'Jewish Indiana Jones' Indicted For Fraud
MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. A Maryland rabbi who was billed as the Jewish Indiana Jones was indicted yesterday on fraud charges. Menachem Youlus ran a nonprofit called Save a Torah, Inc. He would rescue Torah scrolls, the five books of Moses that are copied on parchment in Hebrew by scribes, the sacred Scripture of the Jewish faith. Rabbi Youlus claimed to find Torahs that had been lost or stolen or hidden during the Holocaust, and he spun stories of locating those scrolls that were full of adventure and mystery.
His stories sounded more like fiction than fact, and according to the U.S. attorney in New York, they were. Journalist Jeff Lunden, who is no stranger to this program, did the reporting that led to this indictment. He and Martha Wexler wrote about Youlus in The Washington Post magazine last year. And Jeff joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program once again.
JEFF LUNDEN: Thank you. Hi.
SIEGEL: And first, I want you tell us a bit about how Menachem Youlus profited from these Torah scrolls and how much money he seems to have made from it.
LUNDEN: Well, he set up a foundation with several wealthy donors in the Washington, D.C. area, and over the course of the four years of this indictment, that organization, Save the Torah, Inc., raised about $1.2 million. And the indictment says that Youlus pocketed several hundred thousand dollars from this organization, including $140,000 that he was supposed to have embezzled by depositing checks directly into an account that only he could personally access without the knowledge of any of the other people involved in Save a Torah.
SIEGEL: And this was money that donors who were told stories about how these Torahs had been found in Europe, at Rabbi Youlus' instigation, they were told, you have to underwrite the expenses of doing this and pay for it.
LUNDEN: Absolutely. These were very powerful stories, and he got people to donate, you know, anywhere from $6,000 to upwards of 30, $40,000 for scrolls. But Martha and I heard stories of bar mitzvah boys who gave all of the money that they had gotten for their bar mitzvahs to Save a Torah to support Menachem Youlus' rescue missions.
SIEGEL: Now, you and Martha Wexler figured out that there was something that didn't tally quite right about Rabbi Youlus' Save a Torah, Inc. organization. What was it that didn't jibe for you?
LUNDEN: Martha and I got onto this purely because my parents go to a synagogue in the Washington, D.C. area, and they were dedicating a scroll that he claimed had been purchased from a guard at Auschwitz who had taken it from a prisoner, and none of the facts seemed to jibe. We started Googling him, and we found a lot of stories with all of these kind of incredible tales of him kind of parachuting in and at great peril to himself, you know, finding Torahs underneath floorboards or in mass graves and getting beaten up and being thrown in jail.
But, miraculously, the Torah would survive, and he was able to restore it to kosher condition, which meant that it could be used ritualistically in a synagogue. And one of these stories might be an amazing coincidence, but several of these stories didn't, frankly, seem kosher to us.
SIEGEL: We should just say that when a synagogue receives a Torah - one congregation may have several Torahs that are kept in the ark, in the sanctuary - it's a big deal. And especially, when one of those Torahs came from the Nazis' collection in Prague, there was a sense of maintaining continuity and remembering communities that had been destroyed, and it's usually quite a solemn dedication. So this is not a trivial matter.
LUNDEN: Absolutely. And very often, because Youlus had claimed that these Torahs had come from a town where a relative had perished or a relative had survived, they had incredible personal resonance for the donors, some of whom were not billionaires, some of whom were just, you know, doctors and lawyers who wanted to honor their relatives.
SIEGEL: Now, as we should add, Menachem Youlus' lawyer has denied all the charges against him. He is indicted on counts of mail and wire fraud, and I gather, if convicted, either count could bring 20 years in prison.
LUNDEN: That's correct. And fines of a maximum of $250,000 on each charge.
SIEGEL: Jeff Lunden, thanks for talking with us.
LUNDEN: Thank you very much, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's freelance reporter and radio producer Jeff Lunden speaking to us from New York.
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