Jewish donors opened their pocketbooks wide to Maryland Rabbi Menachem Youlus, the self-proclaimed “Jewish Indiana Jones.” He spun cloak-and-dagger tales of “rescuing” sacred Torah scrolls lost during the Holocaust, but those tales were lies.
A federal judge in Manhattan on Thursday sentenced Youlus to 51 months in prison, plus three years probation, for defrauding contributors to his Save a Torah Foundation and peddling scrolls with bogus Holocaust provenance. He also was ordered to pay $990,366.05 in restitution to his victims.
Youlus, of Baltimore, is a Torah scribe who managed his family’s Jewish Bookstore of Greater Washington in Wheaton. He pleaded guilty in February to mail and wire fraud, admitting he made up his thrilling adventures. Despite Youlus’s claims that he found holy relics at concentration camps, in monasteries and in mass graves, passport records show he never traveled to Europe. Rather, prosecutors said, Youlus bought old Torahs from local dealers who made no claims the scrolls had Holocaust-related historic value.
In a courtroom crowded with supporters from his Orthodox community, the frail, 51-year-old rabbi sat at the defense table, his eyes shut, silently praying. His attorney, Benjamin Brafman, said in a 69-page brief, bolstered by testimonials, that his client was a respected, compassionate member of the community, albeit with a psychological compulsion to lie. In open court, Brafman conceded that “the crime was horrific” and said that “in 34 years, this is one of the worst moments I’ve had to spend in a courtroom.”
But the attorney argued for leniency, saying “the sentence should fit the criminal.” Youlus has nine children and a sick wife. The rabbi, tears welling in his eyes, said he had “sinned before God and violated the laws of the country. I will carry that shame and dishonor with me for the rest of my life.”
Prosecutors said in a 43-page sentencing memo that Youlus was motivated by greed. They found he had used his fabricated tales to raise $1.4 million for his charity. As recently as a few weeks ago, they said, he was liquidating and reassigning his considerable assets to avoid paying restitution.
Three victims testified in court to the pain Youlus caused their families.
Mollie Epstein, a nursing home chaplain from Wilmington, Del., said her family made a contribution to Save a Torah in honor of her father’s 75th birthday. Speaking about the paramount importance of the Torah — the first five books of Hebrew scripture — she said she was “tormented for months” after learning that Youlus had used the Torah and the Holocaust as vehicles for a crime.
Judge Colleen McMahon called the case “a strange story, a sad story, an incomprehensible story.” She acknowledged the piles of testimonials from friends and relatives but said the rabbi was “very good to people he knows. Not good to people he didn’t know.”
Calling the crime “brazen and horrible,” McMahon said that “Mr. Youlus preyed on people, manipulated people.”
Youlus’s sentencing Thursday was the culmination of a case launched after a January 2010 article in The Washington Post Magazine debunked his swashbuckling tales.
Youlus was a popular figure on the local Jewish scene. More than 50 of his purported Holocaust Torahs made their way to congregations in the Washington area and beyond. Synagogues held emotional ceremonies to rededicate the scrolls for worship — a symbolic show of Jewish triumph over Hitler. Among the purchasers were the children of Holocaust survivors, who wrote to the U.S. attorney about the pain caused by the scam, and philanthropists, including private equity billionaire and Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein.
Menachem Rosensaft, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, said after the sentencing: “I do think that, very literally, justice has been done. And clearly Judge McMahon understood the gravity of the offense.”
Youlus has been ordered to report to a federal penitentiary, to be determined, on Dec. 17.
Wexler and Lunden are freelance writers.