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“Jewish Indiana Jones” Pleads Guilty to Fraud Charges

February 5, 2012

The New York Jewish Week today posted this remarkable story. I wish I had heard the story earlier—before the rabbi’s claims had been exposed. It’s nearly as much fun as Morton Smith’s discovery (or, as his debunkers would say, his creation) of a lost fragment from Mark’s gospel buried in a previously unknown letter from Clement of Alexandria. But what I find most thrilling is that I used to shop in the rabbi’s store in Wheaton, Maryland, and spoke with him frequently. He was a really nice guy.

Rabbi Menachem Youlus, the self-styled “Jewish Indiana Jones” who turned out to be a Jewish Walter Mitty, has pleaded guilty to fraud.

Youlus’ accounts of remarkable tales of rescuing Holocaust-era Torah scrolls were contradicted by historical evidence, witness accounts, and records showing that he simply passed off used Torahs sold by local dealers who made no claims as to the scrolls’ provenance.

“I know what I did was wrong, and I deeply regret my conduct,” said Youlus, who pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court on Thursday.

In court, the 50-year-old Baltimore resident admitted to having defrauded more than 50 victims, misappropriating some of the donations and secretly depositing them into the bank account of his Wheaton store, called the Jewish Bookstore. Youlus defrauded his charity, Save A Torah, Inc. and its donors of $862,000, according to prosecutors.

“Menachem Youlus concocted an elaborate tale of dramatic Torah rescues undertaken by a latter day movie hero that exploited the profound emotions attached to one of the most painful chapters in world history — the Holocaust — in order to make a profit. Today’s guilty plea is a fitting conclusion to his story and he will now be punished for his brazen fraud,” Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Thursday.

A January 31, 2010, Washington Post investigative report brought to light questions about Youlus’ claims.

Shortly after the Washington Post story ran, MenachemRosensaft wrote a fascinating commentary on the case. Rosensaft is adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, distinguished visiting lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. He wrote:

Some years ago, there was Binjamin Wilkomirski, the author of a purportedly autobiographical account of his years as a Jewish orphan during the Holocaust but who actually is a Swiss-born Christian clarinetist. Then there was the case of Herman Rosenblat whose heartwarming tale of a little girl tossing him an apple every day for seven months across the electrified barbed wire fence of a Nazi concentration camp turned out to be a hoax….

In 2007, on the website of Save a Torah, his 501(c)3 tax exempt organization, Youlus claimed to have found and restored “Torah scrolls hidden, lost or stolen during the Holocaust” which he then “resettled” in more than 50 Jewish communities throughout the world. On a promotional video featured on the same website, he said that “we’ve done over 500 today.” And in a recent Washington Post interview, Youlus boasted of having rescued not 50 or 500 but 1,100 such Torah scrolls.

Youlus also gave his Torah scrolls dramatic histories. Two were allegedly found buried in a “Gestapo body bag” in a Ukrainian mass-grave of murdered Jews. He supposedly discovered one under the floorboards of a barrack in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, a “rescue” that is described on his website’s video alongside photographs taken at the camp at the time of its liberation by British troops in April 1945. Youlus claims that he dug up yet another Torah scroll in what had been the cemetery of Oswiecim, the town adjacent to the Auschwitz death camp, and reunited it with four missing panels that Jews from Oswiecim had taken into the camp and had entrusted for safekeeping to a Jewish-born priest who eventually gave them to Youlus.

If even one of these stories seems fantastic, improbable, even incredible, the odds that any one person could have found all four of these Torah scrolls and brought them surreptitiously to the United States are, conservatively speaking, astronomical. As has been said repeatedly in connection with Bernard Madoff’s multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme, if something sounds too good to be true, it most probably is….

It is bad enough when unscrupulous individuals rip off their marks, as it were, with variations of the proverbial Nigerian e-mail scam in which the recipient is promised part of a multi-million dollar fortune in exchange for a relatively minor up-front investment….A fake Holocaust memoir or a Torah scroll purportedly rescued from the ruins of World War II Europe is altogether different. Preying on the emotions of people overwhelmed by the memory of tragedy in order to make a buck is contemptible.

Rosensaft’s entire column is worth reading, but of note is his conclusion:

One of Youlus’s defenders argues that exposing his deception “may very well be in service of the truth but in disservice of a greater truth.” That is utter bunk.

Truth is absolute. The Holocaust was a tragedy of unfathomable proportions. Its victims, including the hundreds of thousands of destroyed and desecrated Torah scrolls and other Jewish religious artifacts, deserve nothing less than the dignity of authentic memory.

While I certainly don’t disagree, I wonder about the whole question of religious myths that are believed as being literal. While the mythic stories have great power and truth, they are rarely if ever true in an historic sense. Yet millions of believers of all faiths cling to them as if they were facts. It gives them comfort and meaning. Many times I’ve heard people say that if it were proven that Mary was not a literal virgin, or that Jesus did not literally rise from the dead corporeally, or that Moses did not receive the stone tablets and the Book of the Covenant from God on Sinai in the way Exodus recounts it, that their faith would not be able to stand.

