Maryland pact gags Save A Torah under threat of penalty
Rabbi Menachem Youlus, the so-called Indiana Jones of Torah rescue, is now prohibited from selling far-fetched back-stories along with his restored Torahs, pursuant to an agreement with the officials of the state of Maryland.
Save a Torah, Inc., the tax exempt organization Youlus runs out of Washington, D.C., to provide funding for his purported Torah rescue efforts, has agreed in a document dated July 12 to “only describe where a Torah was found or provide an account of its rescue if there is documentation or an independent verifiable witness to such history.”
“In the absence of such independent verifiable proof,” the agreement continues, “there will be no discussion of the circumstances under which the Torah was rescued so that those who dedicate or receive rescued Torahs can do so with total confidence.”
A breach of the agreement triggers a $3,000 penalty.
Earlier this year, The Washington Post published a story calling into question the veracity of the histories Youlus attached to many of the Torahs he sold to individuals and congregations across the country. Youlus, a scribe who restores Torah scrolls, claims to have rescued over a thousand Torahs lost in the Holocaust.
Youlus’ Torah rescue accounts include the story of discovering two Torahs wrapped in Gestapo body bags in a mass grave on a pig farm in Kamenets-Podolsky, Ukraine. Youlus sold five Torahs purporting to be one of the two found on that farm.
Robert Kushner of Mt. Lebanon, purchased one of those Torahs. Kushner donated that scroll to Beth El Congregation of the South Hills in 2001 in memory of his father, who was born in Kamenets-Podolsky.
The state of Maryland began investigating Save a Torah a few months ago at the request of Menachem Z. Rosensaft, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, and a frequent contributor to The Chronicle.
After looking into the matter, state officials concluded that Youlus’ stories “may be misleading,” and “we could probably or reasonably assume they could not be wholly accurate,” said Michael P. Schlein, investigator for the Office of the Secretary of State of Maryland.
“The agreement is not an admission of guilt,” Schlein said. “There has been no finding of guilt here. The purpose of the agreement is to fix a potential issue. I can’t say they (Save a Torah) broke the law.”
P. Richard Zitelman, president of Save a Torah, did not respond to a phone message from The Chronicle seeking comment.
Rosensaft, who was “outraged” by what he sees as a “fraud upon the community,” said he is “75 percent satisfied” with the outcome of the Maryland’s inquiry into Save a Torah’s practices.
“I am satisfied because Youlus and Save a Torah are now under state imposed sanctions to tell the truth,” Rosensaft told The Chronicle. “And, more than that, their word is no longer good for anything. Any statement has to be backed up by documentation of an independent, verifying witness. Youlus is exposed as being a con man, and Save a Torah is exposed as having engaged in totally inappropriate, deceptive practices.”
Still, Rosensaft does not feel the agreement redresses past wrongs.
“It would have been nice if they (Save a Torah) would have been required to give the money back to the synagogues who purchased the Torahs, and to the b’nai mitzva kids who gave donations to the organization, who thought they were helping rescue Torah scrolls, when the money was really enabling Youlus to continue with his con game.”
While Rosensaft sought state action to contain Youlus in order to protect the community, he also had a personal reason to go after the scribe.
“I was outraged by his totally provably false claim to have discovered a Torah scroll somewhere around the year 2000 under the floorboard of a barrack in Bergen-Belsen, where my parents had been liberated from,” he said. “The British burned that camp in 1945 to contain a typhoid epidemic. The barracks of Bergen-Belsen do not exist.”
“I was born in a displaced person camp a half mile away, and I’ve been back to Bergen-Belsen many times. This was a personal affront. I knew he was lying on this, and I felt morally obligated to try to put an end to it.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)