In an effort to exonerate Rabbi Menachem Youlus from charges that his tales of Torah rescue are lies, his Save a Torah foundation recently retained two respected sofers to corroborate the authenticity of 11 of his restored Torahs.
But while the dates and countries of origin of those Torahs can be confirmed, the sofers have no way to prove or disprove the details of Youlus’ astonishing stories.
Youlus claims to have rescued over 1,000 Torahs lost in the Holocaust. As he is a scribe, he restores the scrolls, and then sells them to congregations all over the country. To provide funding for his efforts, he runs Save a Torah, a 501(c) 3 tax-exempt organization based out of Washington, D.C.
The home page of saveatorah.org now displays a statement from its president, Rick Zitelman, explaining the results of the “independent investigation” that it commissioned to “address concerns” raised in a Jan. 31 article appearing in The Washington Post.
The detailed Post article raised serious questions about the veracity of Youlus’ stories, with Youlus unable to provide evidence or details supporting his claims.
The statement on the Save a Torah web site says that two sofers examined 11 Torahs restored by Youlus; that eight of the 11 Torahs are kosher and suitable for ritual use; that two of the Torahs that are used for display purposes are not kosher, but that Youlus did not represent them as being kosher; and that all the Torahs the sofers examined were transcribed in pre-Holocaust years in Eastern Europe.
“The soferim found no evidence to contradict any information provided by Rabbi Youlus to the purchasers of his Torahs,” wrote Zitelman.
Yet neither was any evidence found to verify Youlus’ far-fetched accounts of Torah rescue, including a story of discovering two Torahs wrapped in Gestapo body bags in a mass grave on a pig farm in Kamenets-Podolsky. Robert Kushner of Mt. Lebanon purchased one of the Torahs with that purported back-story. Kushner donated that Torah to Beth El Congregation of the South Hills in 2001 in memory of his father, who was born in Kamenets-Podolsky.
Yitzchok Reisman, the sofer commissioned to examine the 11 Youlus Torahs, told The Chronicle there was no way to confirm or refute Youlus’ stories. He was not asked to examine the Torah purchased by Kushner.
“I could only report on how old they are, and where they came from,” Reisman said. “But there is no way for me to verify their history.”
The site of a Torahs’ origin is possible to determine because “each place in geography has some difference in nuances in scribal art,” said Reisman, who has 55 years of experience in examining Torahs.
But there is no way to determine whether or not a given Torah was found in a mass grave on a pig farm, according to Reisman.
“There is no way for me to know that,” he said.
Save a Torah’s president, Rick Zitelman said he would not comment on the sofers’ report beyond what he had posted in his statement on the Web site.
Although Kushner still has no assurance that Youlus’ representations to him are true, he says that after reading the sofers’ report, he’s “feeling better” about the Torah he purchased.
“I’m not convinced where the Torah I acquired came from,” he said, “but I found the Save a Torah article very interesting.”
Because the two Torahs the sofers found to be not kosher had been represented by Youlus as, in fact, not kosher, Kushner sees some integrity on the part of the scribe.
While he cannot be sure of the history of the Torah he purchased from Youlus, Kushner does not rule out the possibility that Youlus’ story might be true.
While recently looking through a memorial book chronicling the history of Kamenets-Podolsky, Kushner came across an account that caught his attention.
“There was a report about Jews being lined up by an open pit, and being shot,” Kushner said. “Someone witnessed two German soldiers who refused to raise their guns. People keep saying ‘how could this [Germans burying Torahs in body bags] have possibly happened?’ But when you read something like this, you wonder.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)