At least two congregations in Louisiana have Torah scrolls that were acquired through Rabbi Menachem Youlus, who has been considered the “Indiana Jones” of Torahs, but who was arrested on Aug. 24 in New York.
Youlus, of Baltimore, ran Save A Torah, which the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York described as an operation “which purported to ‘rescue’ Torah scrolls lost or hidden during the Holocaust,” and accused him of “allegedly defrauding the charity and its donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Questions about Youlus arose in a 2010 Washington Post Magazine story, which included details about him finding two Torahs in a mass grave but selling “those” two scrolls to five different congregations, and finding a Torah hidden under floorboards in a Bergen-Belsen concentration camp barracks. British troops had burned all the barracks in 1945 to prevent the spread of typhus.
Also, despite stories of personally rescuing scrolls from around the world, the U.S. Attorney’s office said he almost never traveled internationally during those years, and had purchased many of the “rescued” scrolls from other dealers.
In June 2006, Agudath Achim in Shreveport dedicated a Torah that had been used in the home of Rabbi Foster Kawaler’s great-grandfather in Krasna, Ukraine. At the time, Youlus said he came across the Sephardic-style Torah after four Israeli girls toured a monastery in Kiev in 2004. The monks showed the girls their Judaica collection, which included many Torahs. Youlus went to Ukraine and apparently negotiated to purchase three of the scrolls, including the Kawaler family Torah.
That Torah has a tag on a handle with Kawaler’s great-grandfather’s name on it.
Kawaler said he has known Youlus for almost 40 years, and “we would all be very disappointed if the rest of the story turns out to be untrue” about the Torah’s origins.
He did state that “we had the Torah checked some time ago, and the age, the “ksav” and the other unique characteristics are, indeed, as he described.”
The monastery story was also the background for a Torah dedicated at Beth Israel in Metairie on Jan. 19, 2008. Ethan Ulanow of Potomac, Md., raised $6,000 at his bar mitzvah toward the purchase of a Torah for Beth Israel to help the congregation post-Katrina. All of the congregation’s scrolls were unusable after the Lakeview facility flooded.
According to accounts from then, the scroll “was rescued from Ukraine, near Kiev, and restored by Rabbi Menachem Youlus of the Rockville-based Save a Torah, Inc. The Torah is estimated to be 200-250 years old, and was presumably hidden during the Holocaust and ended up in a monastery.”
Rabbi Uri Topolosky of Beth Israel, having just heard of the arrest, said he would “prefer not to comment at this time.”
Youlus also provided a Holocaust Torah to Brith Shalom Beth Israel Congregation in Charleston, S.C. Rabbi Ari Sytner said it was independently verified to be Polish and at least 150 years old. While “we may never know the entire history of our Holocaust Torah… it is true to our mission of restoring a genuine pre-Holocaust, Eastern European Torah.”