Shmuel Herzfeld, a rabbi at Ohev Sholom in Washington, DC, was shopping at Youlus’s store when he saw a Torah scroll. Youlus told him that the Torah scroll had survived Auschwitz. Herzfeld asked Youlus if he could borrow the Torah scroll for use in his congregation one Shabbat, and Youlus agreed. When news of Youlus’s arrest broke, Herzfeld wrote, “That Shabbat in the presence of this Torah scroll I prayed with more intensity than ever before and I connected to the chanting of the Torah as I had never before connected. The very possibility that those emotional and intense feelings that I experienced can now be the result of manipulation and dishonesty overwhelms me with sadness.”

It was his faith, his emotional and spiritual attachment to a belief, that added such intensity to his prayers. Jesus frequently said, “It is your faith that has made you whole”—implying that the individual’s belief was the operative factor in the equation. So the question is, if what we believe is proven to be a lie, where does that leave whatever we have built on that faith?

A saying attributed to the Buddha may apply here: “All instruction is but a finger pointing at the moon. Those whose gaze is fixed upon the finger will never see beyond.” It doesn’t matter if the story is real or imagined; what matters is that we look not at the story, but at its meaning in our lives.

Unless, of course, you’re bilking people out of their money when you sell them the story!

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2012 8:54 pm

    For me, the most amazing and horrific thing about the Holocaust is that it really happened. It happened in the lifetimes of people who are alive today.

    The Holocaust is not some exaggerated, over-hyped event. The Germans and their sympathizers really built factories — not to kill people in the thousands or tens of thousands but in the hundreds of thousands. Countless millions of people were killed — because of their religion, because of their politics, because of their nationality, because of their ethnic origin, because of their thoughts, or because of their sexuality.

    Remember how traumatic 9/11 was? 2,819 people lost their lives to that awful terrorist attack. But if each victim of 9/11 represented the total number of people who lost their lives that day — so that the total number of victims was 2,819 squared, the number would only equal about 8 million — roughly half of the number of people murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust: 11-17 million Jews, Socialists, Roma, gay people, Russians, intellectuals, Christians, heroes.

    I know people who died in the Holocaust — and I suspect that many readers of this blog do as well. Perhaps Shmuel Herzfeld did also. Someone basely trading money for that sort of emotion — it is hard to conceive, much less forgive. (It is true, of course, that we have seen other genocidal massacres, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries — but none of this takes away from the horror of the Holocaust.)

    Even if Jesus did not actually exist, there is little doubt that great writers like Dante Alighieri really existed. If The Divine Comedy exists as a work of literature, then in some sense the religion of Dante also exists, because it comes alive whenever we read his words (even though he has never been viewed as a prophet or even a definitive source of Catholic theology by the Church.) I cannot compare Dante with Youlus’s lies designed (as you point out) to bilk people of money by preying on their memories.

    On a related note, I have, over time, my thinking has evolved to dislike movies such as Life is Beautiful, Europa, Europa, Schindler’s List, and other fictional accounts of the Holocaust. All of these movies end up glamorizing the Holocaust — even in the absurd case of Life is Beautiful, making it “fun.” I wish people would watch the films of Claude Lanzmann instead (Shoah, A Visitor from the Living, Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 PM, The Karski Report). Regrettably, none of Lanzmann’s films are in print in DVD in the US; although all of the “fun” films about the Holocaust that I listed at the start of this paragraph are in print (and two of the three are even available in Blu-ray.)

  2. February 5, 2012 9:20 pm

    While it’s true that Dante and countless others have been positively and creatively inspired by Jesus, it’s also true that a pure belief in that same message and life has been used to manipulate, oppress, and kill countless millions over the past two thousand years. Hitler spoke of a “positive Christianity,” one purged of the “wrong elements.” Blind faith all too often creates sheep, and occasionally violent sheep, when it should be inspiring acts of bravery and compassion and justice.

    Shame to hear of Lanzmann’s films. Shoah and Sobibor should be required viewing, as should Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog.

  3. February 6, 2012 12:15 am

    On the more general point of belief and truth:

    I have, several times in my life, prayed in the presence of a “fragment of the True Cross.” One of these was in a Spanish city that had at one time been a popular destination for pilgrims because of this fragment.

    I’ve heard it said, and find it plausible, that if all the so-called “fragments of the True Cross” were brought together, one could build a cathedral out of them. So I didn’t place much likelihood on the odds that I actually was in the presence of a fragment of the cross on which Jesus died.

    I did know, though, that I was in the presence of an artifact that many, many Christians had believed to be part of that cross, and that their prayer, intensity, and state of mind would all have been colored by that belief. It was the connection with all those previous Christians and their intense prayer that was meaningful to me. It did heighten the intensity of my prayer and sense of participation in one of the core dramas of Christianity.

    Probably someone had paid a great deal of money for that fragment, once upon a time. Most of these fragments were probably frauds perpetrated on gullible(?) pilgrims by canny opportunists.

