Saving a Torah?
On a joyous day in July 2010, friends and family gathered in the quiet library of my home to fill in the final letters of a remarkable Torah scroll. The strong hand of the sofer wrote each concluding letter as individuals touched the end of the quill. Our rabbi signed. The headmaster of our day school signed. Dozens of our friends participated in the ritual. My brother, who was celebrating his Bar Mitzvah at the time, immersed himself in the mikvah in order to write his letter without the guidance of the sofer. He finished the lamed, the final letter in the scroll.
Torah machozeret al achsania shelah, “The Torah returns to its natural home,” was embroidered in sky blue on the cover, a quote from Talmud Bava Metzia. Indeed, this Torah, for the first time in decades, was returning to a home.
Its journey took it from a small town in Poland to the concentration camp of Majdanek, where, according to the charming sofer, it was given to a priest and buried in a cemetery outside of Majadanek. The Torah was then dug up, damaged but fixable. (The story was told to us months before the dedication ceremony and validated by a letter and numerous phone conversations).
The Torah, with old parchment but handsome new atzei chaim (supporting poles) and a beautiful new cover, was then escorted to the shul. A parade of people, complete with a police escort, danced and sang for half a mile. In shul, my parents, with tears in their eyes, spoke of the significance of the moment.
Bubbie, my great-grandmother, a survivor of Majdanek, danced with us, making the story an ultimate tikkun—reparation. From the atrocities my grandparents witnessed in Holocaust Europe to the Jewish lives they built in the United States, the story of the Torah scroll seemed like the last piece in a cosmic puzzle, a series of divine coincidences that had lead up to that special day.
The sofer, Rabbi Menachem Youlus, was the director of the Save A Torah Foundation. The foundation was dedicated to rescuing and restoring Torah scrolls that were hidden, lost or stolen during the Holocaust or other traumatic events in modern Jewish history.
When not running his bookshop in Wheaton, Maryland, Rabbi Youlus, a self-described “Jewish Indiana Jones,” was travelling around Eastern Europe bribing priests and townspeople and smuggling Torah scrolls out in suitcases with false bottoms. He was a man of a thousand adventurous stories.
He told us of Torah scrolls he found under the floorboards of barracks in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. He recounted finding two Torahs in a metal body bag in a cemetery around Auschwitz concentration camp using a metal detector. He related the story of running a Torah out of a “severely bombed building” in Mosul, Iraq, with the help of the 82nd Airborne division. Youlus told of being fined in Russia, beaten in Germany, and thrown in jail in Ukraine trying to save the Torahs.
Almost all the Torahs Youlus finds are damaged, burned, and missing panels. With the help of his brother-in-law and a team of sofrim, Youlus removes years of dirt and mold—even cigarette burns and knife marks—from Nazi desecration. After patching them up, Youlus tries to find their original owners, but more often than not, he sells them to Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues throughout North America. He wants to give them a “good home,” to congregations that would care, use, and love the Torahs.
For our family, rededicating a Torah with such close ties to our great-grandparents’ lives was a once in a lifetime opportunity. The miraculous story of the Torah dovetailed with our grandparents’ miraculous story of survival. It seemed too good to be true.
It was too good to be true.
A few months later, investigative journalists Jeff Lunden and Martha Wexler published a full-length article in Washington Post Magazine questioning Youlus’ stories. Lunden, who witnessed a Torah’s rededication ceremony in his parents’ synagogue in 2008, thought something in Youlus’ stories didn’t match up.
Youlus claimed he found the Torah on eBay and then went to Germany to track the Torah down. After being beaten by police, Youlus said, he found the man selling the Torah: an Auschwitz prison guard. The guard wanted to be paid in gold. The Torah, Youlus asserted, was found in the very same village in Hungary where the donor’s family was from.
After a year and a half of investigative reporting, Lunden and Wexler published their report challenging Youlus’ claims. A Holocaust historian questioned his account of finding a Torah under the floorboards in the barracks in Bergen Belsen; the barracks had been burned down by British troops in 1945 to stop the spread of Typhus. When asked about the findings, Youlus said he couldn’t remember if it was Bergen Belsen or another concentration camp. In fact, when questioned, Youlus continuously pleaded forgetfulness. When asked for the name of a priest from whom Youlus bought the lost panels of a Torah found in Auschwitz, Youlus couldn’t remember the name. Lunden uncovered records indicating that the last priest who survived Auschwitz died in 2004.
When asked for receipts of transactions, Youlus claimed he could only pay cash. Wexler wrote, “In a 3-hour interview, Youlus is unable to provide a single name, date, place, photograph or document to back up the Auschwitz stories or any of the others.” Youlus couldn’t even produce travel documents proving he traveled to Eastern Europe.
Spurred by the Washington Post article, the United States Postal Inspection Service began a federal investigation into Youlus’ business and foundation. They uncovered definitive proof that Youlus’ swashbuckling stories of adventure were nothing but lies; Youlus’ passport had but two stamps since 2005, both from Ben Gurion International Airport. Youlus had never been to Europe.
They also disclosed a paper trail of monetary fraud. Of the $1.2 million collected by the Save-a-Torah Foundation since 2004, $340,000 was diverted into his own personal bank account.
The stories of bribing priests and digging in graveyards were lies. The cigarette burns and knife marks weren’t Nazi defilement but mishandling and misuse by shady antiques dealers.
In all likelihood, Yulis acquired old Torahs from foreclosed synagogues, eBay and other more lucrative means. He then fabricated a story to match a donor’s familial Holocaust story and sold the Torahs, some for as little as $12,000, others for more than $36,000.
A few months ago, Youlus was charged with mail and wire fraud. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara told The Washington Post, “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.”
Faced with overwhelming evidence, Youlus recently plead guilty for forging stories and peddling money from the foundation for his own personal use.
A statement on the Save A Torah Foundation Website reads, “We have been saddened to learn over the last several months that we at Save A Torah, and our donors and friends, were misled by an individual whom we trusted. We believe that the step that Rabbi Youlus took by accepting responsibility for his actions is an important step in putting this unfortunate episode behind us.”
For our family, it will be hard to put this episode “behind us.” Youlus has desecrated our collective memory. He exploited the story of my great-grandparents’ suffering to manipulate our family into “rededicating a Torah,” a Torah which, for all we know, could have been stolen. He had crafted an audacious story to tug at our heartstrings, and it worked.
How could we be so gullible? Was our desire to redeem a chapter so dark in our family’s history enough to trust an individual peddling stories that were so obviously fabricated? Or was it the trust we placed in Rabbi Youlus, a man who lead such a selfless life of mitzvot that he had placed himself in hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt?
As a family we have discussed rededicating the Torah in light of this guilty plea, and also discuss the possibility of returning the Torah should we find it was stolen. We are all dumbfounded at Youlus’ duplicity. A rabbi with training from Ner Yisroel, with a bookstore, used his respect within the community for personal gain. If a man who told us when signing the last letters of the Torah, "You have to have kavanna [intention] that you're writing for the sake of Hashem," committed a chillul Hashem on such a grand scale, whom can we trust?
If the consequences of Rabbi Youlus’ actions lead people to mistrust educators and charity organizers, then the price of his actions will be more than the ink and parchment of his Torah scrolls.
For me, our Torah represented the everlasting continuation of our people from the cemeteries of Europe to the living communities throughout the world. To learn that the story of our Torah was a hoax is an abuse of this sacred tradition.
A sofer is much more than a calligrapher, and a Torah is much more than calligraphy. Before writing a letter in a Torah scroll, a sofer must immerse himself in a mikvah. Each letter must be pure and true.