A Maryland Torah scribe whose dramatic claims of rescuing Holocaust-era scrolls came under suspicion earlier this year has agreed to stop making such assertions unless he can prove them, according to an agreement reached with Maryland’s Attorney General.
The document provides that Rabbi Menachem Youlus’ Save A Torah organization, which claimed to have restored more than 1,000 sifrei Torah in the last 25 years and returned them to Jewish hands, “will only describe where a Torah was found or provide an account of its rescue if there is documentation or an independent verifiable witness to such history. In the absence of such independent verifiable proof, there will be no discussion of the circumstances under which the Torah was rescued.”
The agreement ends the attorney general’s investigation.
Rabbi Youlus, who owns a Jewish bookstore in Wheaton, Md., had claimed that the Torah scrolls he found and sold came from such exotic settings as a “Gestapo body bag,” a cemetery near Auschwitz and the space under the floorboards of a concentration camp barracks.
An article in the Washington Post Magazine in January questioned the veracity of the rabbi’s claims, citing a lack of corroborating evidence, and leading to an investigation by the Maryland Attorney General.
Rabbi Youlus did not respond to a request for comment from The Jewish Week.
A statement from Rick Zitelman, president of Save A Torah, on the organization’s website states that an “independent investigation by a distinguished and acclaimed scribe” commissioned by the organization “found no evidence to contradict any information provided by Rabbi Youlus to the purchasers of the Torahs. All the Torahs … were found to written in pre-Holocaust years in Eastern Europe, as Rabbi Youlus has determined.”
But, Zitelman’s statement added, “Save A Torah and Rabbi Youlus will, in the future, rely exclusively on verifiable information in characterizing the origins of Torahs purchased or dedicated. As part of this effort, Save A Torah, Inc., is developing guidelines that will be followed by Rabbi Youlus in rescuing, documenting and distributing Torahs, so that all future purchasers of Torahs may have confidence regarding the Torahs they obtain.”
The Save A Torah website says the organization “is committed and rescuing as many Torahs as possible …. there is the brief opportunity to rescue and restore Torah scrolls hidden, lost or stolen during the Holocaust and other world upheavals,” but offers no details about the provenance of the scrolls in the rabbi’s possession.
The agreement is “75 percent positive — Youlus has been exposed as a charlatan … Save A Torah and Youlus are under an affirmative prohibition with respect to the fabrication” of stories about the scrolls, said Menachem Rosensaft, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants and adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School.
Rosensaft wrote to Attorney General Douglas Gansler earlier this year, charging Rabbi Youlus with “possible fraud and/or misrepresentation” and “soliciting funds under false pretenses.”
Rosensaft said he is disappointed that the agreement carries no monetary penalty or admission of guilt, adding, “there is an admission of guilt implied.”
The agreement likely represents a “conservation of judicial resources,” preventing Maryland from spending more time or money on this case, he said.
“Notice has been served that we are not going to allow anyone to desecrate Holocaust remembrance for any purpose,” he said.
Sifei Torah sell for at least $10,000, usually in the range of $20,000-$40,000. The Save A Torah scrolls were sold to dozens of synagogues and Jewish institutions, most in the United States.