About the time Ronald Gilbert became a parent 20 years ago, his Jewish faith deepened and slowly he became Orthodox.
The Orange County urologist and his family eventually moved from their home in Tustin to Huntington Harbour so they could more easily observe Shabbat, or the Sabbath, by walking to their synagogue, Chabad of West Orange County. Gilbert was known to freely dispense advice — medical and otherwise — and rabbis referred to him as a tzaddik, or righteous man.
"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.'"
So the community was stunned when the respected physician and father of two was fatally shot in an exam room Jan. 28. Stanwood Elkus, 75, of Lake Elsinore was arrested at the scene and later pleaded not guilty to charges of murder. He remains in jail, awaiting trial.
A source familiar with the investigation said Gilbert, 52, may have been a victim of mistaken identity — Elkus may have confused him with someone with a similar name who had treated him years earlier. An attorney representing the Gilbert family in civil court said the victim never treated Elkus.
Elkus' trial is probably months away. Meanwhile, Gilbert's family clings to the memory of a dedicated husband and father.
"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."
After Gilbert died, his wife came across a note Gilbert had written his sons shortly after 9/11. The letter was read at his funeral, attended by 1,000 mourners on the day that would have been his 53rd birthday.
"Try not to be bitter about the many unfortunate things that may happen to you in your life," he wrote. "Your response to difficult situations will in large part define you as a person."
When the couple's eldest son, Stephan, 21, got into sports, Gilbert took him golfing. After his youngest son, Jakey, 16, showed an interest in music, the living room was transformed into a makeshift studio, routinely hosting jam sessions.
Gilbert's brother Glenn now observes Shabbat with his youngest nephew and sister-in-law, wearing his brother's black-rimmed hat "like a crown," in order to spend time with and support his nephews and sisters-in-law. The synagogue has been more than welcoming.
"It's to help them, and it's to feel connected to my brother and to honor and show my respect for him," Glenn said. "People are very warm, and we've gone through the same loss."
While the Gilbert family was sitting shiva (observing a Jewish mourning period), visitors told stories that spoke of Gilbert's character: When neighbor Eli Benzaken was repairing his rabbi's dryer and cut his arm, he went straight to Gilbert. When Benzaken's wife, Carol Adams, was diagnosed with a large tumor, she too turned to Gilbert, who made sure she had a skillful oncologist, flowers and a daily visit from him after her release from the hospital.
"He didn't ever leave that role of being a physician or a healer," Adams said.
As a young man, Gilbert trained partly at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Long Beach, playing 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 topical medical spray to help treat male sexual dysfunction and started a company, Absorption Pharmaceuticals. His partners said he focused more on patients and quality than on business.
The day before Gilbert was killed in his medical office, he and business partner Jeff Abraham celebrated. They had a $30-million offer to sell the company they'd built up from an earlier valuation of $1 million.
"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."
Most difficult for his family to comprehend is the loss of a man who lived to serve others.
"You know, some people do good things to promote themselves and for their ego gratification, and that was not him," Glenn said of his brother. "He did it because he was a great person."