A Wheaton-based rabbi who claimed he was the “Jewish Indiana Jones” and told daring stories of rescuing sacred Torah scrolls he said had survived the Holocaust was indicted Wednesday on two counts of mail and wire fraud.
Menachem Youlus, 50, surrendered himself and his passport to authorities at the federal courthouse in New York Wednesday morning and was released in the afternoon on $100,000 bail.
According to the U.S. attorney’s indictment, Youlus defrauded his own charitable nonprofit organization, Save a Torah Inc., and synagogues and individual contributors of hundreds of thousands of dollars from 2004 to 2010. Court documents further claim that Youlus embezzled $145,000 from Save a Torah by depositing checks made out to the organization directly into his account.
The indictment indicates the money went to pay for personal expenses and for his children’s private school tuition.
“We deny this accusation, and anything else we have to say will be said in court,” Paul Rooney, the attorney representing Youlus, told the Associated Press.
The investigation, carried out by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, was undertaken after an article published in The Washington Post Magazine in January 2010 raised doubt about Youlus’s claims. Until then, Youlus, owner of the Jewish Bookstore of Greater Washington, regaled the press, synagogues and donors with dramatic tales of crisscrossing Central and Eastern Europe in pursuit of the holy relics of the Holocaust.
Youlus claimed to have discovered Torahs — the most sacred text of the Jewish religion, handwritten on parchment according to strict rules — in the most unlikely places: under the floorboards of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, buried in the ground, in monastery basements. He said he had been beaten, threatened with jail and had to smuggle scrolls in suitcases with false bottoms.
Dozens of synagogues and donors purchased his Torahs, and buyers often held elaborate dedications that included stories of their rescue. But, according to the indictment, not only were the stories fabrications, Youlus hadn’t been out of the country since 2005, except for two short trips to Israel.
“Menachem Youlus called himself the ‘Jewish Indiana Jones,’ but his alleged exploits were no more real than those of the movie character he claimed to resemble,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said. “He chose poorly in allegedly exploiting an excruciating chapter in Jewish and international history to perpetrate a brazen fraud that played on the heartstrings of the people for whom the painful memories of that period will never die.”
David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group, who bought two scrolls from Youlus, including a Torah supposedly unearthed in a town near the Auschwitz death camp, declined to comment on the indictment.
Rubenstein’s spokesperson, Christopher Ullman, said that once doubts about Youlus surfaced, Rubenstein hired scholar Michael Berenbaum to find two Torahs that had indisputedly survived the Holocaust and had them donated to the two synagogues — the Sixth and I Historical Synagogue in Washington and Central Synagogue in New York City — that had received the Youlus scrolls he bought.
The U.S. attorney’s 21-page complaint goes into detail about the patterns and details of the alleged fraud: How Youlus appropriated notes from a historian to document his supposed find of the Auschwitz Torah; how the rabbi could not have found a Torah under the floorboards of the Bergen-Belsen camp, since British troops had burned the barracks to the ground in 1945; how Youlus purchased old scrolls from various vendors and doctored and inflated invoices; how Youlus, while claiming he was in debt, used the money raised by the charitable foundation for personal profit.
Rick Zitelman, a Rockville businessman who helped found Save a Torah to support Youlus’s rescue missions, was unavailable for comment. The charity, which has 401 (c) (3) nonprofit status, raised $1.2 million in the period covered in the indictment and, according to the complaint, reimbursed Youlus’s handwritten invoices.
In July 2010, Save a Torah signed an agreement with Maryland’s attorney general and its secretary of state that said the nonprofit would “only describe where a Torah was found or provide an account of its rescue if there is documentation or an independent witness to such history.” The organization, still solicits donations on its Web site but no longer has links to news stories about Youlus’s exploits.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a law professor and vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, said he was “deeply satisfied” by the indictment.
“Let’s face it. Youlus is a charlatan who devised a truly reprehensible fraud to enrich himself, thereby not just desecrating the scrolls but the memory of victims of the Holocaust,” he said. “For this to be done by a man who purports himself to be a rabbi makes it even more reprehensible.”
Each count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000, twice the gross gain to the defendant, or twice the gross loss to others, whichever is greatest.
Jeff Lunden is a freelance journalist and an award-winning radio producer.