When Robert Kushner purchased a Torah from Rabbi Menachem Youlus in 2001 to donate to Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, he could not have foreseen that 11 years later he would be asked to be a key witness at a sentencing hearing in federal court, which would likely put Youlus behind bars for several years.
Kushner, of Mt. Lebanon, was contacted last week by U.S. Postal Inspector Greg Ghiozzi to recount his story of being defrauded by the Maryland rabbi who called himself “the Jewish Indiana Jones.” Ghiozzi encouraged Kushner to tell his story to Judge Colleen McMahon, both in a letter, and at the October 11, 2012 hearing that will determine how many years Youlus will serve in prison.
Last February, Youlus pleaded guilty to two counts of mail and wire fraud in connection with fabricating stories about rescuing Torahs that were purportedly lost during the Holocaust, then selling those Torahs for large sums of money.
His sentencing hearing was originally scheduled for June 21, but has been re-scheduled for October 11, 2012. Each of the two counts of fraud carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, but sentencing guidelines recommend terms of 51 to 63 months.
Youlus’ false 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 he allegedly found on that farm.
Kushner purchased one of those Torahs and donated it to Beth El in memory of his father, who was born in Kamenets-Podolsky. The scroll, which Beth El’s Rabbi Alex Greenbaum confirmed is kosher, is used regularly at the congregation’s weekday morning services.
“Ghiozzi contacted me with [a U.S. attorney] on the line, and wanted me to go through exactly what my experience with Youlus was, because he wanted her to hear it from me,” Kushner said. “They wanted me to send a letter to the judge explaining the facts of what happened from my perspective, how I met Youlus, what he said, why that mattered to me, what happened as a result, and the impact of the crime on me. He also told me that the [sentencing] hearing was postponed until mid-October, and that if I wanted to appear, I was welcome to do so.”
The U.S. Attorney’s office may be having a difficult time in gathering victim support for Youlus’ sentencing, according to Kushner, who said he was told that “at the hearing they would be inundated with letters attesting to Youlus’ character and that this was merely a deviation. Also, a number of people who were defrauded by Youlus did not want to get involved in a court proceeding.”
In fact, last February, the Washington Jewish Week reported that Youlus’ attorney, Benjamin Brafman, sent letters on behalf of his client to friends, co-workers, associates and any person who “Rabbi Youlus has helped, or impacted upon, over the years and who may be aware of acts of kindness on his part.” The letters said that character references sent to Brafman’s law firm would then be turned over to the judge.
The United States Attorney’s Office (SDNY) declined to comment on whether Judge McMahon had received letters attesting to Youlus’ character, or whether other victims had refused to testify.
While Kushner will recount his story in a letter to McMahon, he says he has not yet decided whether he will testify in court.
“My knee-jerk response was, ‘yes, I will testify,’” he said. “But I want to sit down with Rabbi Alex [Greenbaum] and make sure that from the broader Jewish viewpoint I’m doing the right thing. If I do appear, my motive would be how can somebody ostensibly so religious defraud so many people?”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)