Rabbi Menachem Youlus, the Maryland rabbi who has referred to himself as the “Jewish Indiana Jones,” pleaded guilty in Federal District Court in New York last Thursday to mail and wire fraud.
Youlus admitted in open court that he had fabricated tales of rescuing Torahs lost during the Holocaust, and that he had deceived people into paying him large sums of money for the Torahs.
Between 2004 and 2010, the New York Times reported, he admitted to falsely representing to clients that he obtained vintage Torah scrolls “in particular ways, in particular locations — in Europe and Israel,” he told Judge Colleen McMahon.
Each of the two counts of fraud carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, but sentencing guidelines recommend terms of 51 to 63 months. Sentencing has been scheduled for June 21.
Youlus will also be required to pay more that $862,000 in restitution to the victims he defrauded.
Prosecutors said Youlus, 50, sold Torahs with fraudulent histories over a period of six years, and that he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars through Save a Torah, a nonprofit organization he helped found in 2004.
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.
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 scroll, which Beth El’s Rabbi Alex Greenbaum confirmed is kosher, is used regularly at the congregation’s weekday morning services.
While he said he is glad that Youlus was brought to justice, Kushner also noted that the Orthodox rabbi has brought shame to the Jewish community.
“The sad part is that not only did he defraud so many people, but he also embarrassed the Jewish community,” Kushner said. “And I think he actually really brought disgrace to those who died in the Holocaust.”
Kushner said that before he purchased the Torah, he did a “fair amount of due diligence,” contacting several people who knew Youlus personally, including the late Rabbi Irvin Chinn, of Gemilas Chesed synagogue in White Oak. Everyone Kushner contacted vouched for Youlus’ integrity.
“What keeps going around and around in my mind is the ends to which he went,” Kushner said. “He was a charlatan. Maybe he was a person who lived two different lives. It is hard to know what made him tick. I’m not sure it was all about money. The Torahs were not sold well above what they would cost in the marketplace. What was his motive?”
“It is disappointing that the story he told me is not true,” Kushner added. “But on the other hand, I did donate a kosher Torah to Beth El in my father’s memory. That is the most important thing to me.”
The state of Maryland began investigating Youlus and Save a Torah in early 2010 at the request of Menachem Z. Rosensaft, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, and a regular contributor to the Chronicle.
Rosensaft says he hopes the others involved with Save a Torah will apologize for enabling Youlus to perpetrate his fraud.
“Menachem Youlus now stands exposed as a matter of law as a charlatan who desecrated the memory of the Holocaust and the sanctity of Torah scrolls for the sole purpose of enriching himself,” Rosensaft wrote in a statement for the Chronicle. “It remains to be seen whether his enablers at the Save-a-Torah Foundation and elsewhere who defended him long after evidence of his fraudulent scheme had become incontrovertible will offer the Jewish community and society at large a public apology.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)