Orthodox beating victims family calling for prayers and support

Lawrence Gerstley will never, ever, ever forget his first wedding anniversary.

On that day, March 3, a man described by neighbors as behaving like a raving lunatic attacked and viciously beat his pregnant wife, Jill Rabinowitz, in their San Francisco home.

Later that day, emergency room doctors at San Francisco General Hospital delivered the couple's first child, Alexandra, who was born a month premature at 5 pounds, 3 ounces.

With palpable relief in his voice, Gerstley said his infant daughter is "absolutely fine," and he hopes to have her home very soon.

His wife, an Orthodox Jew raised in South Africa who moved to the United States 10 years ago, is improving too. On Sunday, she spoke her first words since suffering severe head injuries in the attack. Rabinowitz, 37, answers to her name, recognizes objects and, most importantly, seems on her way to reasserting her outgoing, witty personality.

"She very much has her sense of humor. Jill always had a very witty style, and even before she could talk, that was back," said Gerstley, who grew up attending Reform Temple Emanu-El in San Jose.

"Every day, Jill makes good advances forward. Today, we're looking at rehabilitation centers. As clichéd as it sounds, we're taking it one day at a time."

Gerstley, the vice president of research at a software company, said he's "extremely hopeful" his wife will make a full recovery, both physically and mentally, though he foresees a rehabilitation process of several months at the very least.

Gerstley thanks his Bernal Heights neighbors and members of the local Jewish community for lending a hand in the family's time of need.

Rabbi Gedalia Potash of Chabad of Noe Valley, whose wife, Laya, is Rabinowitz's close friend, and Rabbi Dana Magat of Temple Emanu-El in San Jose have helped to console and strengthen family and friends, and feed them as well.

Many members of Rabinowitz's widely scattered family are now staying with Gerstley in San Francisco, including her brothers from Israel and Canada and her parents from South Africa.

Potash posted Rabinowitz's Hebrew name — Gilah Tamar bas Chava Shifra — on Chabad Web sites so Jews worldwide could pray for her recovery.

"She's making great progress, and prayer is the easiest and best way to help," said Potash.

"Certainly, we want the prayers first and foremost," added Gerstley.

Neighbors' description of Rabinowitz's attacker as a deranged homeless man shouting as he roamed the neighborhood has been a well-publicized news story. As reported in local newspapers, Rabinowitz opened the door to alleged attacker Jerry Lucas, 25, who beat her with the paint cans she was said to be using to paint the house and severed one of her ears.

An emergency-room nurse later linked the matching paint on Rabinowitz and Lucas, who had been picked up by police because of his erratic behavior and taken to the hospital. This led to his arrest. Lucas' mother later told the San Francisco Chronicle her son suffers from bipolar disorder.

Lucas was booked for attempted homicide, burglary, mayhem and a felony hate crime and is being held on $5 million bail. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Police would not discuss what led to the hate-crime qualification, but confirmed to the Anti-Defamation League that it was not related to Rabinowitz's religion.

Gerstley said the much-repeated story about his wife painting the house and opening the door to a stranger is not accurate, however.

"She was not painting; I don't know where that story started other than she was covered in paint. Jill and I chose colors, and I've been painting. I've been adamant she not be anywhere near the paint," he said.

"What happened is Jill came home, her friend dropped her off, they stayed in the car and talked awhile, and she came into the house through the garage and this person followed her. We've got quite a bit of paint in the garage."

Gerstley and Rabinowitz, a software engineer, were introduced by a mutual friend and married last year in Cape Town, South Africa, by an Orthodox rabbi of American birth.

Rabinowitz hails from the small town of Paarl and sang semiprofessionally in her home country.

"She's somewhat reserved, but people are instantly drawn to her," said Sam Salkin, CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and a friend and former employer of Rabinowitz's at a dot-com.

"She's quietly gregarious. She touched people, and had a huge influence in being the glue in a social situation."

Some of Rabinowitz's former co-workers have created daily e-mail chains updating her condition.

"The outpouring of people to the hospital has been overwhelming," said Gerstley. "We're getting calls from all over the world."

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.