Ever since he was first contacted by Washington Post reporter Jeff Lunden several weeks ago about the Torah he purchased in 2001 from Rabbi Menachem Youlus, Bob Kushner has been turning a few things over in his mind.
When he first heard that the Torah, which he donated to Beth El Congregation of the South Hills in memory of his father, might have a phony history, “it had an emotional impact on me,” said the Mt. Lebanon resident. “But I’ve been able to bifurcate two issues here: one, Menachem Youlus and veracity; and, two, the fact that the Torah is a Torah, and that it’s dedicated to my father’s memory.”
On Jan. 31, The Washington Post ran a story about Youlus, co-owner of the Jewish Bookstore of Greater Washington in Wheaton, Md., and the many Torahs he claims to have recovered from the Holocaust, restored, and then sold to people across the country. The article led with Kushner and the Torah he bought from Youlus, now used at Beth El’s weekday morning minyans.
The article called into question the truth of Youlus’ claims that he had rescued over 1,000 Torahs throughout Europe. Writing that Youlus is dubbed “The Indiana Jones of Torah Scribes,” Lunden wrote, “The 48-year-old rabbi from Baltimore says he has found Torahs hidden in walls, buried in the ground, piled in basements of monasteries, even under the floorboards of a concentration camp barracks. He says he has been beaten up, threatened with jail in Siberia, and has had to smuggle out Torahs in false-bottom suitcases.”
Fascinating stuff. But is it true? The Washington Post says Youlus’ stories cannot be verified, and there are lots of details and facts the rabbi cannot remember.
Youlus told Kushner that the Torah he purchased was one of two found in a mass grave discovered outside the Ukrainian town of Kamenets-Podolsk, the town where Kushner’s father was born. Along with the remains of Jews killed in the Holocaust, Kushner was told the grave contained two sacred Torahs wrapped in a “Gestapo body bag.”
The problem here is that five different buyers, including Kushner, each supposedly purchased one of only two Torahs found in that grave.
In 2001, when Kushner first heard about the availability of the Torah from a nephew who had read about it in a genealogical journal, Kushner, and his wife Alice, took a trip to Baltimore to meet with Youlus, who they immediately liked.
“He’s a very sweet guy,” Kushner said. “He told us the whole story [of how he came to find the Torah]. Another thing he said to me was that there were others interested in the Torah, but he wanted me to have it because my dad came from Kamenets-Podolsk.”
Kushner paid Youlus $14,000 for the Torah, which, according to Rabbi Alex Greenbaum of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, is in superior condition.
“The Torah is kosher,” said Greenbaum, “and it’s in very good shape. Maybe it’s too perfect, considering it was supposedly found buried in a mass grave.”
“It doesn’t seem like a very good scam,” Greenbaum added. “Youlus is selling the Torah for $14,000, when they typically go for $40,000. Something is wrong with the numbers.”
Kushner said that Youlus suggested he contact Rabbi Irvin Chinn of White Oak’s Gemilas Chesed synagogue as a reference before he purchased the Torah.
“Rabbi Chinn said he had acquired Torahs from Youlus, and that he was very honest. He said ‘you can believe anything he tells you,’” Kushner recalled.
Chinn died on March 19, 2008.
Kushner said he also called friends of his sister, who lived in Wheaton and knew Youlus.
“They said they knew him and that his integrity was beyond reproach,” Kushner said.
Kushner further consulted with a rabbi who had been filling in occasionally at Beth El, which at the time was without a full-time rabbi.
“That rabbi said, ‘You have done more than is required of you. If a sofer tells you something, you are entitled to believe him and go no further,’ ” Kushner said.
“So, I had two references and a rabbi telling me it’s OK,” he said. “I bought the Torah.”
Kushner said that by the time The Washington Post story broke, he knew there were four other people who Youlus had told the same story about their respective Torahs’ histories. Kushner has tried to contact each of them. Of the three he has reached, none wants to “get involved,” he said.
Though Kushner has reconciled himself to the thought that, regardless of the Torah’s history, it is still a kosher Torah dedicated in memory of his father, he is not about to let the matter of Youlus drop.
After The Washington Post story broke, he spoke to Youlus by phone.
“He reaffirmed the whole story he told me,” Kushner said. “I told him I needed it in writing, and he said ‘I’ll sign anything you send to me.’ ”
Kushner, who is an attorney, said he prepared a letter reciting all the background that Youlus had provided about finding the Torah, and included a certification and representation that everything was true and correct. He sent the letter to Youlus last week, and now “is waiting to see what happens.”
If Youlus does not return the certified letter, Kushner said that he might turn the matter over to the Maryland attorney general.
“He’s as sweet as he may be,” Kushner said. “But if he’s told bubbe meices, he deserves to be dealt with. For an Orthodox rabbis to be spinning stories, it is just unacceptable.”
“The whole thing is weird,” he continued. “But I achieved what I wanted to do. There is a Torah dedicated to my father.”
“If a fraud has been perpetrated, I feel bad for the families,” said Greenbaum. “But this was a Torah dedicated in memory of [Kushner’s] father, and we would still recognize this Torah in memory of the Holocaust.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)