patients with very low levels of virus copies in their blood has dropped to about two-thirds after three years from 90% early in the study.

Some researchers maintain that late failures represent a small fraction of the large numbers of patients who have generally done well on the drug. Moreover, they believe patients who succeed in driving the virus down to very low levels usually don't fail if they continue to take their medicines religiously.

Rabbi Culpeper, a tall, thin woman with a dry sense of humor, says she initially missed a few midday doses of medicines, in part because she was hiding her condition and pill-taking. But now, she seems the model patient. During a recent clinic checkup, she laughs as Dr. Saag sprinkles Yiddish words onto a page of her 3-inch-thick medical chart -- Volume III of her clinic record. When the visit is completed, she changes the paper on the examining table as she chats with Dr. Saag. "You can tell she's a former nurse," he says.

Rabbi Culpeper worked as an operating-room nurse in her native San Francisco during summer and winter breaks while attending the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. During one of those stints, she was accidentally stuck with a needle. It was Jan. 14, 1994: "Certain dates are seared into my memory," she says. She was immediately tested for HIV infection, and she was retested six months later. Both tests were negative.

By August 1995, Rabbi Culpeper had completed her rabbinical studies and begun working at a synagogue in Montgomery, Ala. After two months, she noticed her throat felt sore and yeasty. Her new job required a lot of speaking and singing, and she thought she just wasn't using her voice properly.

Oral Thrush
But a check by her doctor found she had oral thrush, an unusual infection among the healthy but common in people with immune deficiencies. An HIV test, to her disbelief, this time came back positive. At first she thought, "Here in Alabama they don't know what they're doing," and she insisted on a second test by an infectious-disease specialist. Two weeks later, that test result was positive.

She began preparations to resign her pulpit and return to San Francisco for treatment, but friends at the San Francisco hospital where she worked referred her to Dr. Saag's clinic, just two hours away in Birmingham. "My doctor's first words to me when I came here in tears was, 'This can be a chronic, manageable disease,' " she says. "I live by those words."

Dr. Saag right away put her on AZT, 3TC, and Crixivan, which was still in clinical trials. "Ironically, I was getting better AIDS care in Alabama than I would have in San Francisco and New York," she says. Some of her friends in those cities were waiting in lotteries for Crixivan.

The drugs initially worked powerfully against the virus. Before the drug therapy, she had 160,000 virus copies per blood sample; after a month of taking the drug cocktail, the number fell to 1,900. About a year ago, her virus count dropped to undetectable levels.

But she paid a high price -- debilitating side effects that included kidney stones, rashes, pain and diarrhea. At times when she was immobilized by the side effects, she thought, "This type of life isn't worth living." Still, her health was relatively good until about a year ago when the virus "broke through" and began proliferating.

Today, nearly out of options, Rabbi Culpeper is playing a grim waiting game, hoping to avoid serious opportunistic infections before new drugs come out. She regularly checks the clinic bulletin board to see if there's anything new among the 40 to 60 ongoing clinical trials. One experimental drug, called T-20, looks promising because it aims to gum up the mechanisms the HIV virus uses to enter patients' cells. But Rabbi Culpeper says she is trying to hold out until another version, dubbed by Dr. Saag as "son of T-20," is available.

Some of Dr. Saag's other patients haven't been able to hang on. One, Atlanta realtor Ben Davis, was the first person ever to try Merck's Crixivan. Before taking Crixivan in August 1993, Mr. Davis's virus count was one million per sample of blood, and he would have died within a year, Dr. Saag says. Within the first two months of Crixivan therapy, Mr. Davis's viral load dropped to 1,000 virus copies per sample.

By October, "everyone was very excited," Dr. Saag recalls. "It was the first time I thought of the word 'cure.' " But a month later his viral load began to creep back up, and it was clear by January that the drug wasn't working as well as it had. He died last April.

So many others among Dr. Saag's AIDS patients died around the same time that Jan Fuller, a clinic nurse, asked Dr. Saag to reinstate grief counseling, a service that had been discontinued a few years ago after patients began doing well on the new drug regimens. "A lot of our buddies died -- my heart broke," says Ms. Fuller.

Too Effective?
Dr. Saag and his staff struggle to understand why the virus is returning in some patients. Are some patients dropping their strict drug-therapy regimens? Are the low levels of virus that remain in the body despite intense drug therapy continuing to replicate, producing mutant versions that defy treatment and proliferate? One new theory is that the drug therapy, ironically, may be so effective at driving the virus down that the immune system thinks the threat is gone and halts its attack.

Along with theories, there are provocative experimental strategies. One involves taking patients off the drugs for a while to allow virus levels to rise just enough to spark a reaction by the immune system. Other tests will look at giving patients an HIV vaccine after initial drug therapy drives the virus down -- and then seeing whether the immune system can control the remaining viruses.

Rabbi Culpeper and other patients in her position are benefiting from the race to find new therapies. But the looming question for the rabbi is whether the new treatments will arrive in time. "Yes, I do think they will come up with something," she says. "I continue to make plans as if AIDS for me and everyone is a chronic, manageable disease. But it doesn't feel that way now."

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First woman rabbi to lead services in Poland
The Jerusalem Post, 22 Sep 2000, Page 07A

When Rabbi Cynthia Culpeper steps up to the bima during High Holiday services in Warsaw, Poland, she'll not only bring in the New Year; she will make history.