    So is there a difference between the True Cross frauds and the rescued Torah frauds? Is it just the length of time that has passed? If the Torah frauds had not been recognized for a few centuries, might they then have functioned the same way?

    Or is it the scale of the horror, as Theophrastus’ comment seems to suggest? As horrific a death as crucifixion was, the crucifixion of Jesus (supposing its historicity) was only one death, whereas the Shoah was horrific on an industrialized, mass-production scale.

  4. February 6, 2012 2:28 pm

    it’s also true that a pure belief in that same message and life has been used to manipulate, oppress, and kill countless millions over the past two thousand years.

    That is true. I think it is important to distinguish between atrocities that were truly motivated by Christianity versus atrocities of the “empire” which were justified by what was the de facto official state religion of the West: Christianity. Hitler is clearly an example of the latter, while the Crusades were an example of the former. Sometimes it is hard to figure out which category to place an item into — the Spanish Inquisition — was this truly a “religious” event or was it an attempt to impose strict control by a quasi-state-church force?

    It must be said that this is not just a problem for Christianity — it is a problem for every religion. We might think of Islam as the most extreme example in our time, but what about Buddhism in Sri Lanka? While we do not ordinarily think of Buddhism as a religion of oppression, violence, and attempted genocide, that is exactly what it has been to the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

  5. February 6, 2012 3:25 pm

    To my mind, “state” atrocities are worse only in the vastness of their scope. I couldn’t care less whether the Crusades were led by true believers or whether it was the Church’s lust for power and wealth or the Byzantine empire’s desperation to fight the expansion into Anatolia of Muslim Seljuk Turks who had cut off access to Jerusalem. I don’t care if nutcases bomb abortion clinics or powerful charitable organizations cut off funding to Planned Parenthood as a way to uphold conservative values. Violence that is institutionalized is more pervasive and overwhelming than violence motivated by religious hatred, but I’m not sure that one is any more cruel or disturbing than the other. Does it really matter whether someone is murdered for money or because the murderer thinks God ordered him to do it? Dead is dead.

  6. February 6, 2012 5:18 pm

    Or is it the scale of the horror, as Theophrastus’ comment seems to suggest?

    Victoria,
    I’m so glad you asked this. And before that, you brought in a fascinating example, the question of “belief and truth” around fragments of the True Cross, which all (outside of the belief of / in the truth[s]) cannot at all possibly be actual fragments of the actual cross.

    So, who gets to make meaning of the Holocaust? Most would say Viktor Frankl, survivor, does. Of course, he says that every individual must make meaning of it. What about Cynthia Ozick with The Shawl (a bringing together of the short story by the same title with the novella Rosa, the one seeming to be more of a primary witness than the other simply because of the lapsing of time)? It’s fiction, and Ozick is an amazingly wonderful and important storyteller, but hardly a survivor. Then there is the non-Jewish storyteller Yann Martel, who has absolutely no stake or claim in the horrors of Shoah, and yet he has the audacity to write Beatrice and Virgil, clearly an allusion to Dante with more explict early references to Art Spiegelman’s Maus as if to give a nod to and as if to complicate the genre of storytelling animals used as witnesses to the absolutely inhumane horrors. (I’ve linked to some old reviews of Martel’s book in this old post at an old blog here.)

    Can a novel, fiction, (like some of these fragments of the cross that you mention) be true and/ or believable? When reading Night by Elie Wiesel, in translation, there are certainly problems for us. The purity of a memoir remembered by a then-16-and-17-year-old survivor gets called into question? You may be aware how Naomi Seidman says that in Yiddish Wiesel’s story reads differently than it does in presumably edited English. Gary Weismann, also, is in dispute with Wiesel over how to classify the work, whether a story of pure truth or one of some fiction.

    Maya Angelou, similarly, has taken similar flack, as we all know, in writing and re-writing her autobiographies, with details and timelines and nuances changed from one version to the next. Which is true, which believable? The horrors of her self-told life-stories may be placed along a scales, or clines, of evil and of amount of evil. (In some cases, she’s not the victim but the victimizer, or at least the one complicit in victimizing others. Her own story includes the fact, she says, that she prostituted other women by running a brothel as a madam.) That Rabbi Menachem Youlus pleads guilty to fraud charges is true and believable; I think we all can agree that the crimes he committed really happened. He’ll pay now, and newspapers reporting these facts will in some small way profit now. To me, it’s the intentions of deceipt, the requirements of lies for his profit, that makes Youlus so different from Angelou. But we all have to figure out what must be believable and whether our categories of fiction can somehow adequately account for facts.

  7. February 6, 2012 9:57 pm

    In my haste and poor internet connectivity, I made a mistake in my previous comment, which may slightly change your opinion of it: I meant to say “rationalized” instead of “justified.”

    Certainly one can *attempt* to rationalize any sort of horror in the name of any sort of philosophy: e.g., Stalin attempted to rationalize his purges in the name of Marx — but it hardly seems fair to burden Marx with the responsibility for Stalin’s actions.

    So who is a more legitimate spokesman for Christianity: Adolf Hitler or Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

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