For years Rabbi Menachem Youlus, a self-described “Jewish Indiana Jones,” received plaudits from those captivated by his stories of traveling to Eastern Europe and beyond to search for historic Torahs that were lost or hidden during the Holocaust.Recipe: Plantain-crusted mahi mahi with pineapple salsa...wowza! (on this page)
But on Thursday, Rabbi Youlus stood inside the federal courthouse in Manhattan and confessed that he had made up those tales of daring.
“Between 2004 and 2010, I falsely represented that I had personally obtained vintage Torah scrolls — in particular ways, in particular locations — in Europe and Israel,” he told Judge Colleen McMahon of Federal District Court. “I know what I did was wrong, and I deeply regret my conduct.”
The rabbi, 50, then pleaded guilty to mail fraud and wire fraud, admitting that he had used the United States Postal Service and e-mails to further a scheme to steal money while claiming to be saving and restoring historic Torahs.
After the hearing, Rabbi Youlus’s lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, told reporters that his client was “a good man with the best intentions who ultimately strayed into fraudulent conduct” and said he “should be sentenced with great leniency.”
Sold fakes for six years
Rabbi Youlus could receive up to 20 years in prison on each of the two counts when he is sentenced on June 21, but sentencing guidelines recommend terms of 51 to 63 months. Prosecutors said he sold fake Torahs over a period of six years, and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars through Save a Torah, a nonprofit organization he helped found in 2004.
The scheme took several forms, according to a complaint filed by the United States attorney’s office.
Prosecutors said Rabbi Youlus solicited more than $1 million from Save a Torah, asking that the money be paid to a bookstore he owned in Maryland, called the Jewish Bookstore, and explaining that the money was payment for restoring old and damaged scrolls.
Rabbi Youlus was also accused of writing $344,000 in checks to himself from the bookstore’s account, charging about $200,000 in personal expenses to a credit card issued to the bookstore and using $90,000 in the bookstore’s money to pay private school tuition for his children and his relatives’ children.
In addition, prosecutors said, Rabbi Youlus took $145,000 that donors tried to give to Save a Torah and diverted it to his own bank account.
Some of those donors were motivated by Rabbi Youlus’s colorful stories.
He claimed that he had traveled through Poland, Romania, Russia and Ukraine in search of old Torahs and recovered some from the sites of former concentration camps like Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
'Charlatan' and 'petty crook'
While traveling, he said, he had been beaten and imprisoned, and on more than one occasion he referred to himself as “the Jewish Indiana Jones.”
An investigation revealed that he had never been to any of the faraway places he spoke of and that the Torahs he sold to wealthy supporters did not have the provenance he had claimed.Video: The Holocaust remembered (on this page)
One of those who was initially dubious about Rabbi Youlus was Menachem Z. Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and an adjunct professor of law at Cornell University.
His skepticism blossomed into disbelief, he said, when he heard Rabbi Youlus’s tale of discovering an old Torah at Bergen-Belsen after partly falling through a floorboard in a World War II-era barracks.Video: 99-year-old recalls risking life for Holocaust survivors (on this page)
Mr. Rosensaft, who said his parents were liberated from the camp at Bergen-Belsen, knew that the camp had been burned down by the British army.
“I am gratified that this charlatan will now be fully exposed, as a matter of law, as a petty crook,” Mr. Rosensaft said by telephone on Thursday.
This article, headlined "Rabbi Admits Torah Tales Were a Fraud," first appeared in The New York Times.