Culpeper, a conservative Rabbi from Birmingham Alabama, will be the first ever female rabbi to lead religious services in Poland. Moreover, the ceremonies she'll oversee will be far from the traditional Orthodox observance that dominates the Polish Jewish community.

"There are some people in Warsaw and in Poland who did not find it accommodating enough to go to the Orthodox synagogue in Warsaw; we thought that we can create a venue, a place where people can meet and go back to their roots and find what being a Jew really means," said Kryzsztof Kulig, co-founder of Beit Warszawa, a new liberal organization in Warsaw created by Polish and expatriate Jews not attracted to the strict practices of Orthodox Judaism.

According to Kulig, Beit Warszawa chose Culpeper to lead the liberal ceremonies, where men and women will play equal roles, prayers will be voiced in Polish, English, and Hebrew, and the whole ceremony will take place in a theater setting, because of the similarity between her history and that of Polish Jewry.

"The thing we liked about Rabbi Culpeper was that she was brought up in a Catholic family and then converted to Judaism, found her roots, and became a rabbi," said Kulig. "What's interesting in Poland, for many of us, either we learn we're Jewish at age 12 or 13, or some people are brought up in a Catholic family and then they learn they're Jewish.

"We think, with her experience, that she could actually explain lots of things to people. Also, we found her very liberal... and she was generally very flexible. That's what we liked about her."

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Pioneering female rabbi dies of AIDS
By Jannell McGrew
Montgomery Advertiser, 31 Aug 2005

The first female rabbi to lead a conservative Jewish congregation in the state has died after struggling with AIDS for more than 10 years. Rabbi Cynthia Ann Culpeper, 43, died Monday at the University of Alabama at Birmingham hospital. Those who knew and respected her considered her a kind person and strong spiritual leader.

"She was what a rabbi ought to be -- a great teacher," said Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a close friend. "She enriched the lives of everyone around her."

Graveside services will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Old Knesseth-Israel/Beth-El Cemetery, 320 11th Court N. in Birmingham.

Culpeper enrolled in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, with an initial goal of employing her voice as a cantor.

She later was ordained as a rabbi in the Jewish conservative movement and accepted a pulpit in Montgomery, at then-Agudath Israel synagogue, and became the first female pulpit rabbi in Alabama.

Michael Smith, a Montgomery resident and current member and past president of Agudath Israel-Etz Ahayem, remembered Culpeper with fondness.

"She came here as a young rabbi, and she quickly won over the hearts of the congregation, the Jewish community and all the people that she came in contact with, not only in Montgomery but throughout the state," he said. "Rabbi Culpeper worked tirelessly as a leader and teacher for our young and the old alike to instill Jewish education and teaching through everything that she did.

During her seminary studies, Culpeper was a staff member for Operation Smile in Russia and the Palestinian portion of the West Bank.

She died of AIDS-related infections. Culpeper was exposed to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, in January 1994 when she was working as a registered nurse at San Francisco General Hospital. She punctured her hand with an AIDS-tainted surgical instrument.

The disease in 1995 led her to Birmingham where she was a patient in a cutting-edge medical clinic.

She has been described as a "tireless advocate" and spokeswoman for HIV/AIDS causes.

She is survived by her mother, Mary A. Culpeper, and her brother, Clifford S. Culpeper, both of San Francisco; and a godson, Adam Curry of Sonoma, Calif.

 
ChartsRobert Culpepper Jr. of Lower Norfolk Co., VA: Descendant Chart
Last Edited13 Dec 2005

Citations

  1. Center for Health Statistics / California Department of Health Services, compiler, California Birth Records, 1905-1995, Online database at Ancestry.com, 2005.
    http://www.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=5247
  2. U.S. Social Security Administration, compiler, Social Security Death Index (SSDI), Online database at Ancestry.com.
    http://www.ancestry.com/search/rectype/vital/ssdi/main.htm
    Cynthia A. Culpepper, 16 Jun 1962 - 29 Aug 2005, Birmingham, Jefferson Co., Alabama 35205; SSN 557-41-6852 issued in California in 1976
    (Why it is safe to publish Social Security numbers for deceased people: http://gen.culpepper.com/about/socialsecurity.htm).
  3. State of California Department of Health Services / Center for Health Statistics, compiler, California Death Index, 1940-1997, Online database at Ancestry.com, 2000.
    http://www.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=5180
    Transcription from actual copy of Death Certificate: "Clark G. Culpeper, Male, White, Born 20 Aug 1932 in New York to Roy Culpepper of New York and Jean Warrack of New Jersey, SSN 561-38-1403, Resided in San Francisco for past 30 years, Usual residence: 352 Diamond Street, Employed for past 3 years as a Teamster for the City and County of San Francisco, Informant May Culpepper, 456 Douglas Street; Died on 23 Dec 1977 at 5:25a (age 45) at Kaiser Foundation Hospital in San Francisco, San Franciso Co., CA, Cause of death: Cirrhosis of the liver amd hepatic failure; Cremated 27 Dec 1977 at Olivet Memorial Park, Colma, CA."
  4. Montgomery Advertiser, Montgomery, Alabama.
    http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com
    Obituary of Cynthia Ann Culpeper, published 31 Aug 2005.