Wheaton rabbi pleads guilty to fraud in Torah scheme

February 2, 2012

A Maryland rabbi once hailed as the “Jewish Indiana Jones” pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court in New York to mail and wire fraud after making up dramatic stories of rescuing Torahs lost during the Holocaust and pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Prosecutors said Rabbi Menachem Youlus, 50, had solicited donations to his nonprofit organization, the Save a Torah foundation, by fabricating fantastic adventures of saving the sacred scrolls and using the stories to inflate the value of old Torahs.

Appearing before Judge Colleen McMahon, Youlus said that “between 2004 and 2010, I falsely represented that I personally obtained vintage Torah scrolls from Europe and Israel,” including sacred fragments in a metal box buried in Auschwitz. He admitted to defrauding more than 50 victims — many in the Washington area, including private equity billionaire David Rubenstein.

“I knew what I did was wrong and I deeply regret my conduct,” the frail-looking Orthodox rabbi said in a quiet voice.

Youlus, a Torah scribe and co-owner of the Jewish Bookstore of Greater Washington in Wheaton, claimed to have scoured Eastern Europe, finding Torahs in mass graves, monasteries and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. But passport records showed he never left the country, save for two short trips to Israel.

Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement that the guilty plea is “a fitting conclusion to his story, and he will now be punished for his brazen fraud.”

Each of the two counts carries a maximum of 20 years, although sentencing guidelines call for between four and five years for each. McMahon scheduled sentencing for June 21. Youlus will also be required to pay restitution to his victims. He admitted to defrauding the charity and its donors of more than $862,000. Prosecutors said he used donations for personal expenses and investments.

The criminal case followed a January 2010 expose in The Washington Post Magazine that raised doubts about the emotionally gripping stories Youlus attached to the Torahs he sold. The Torah is Judaism’s most sacred text.

Youlus’s tales were particularly moving for the children of Holocaust survivors, who bought scrolls they thought were from their parents’ native towns. The “rescued” Torahs can be found at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in the District, Shaare Tefila in Olney and Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, among others.

Rick Zitelman, a Rockville investment banker who founded Save a Torah in 2004, said the group was “misled by an individual whom we trusted.”

Wexler is a part-time editor at National Public Radio. Lunden is a freelance journalist and a radio producer.

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