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Family of slain O.C. physician looks back on his life, faith

About the time when Dr. Ronald Gilbert became a parent 20 years ago, his Jewish faith deepened and he slowly became Orthodox.

The Orange County urologist and his family eventually moved from Tustin to Huntington Harbour so they could more easily observe the Sabbath by walking to their temple, Chabad of West Orange County. Gilbert was known to dispense caring advice — medical and otherwise — to those who asked, and rabbis called him a tzaddik, or righteous man.

"I said, 'I think we should come up with a new term and put it in the Yiddish dictionary with his picture by it, and we should call it a 'super-mensch' or a 'Ronald Gilbert mensch' or something and distinguish it from all the other mensches," his brother Glenn Gilbert recalled, using the Yiddish word for a person of integrity and honor. "Because to lump him in the category with all the other mensches is not accurate."

The Jan. 28 shooting death of the respected physician, businessman and married father of two — someone no one would expect to ever end up a gunman's target — unnerved coastal Orange County, especially the Jewish and medical communities.

The fatal shooting may have been the result of mistaken identity. A source familiar with the murder investigation has said that Stanwood Elkus, the man charged with lying in wait in a Newport Beach exam room and opening fire when the doctor walked in, mixed up the victim with someone who has a similar name and had treated Elkus years before at a Veterans Affairs hospital.

Elkus, 75, of Lake Elsinore, who authorities said was arrested at the scene, has pleaded not guilty to murder and is awaiting trial in Orange County Jail.

"I'll admit, what I did was a terrible thing," Elkus said earlier this year, without clarifying whether he meant the shooting or something else.

Though more of the story will come out in trial, the physician's family is clinging to memories of a man who was as devoted to his faith and profession as he was to his family.

"As busy as he was, he still made time to be with us," Gilbert's widow, Elizabeth, said. "When he got home after a long, hard day at work, he would shut the outside world out and all his problems off and invest fully into his relationship with the children as a dedicated father and to me as my husband and friend. He gave us his undivided attention, making us feel like we were the most important and only thing in his mind."

Illustrative of this was a note Gilbert penned to his sons shortly after 9/11 that Elizabeth came across as she combed through documents after her husband's death. The letter was read at the funeral, which was attended by 1,000 mourners on what would have been Gilbert's 53rd birthday.

"Try not to be bitter about the many unfortunate things that may happen to you in your life," Gilbert wrote in the letter. "Your response to difficult situations will in large part define you as a person."

When the Gilberts' older son, Stephan, 21, got into sports, Ronald took him golfing. After his younger son, Jakey, 16, showed an interest in music, the living room was transformed into something of a studio for the routine hosting of jam sessions. Since his father's death, Jakey has only once picked up his guitar.

Glenn now observes Shabbat with his youngest nephew and sister-in-law, wearing his brother's black-rimmed hat "like a crown."

"It's to help them, and it's to feel connected to my brother and to honor and show my respect for him," said Glenn, who lives in Long Beach. "I'm just greeted very warmly there. People are very warm, and we've gone through the same loss. It was a significant loss for them too."

While the Gilbert family was in mourning, visitors told stories that spoke volumes about Ronald's character. One woman said authorities had falsely suspected her son of being sexually abused and threatened to take him away until Gilbert examined him and found no signs of abuse.

"I think most people would go, 'Hey, guess what? I saved this family,'" Glenn Gilbert said, "or they'd let you know. He had so much to boast about."

When neighbor Eli Benzaken was repairing his rabbi's dryer and cut his arm, he went straight to Gilbert, who treated him. When Benzaken's wife, Carol Adams, was diagnosed with a large tumor, she too turned to Gilbert, who made sure she had a skilled oncologist, flowers and a daily visit from him after her discharge from the hospital.

"He didn't ever leave that role of being a physician or a healer," Adams said.

Even before he turned to faith, Gilbert exhibited a caring nature. As a young man he trained partly at the Long Beach VA and played piano for patients on weekends.

"That's the kind of person he was," said Dr. Elliot Lander, who trained with him at the VA. "He just thought it was cool. He didn't leave to play piano. He played it there."

In his spare time, Gilbert developed a spray to treat premature ejaculation and started a company, Absorption Pharmaceuticals. The day before he was killed in his medical office, he and business partner Jeff Abraham celebrated. They had a $30-million offer to sell the company.

"I will never understand how cruel that is," Abraham said. "To have that moment followed 12 hours later, 14 hours later, by something like that. In a million years you couldn't script that."

Gilbert's influence continues.

His oldest brother, Wayne, a Bay Area attorney, reminds himself daily to be more like his brother.

He said, "He made everyone feel like they were important to him, and I think they were."


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Williams writes for Times Community News.

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