Thursday, July 29, 2010

And Now to Prove There Really is a Sucker Born Every Minute ...

A Jewish nonprofit group whose leader was accused of fabricating dramatic stories about rescued Torahs has reached a deal with Maryland investigators forbidding it from publicizing such stories about sacred scrolls unless it can prove them.

Md. restricts Torah rescue claims

Original Story - Rabbi to the Rescue: Menachem Youlus is called the Indiana Jones of Torah recovery and restoration. But there are doubts about his thrilling tales.

The agreement ends an investigation into the Rockville-based Save a Torah and its driving force, Rabbi Menachem Youlus, often described as "The Indiana Jones of Torah Scribes."

The probe followed a January Washington Post Magazine article that raised questions about Youlus's stories of rescuing Torahs hidden, lost or stolen during the Holocaust. In one story, Youlus claimed to have found a Torah hidden under the floorboards of a German concentration camp barracks years after the buildings had been demolished. In another, he described digging up a mass grave in the Ukraine and finding a Torah wrapped in a "Gestapo body bag."

The Torahs were restored by Youlus, who owns a Jewish bookstore in Wheaton, and then sold to more than three dozen Jewish congregations and organizations, including Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Chinatown, Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Shaare Tefila in Silver Spring and several congregations in the Baltimore area.

Under the deal reached this month with Maryland authorities, Save a Torah "will only describe where a Torah is found . . . if there is documentation or an independent verifiable witness to such history." The agreement was signed by the offices of Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Secretary of State Richard Morris and by Richard Zitelman, president of Save a Torah.

Voice mail and e-mail messages left for Zitelman and Youlus were not immediately returned, but the group began an internal probe after The Post's article ran. Its statement about the probe, which is on the group's Web site, says independent investigators "found no evidence to contradict any information provided by Rabbi Youlus to the purchasers of his Torahs." But the investigators, who examined 11 Torahs, also noted in their report that they could not verify the stories about how the Torahs had been found and rescued.

Asked whether the probe had found evidence of fraud, Gansler spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said only that the investigation is over and that the agreement "addresses all the concerns our office had and clarifies how the company will do business going forward."

The man who pushed for the investigation, Menachem Rosensaft, a vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, said Wednesday that he was disappointed that no one was charged but that he thought the agreement makes it clear that Youlus is a con artist.

"Those stories are not just fantasies but desecration of memories," said Rosensaft, a New York law professor. "You have well-meaning people who think they are commemorating victims of the greatest atrocity in history and instead have really turned out to be victims of a scam."

Rabbi Shoshana Hantman, who paid $6,000 for a Torah for her tiny congregation in Westchester, N.Y., also questioned why there were no sanctions or punishment and why the agreement doesn't note whether Youlus and the nonprofit will still be allowed to accept donations.

"We were hoping that he would have to either shut down his operations or stop accepting donations," Hantman said. "That would be our main concern, if he's still taking donations for what is essentially a bogus operation."

Over the past several years, the group has raised between $250,000 and $300,000 a year, including money from boys and girls making donations in honor of their bar and bat mitzvahs.

Hantman said she no longer believes that the Torah she purchased was found in a mass grave in the Ukraine, as Youlus told her. "But it hasn't changed our feeling about our Torah," she added. "We love it, no matter where it came from."

Staff writer William Wan and Post Magazine contributors Martha Wexler and Jeff Lunden also contributed to this report.

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