What's wrong with these people?
In an attempt to buttress the tarnished credibility of Rabbi Menachem Youlus, the Washington, DC, area Torah scribe who boasts that he has "rescued" over 1,000 Holocaust-era Torah scrolls, Save a Torah, Inc., Youlus's 501 (c) 3 tax-exempt organization, has now issued a report by two allegedly "independent" Torah scribes to the effect that the scrolls Youlus peddled to different congregations were more than 70 years old and had been "written in Poland or other parts of Eastern Europe."
As if that has ever been the issue.
Youlus, you may recall, represented that two of his Torah scrolls had supposedly been buried in a so-called "Gestapo body bag," whatever that is, in a mass-grave on a pig farm in western Ukraine; he said that he had discovered another one under the floorboards of a barrack in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany; and he professed to have dug up yet another in what had been the cemetery of Oswiecim, the Polish town adjacent to the Auschwitz death camp, and that he had miraculously reunited this last scroll with four missing parchment panels that Jews from Oswiecim had taken into the camp and had entrusted for safekeeping to a Jewish-born priest who remained in Oswiecim after the war and eventually sold them to Youlus.
Since the publication earlier this year of a meticulously detailed Washington Post Magazine exposé in which Martha Wexler and Jeff Lunden questioned Youlus's veracity, Youlus has not come forward with a single document or a single witness to substantiate any of his claims.
Moreover, some facts are simply not in dispute: There is no historical evidence whatsoever of the Nazis, who regularly burned and desecrated Torah scrolls, ever burying any sacred Jewish religious artifacts in mass-graves alongside murdered Jews. Youlus actually peddled the two "mass-grave" Torah scrolls to five separate congregations. He could not possibly have found any Torah scrolls in Bergen-Belsen since British troops burned that camp's barracks to the ground in May of 1945 to contain a typhus epidemic. And there is no record of anyone even remotely fitting the description of the priest in Youlus's bizarre Auschwitz Torah story ever having lived in or near the town of Oswiecim.
Rick Zitelman, Save a Torah's president, has now issued a disingenuous and utterly misleading statement in which he claims that the two "independent" scribes "found no evidence to contradict any information provided by Rabbi Youlus to the purchasers of his Torahs." Since all the scribes were asked to do was determine the age and general geographic area of origin of the Torahs in question, and whether or not they are ritually suitable for synagogue use, Zitelman's declaration is as meaningless as it is spurious.
Rabbi Gal Berner of the Kol Ami Congregation in Northern Virginia apparently asked the scribes whether the "Bergen-Belsen" Torah "could have survived in a box from the 1940s to 2002." Their irrelevant response: "We just can't tell. If water did not get to the Torah, it is possible that the Torah could last." Never mind that no Bergen-Belsen barracks were in existence after May of 1945, let alone in 2002. Never mind that Youlus's entire story regarding this scroll has to be a complete fiction.
As far as Rick "see no evil, hear no evil" Zitelman is concerned, Youlus, far from having become a pariah, should be allowed to go on functioning as a scribe with impunity. Even worse, some prominent members of the Jewish community actually defend Youlus publicly.
Carol Pristoop, executive director of the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center near Reisterstown, Maryland, told the Baltimore Jewish Times that even though Youlus's actions "could be possibly fraud . . . This man, in many ways, is doing a mitzvah." Dr. Moshe Shualy, the Ritual Director of Baltimore's Chizuk Amuno Congregation, says that even though "there have been misstatements," he believes that Youlus is "being crucified." "Should we judge him because he says things that don't sound quite right?" Shualy asks rhetorically.
Stephen R. Krawitz, Esq., a member of the Conservative Synagogue of Westport, Connecticut, writes in the New York Jewish Week that he considers Youlus to be "a tzaddik, a righteous man" who "is doing God's work on behalf of the Jewish people." And Robert Kushner, who purchased one of the mass-grave Torah scrolls for the Beth El Congregation in South Hills, Pennsylvania, wants to let Youlus off the hook after receiving a sworn document in which Youlus reiterates, without more, his original account of the scroll's provenance. "Whatever he may be," Kushner told the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, "I cannot bring myself to believe that an Orthodox rabbi would swear and confirm to a lie."
Why and how anyone could still defend Youlus is beyond me. His misrepresentations not only play straight into the hands of Holocaust deniers, but he has raised thousands of dollars under false pretenses from people who trusted him, including idealistic teenagers who were conned into donating significant portions of their bar and bat mitzvah gifts to Save a Torah.
Any exploitation of the Holocaust for crass commercial purposes is appalling. Creating false Holocaust histories for Torah scrolls is despicable. Youlus's scheme is at least as reprehensible as Binjamin Wilkomirski's much-acclaimed fake Holocaust memoir which turned out to be a work of fiction written by a Christian clarinetist named Bruno Dösseker, born Bruno Grosjean in Switzerland, not Latvia.
Instead of being given a free pass, Youlus's shadowy activities should be thoroughly investigated. Where did he get his Torah scrolls, and from whom? Were they stolen, and if so, to whom do they belong?
If nothing else, Menachem Youlus violated the trust of well-meaning individuals who thought they were supporting the rescue of Torah scrolls and instead have discovered that they unwittingly helped facilitate a truly contemptible scam. He and Save a Torah, which shamelessly continues to solicit funds on its website, must now be held accountable, both legally and morally.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at the Syracuse University College of Law, and Vice President of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants