S.F. rabbi, congregant beaten in alleged anti-Semitic attack

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Last week's alleged beating of San Francisco Rabbi Bentzion Pil and congregant Michael Medvedev may be the most brazenly anti-Semitic act to take place in the Bay Area since Coy Ray Phelps planted pipe bombs in local rabbis' homes and synagogues in the mid-1980s, according to the director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

"Given the small number of serious incidents directed against Jews in San Francisco's history," said Rabbi Doug Kahn, "yes, I was surprised."

So is the case's lead investigator.

"Sometimes you get nutcakes that make threats against a synagogue, but for someone to actually assault a rabbi wearing his full outfit when there's no question that he's a man of the cloth?" said Milanda Moore, an inspector in the San Francisco Police Department's hate crimes division. "This is the first time I've seen anything like this, and I've been in this unit since the fall of 1996."

After posting $35,000 bail last week, alleged attacker John Francis Henning III was scheduled to be arraigned yesterday on eight separate counts: two felony charges of aggravated assault, two felony counts of terrorist threats, two felony hate crime charges, a count of felony-level battery and a misdemeanor-level battery charge.

"The main reason we left Russia was for freedom," said Pil. "It is unfortunate this happened here."

The incident occurred in the early morning hours of Saturday, April 28, following a lengthy Shabbat service and dinner at Pil's 26th Avenue home, which is also a shul. Pil and Medvedev say they were standing on the Schneerson synagogue's front steps when Henning walked a few dozen feet past them, then turned around, walked back and released a volley of anti-Semitic insults.

"He was saying 'you f—–g Jews, you f—–g Zionists, killers of Palestinians,'" recalled Medvedev, a Russian-born Israeli who has been in the United States for less than a year.

"At first we tried to ignore him, but then he started to come closer and closer and yell stronger. Rabbi Pil and I tried to speak with him, to explain to him in a very peaceful manner that we're peaceful people, not killers, and we're not doing anything wrong. He continued to scream and come closer and then he started to spit at us."

Despite Pil and Medvedev's efforts, both men claim Henning — a 30-year-old San Francisco lawyer who graduated from UCLA and University of San Francisco law school — only grew more vitriolic, eventually shouting that he was going to kill them. At this point, Pil told his wife, Mattie, to call 911.

Henning — listed in police reports as 6 feet 5 inches and weighing 230 pounds — then allegedly attacked the 5-foot-8-inch, 142-pound Medvedev.

In the five to 10 minutes before the police arrived and arrested Henning, Pil and Medvedev claim their enraged attacker continued to spout anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant insults while repeatedly punching them in the face and body and, at one point, dragging both of them into the street.

Photographs taken shortly after the alleged attack reveal the 27-year-old Medvedev's left eye was blackened and sealed shut, and his face swollen and bloodied. He also suffered broken ribs and cuts and scrapes on the lower body as a result of being dragged.

Pil also suffered scrapes to the lower body, and a punch to the face smashed his glasses. He complains of constant chest pains and fears he, too, may have broken ribs.

Despite the huge size disparity between the alleged attacker, Medvedev and Pil (who stands 5 feet 11 inches and weighs roughly 200 pounds), the two men claim to have somehow overcome Henning, pinning him to the ground by the time police arrived.

"When I analyze what happened, I'm shocked we were able to take over," said Pil, the founder and director of the now-defunct Jewish Education Center.

Added Medvedev: "Because I am not really a fighter, I see it as a miracle. I felt, especially in the beginning, that probably both of us are going to be killed. I cannot explain it except help from God."

Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, addressed the incident with a City Hall press conference on Monday morning. Along with Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Jake McGoldrick, also present were Louvon Byrd Harris, Clara Byrd Harris and Tony Taylor, the sisters and brother-in-law of James Byrd Jr., the African-American Texan dragged to death behind a truck in 1998.

"In a city as liberal as San Francisco, it's shocking that hate crimes of this sort still exist," said Clara Byrd Harris, in town for the "Silent Voices Speak" exposition at the Presidio. "Our vision is to stop hate through education, to educate people about the disastrous effects of hate."

Peskin, who is Jewish, said that because San Francisco has a reputation as "a bastion of liberalism and tolerance," elected officials should be "even more vigilant" toward racist behavior.

The police do not believe the alleged attack is connected to Pil's past activities. In 1999, the Orthodox rabbi pleaded guilty to a single felony count of illegally structuring over $1.7 million in bank deposits, intentionally evading federal reporting laws on coin or currency transactions exceeding $10,000. He is serving a nine-month sentence in a halfway house.

Pil, who emigrated from Uzbekistan in the 1970s, says he was beaten by anti-Semites many times in the former Soviet Union. While Medvedev said he was never beaten while living in the USSR, he had been the object of taunts and threats. Both men say they had never before been assaulted in the United States.

Pil, who has yet to hire a lawyer, said he will "probably" file a lawsuit against Henning. Meanwhile, Medvedev's attorney, Gerald Carrol, said a suit from his client is "almost a certainty."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.