The cover story in today's Magazine, which was printed in advance, is about Rabbi Menachem Youlus of Wheaton and the dramatic histories he ascribes to Torahs that he restores. The article says that the rabbi of a worship group in Westchester County, N.Y., was touched when Youlus told her that he was finishing work on a Torah for her group when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred. The article goes on to say that some members of the worship group worked at the World Trade Center. None did. They worked in other places in New York City.
Rabbi to the Rescue: Menachem Youlus is called the Indiana Jones of Torah recovery and restoration. But there are doubts about his thrilling tales.
In October of 2001, Robert Kushner of Pittsburgh received an e-mail that got his heart racing. His nephew had come across a notice in a Jewish genealogical newsletter about a mass grave discovered outside the Ukrainian town of Kamenets-Podolsk. Along with the remains of Jews killed in the Holocaust, the grave contained two sacred Torah scrolls, one of them wrapped in a "Gestapo body bag." A Maryland man had bought one Torah, the newsletter said, but the second scroll needed a home.
Kamenets-Podolsk was the town from which Kushner's father had emigrated in 1920. One of his father's sisters never left, and Kushner, 74, wondered, "Could her body be one of those buried in that mass grave?" He contacted the man who had made this horrific yet miraculous find: Rabbi Menachem Youlus, co-owner of the Jewish Bookstore of Greater Washington. Kushner and his wife traveled to the bookstore in Wheaton and found themselves charmed by the slightly built, chatty Orthodox rabbi.
"We literally fell in love with him," Kushner says. "He exudes honesty, integrity. He's as pleasant as could be."
Youlus showed the Kushners the antique scroll and recounted his adventure: While traveling in Ukraine, Youlus was approached by an unnamed farmer who offered to sell him a handwritten map. As Kushner remembers the story, the farmer said he had been told by his father that if he ever encountered anyone wearing a skullcap, he should show him the map. The farmer led Youlus to his land, which had a pigsty built on a foundation of Jewish gravestones. Seeing Hebrew writing on the map, Youlus bought it and went off with the farmer to a spot marked on it. The rabbi started digging and uncovered a mass grave containing the bones of more than 200 people, as well as two relatively intact Torahs. He and his driver reburied the human remains and marked each individual grave with verses from the Book of Psalms. Months later, Youlus -- who is also a Torah scribe -- restored the Torahs to kosher condition so they could once again be read in synagogues.
Hearing this story, Kushner felt moved to buy the Torah, which was still for sale. He'd grown up poor. His immigrant father couldn't afford the big donation some synagogues used to request for the privilege of reciting Torah blessings during the High Holy Days. Choking up, Kushner recalls: "When this Torah became available, I said, 'You know what? I can't think of a better way to honor my father's memory.' " Youlus told the Kushners that several people had expressed interest in the Torah, but the scribe wanted them to have it, because "that's where your father was born; that's where his siblings were born." Kushner paid $15,000 for the scroll, which he donated to his synagogue, Beth El Congregation in Pittsburgh. He fondly remembers the dedication. "It was a beautiful ceremony. I spoke, my son spoke, through tears." Later, his grandson read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah.
For something buried underground for 60 years, the Torah was in remarkably good condition. The rabbi never showed Kushner any photos of the excavation or of the scroll before its restoration, or the farmer's map. Kushner, a retired lawyer, acknowledges that he was initially skeptical. "You know, the story itself is so bizarre. ... I did not know Menachem at that time, and I guess there was something in my voice," Kushner says. At Youlus's suggestion, Kushner called an Orthodox rabbi in Pittsburgh for a character reference. Kushner's sister called family friends in Maryland who also vouched for Youlus. When Kushner told his own rabbi about the background checks, the rabbi's reaction was: "You know what? You've done far more than you need to do. If a sofer [Torah scribe] tells you a story, you can believe him."
Rabbi Menachem Youlus has found scores of enthusiastic believers and willing buyers. Dubbed "The Indiana Jones of Torah Scribes," Youlus has regaled congregations and the media (including this newspaper in 2004) with tales of cloak-and-dagger adventures in Central and Eastern Europe. The 48-year-old rabbi from Baltimore says he has found Torahs hidden in walls, buried in the ground, piled in basements of monasteries, even under the floorboards of a concentration camp barracks. He says he has been beaten up, threatened with jail in Siberia, and has had to smuggle out Torahs in false-bottom suitcases.
"I guess you can say I'm on a mission," explains Youlus, who wears a neatly trimmed beard and the white shirt, black trousers and black yarmulke favored by the ultra-Orthodox. His stated mission, supported by the nonprofit Save a Torah Inc., is to recover, repair and resettle sacred scrolls from Jewish communities destroyed by the Nazis. His rescued Torahs have found their way into more than three dozen congregations in the Washington area and beyond. Billionaire investor David Rubenstein, 60, co-founder and managing director of the Carlyle Group, purchased two of these scrolls. He says, via e-mail, "I donated these Torahs to the synagogues so their congregants could have the sacred experience of reading scripture from scrolls that had survived the Holocaust."
The Torah is Judaism's most sacred text -- the first five books of the Hebrew Bible -- painstakingly handwritten on animal-skin parchment according to a strict set of rules. It is venerated as the core of Jewish worship and the basis for centuries of Jewish scholarship. Jews treat the Torah with the respect due an important person, standing when it is taken out of its ark and is carried in a synagogue. There's a tradition among some Jews of ransoming stolen Torahs, and scrolls damaged beyond repair are buried in a cemetery.
The stories Youlus has told over the years resonate so powerfully because they meld this centerpiece of the Jewish religion with the cataclysm of the Holocaust, providing a reassuring sense of continuity and hope. As survivors, Youlus's Torahs are brought out for Holocaust Remembrance Day, they're used to teach lessons in religious schools, and for many people, such as Robert Kushner, they have become part of a deeply personal family narrative. Youlus says in a video on the Save a Torah Web site: "Every single Torah that I rescued has a story."