Exposing the 'Jewish Indiana Jones'

Aug 26, 2011

Journalists Jeffrey Lunden and Martha Wexler chatted about how their investigating reporting led to the indictment of a Wheaton-based Rabbi, a self proclaimed "Jewish Indiana Jones."

Read: 'Jewish Indiana Jones' charged with fraud and ask questions now!

Good morning.  Thanks for joining today's chat.  I look forward to taking your questions.

Martha will be joining the conversation momentarily.

How long did you work on this story?

Martha and I became aware of Rabbi Youlus in 2005, when a Torah scroll of his was being dedicated at my parent's shul in suburban MD.  NPR was going to do a story about him, but Martha killed it, because when she fact-checked Youlus's stories, none of them could be confirmed.  We became very curious and started to Google him and found lots of similar stories of him making miraculous, coincidental, amazing discoveries of Torahs - with Youlus putting himself at great peril and saving and restoring the Torah. They all seemed to fit a pattern.  But it wasn't until the so-called Auschwitz Torah was dedicated at Central Synagogue in 2008 that we began a serious investigation.  Our article came out in 2010 - it was about a year and a half of digging.

Note to readers: Martha is joining us from Turkey and is having some technical issues.  She will join the chat as soon as she can.  In the meantime, Jeff will be answering questions.  Thanks for understanding.

What made you suspicious in the first place?

That first story, from my parent's synagogue, just didn't scan.  He claimed to have found it on eBay and then personally went to Germany to buy it  from the owner, a former Auschwitz prison guard, who threatened to burn it if he wasn't paid in gold.  He also claimed to have been beaten up by the police on the way to the airport and was filing a claim against the German government.  And - coincidentally - this Torah scroll came from the very community in Hungary where the donor's parents came from.  Anyone who knows about eBay, knows that's not how things work.  There was no claim against the German government, etc., etc.  It seemed like a complete fabrication.

Why was it a postal investigation? Why was it the NY DA?

I believe the US Attorney in New York got involved because of the so-called Auschwitz Torah at Central Synagogue.  The Postal Investigators got involved because Youlus and Save a Torah solicited donations via mail and e-mail.

I admit that I was one taken in by his stories, as they just seemed so daring and amazing. I know now that I must have wanted to believe them, though to be honest, I didn't have much reason to suspect otherwise. What sort of mentality do you think can bring a person to fabricate such an elaborate hoax?

I'm very sorry to hear it.  His stories played at the heartstrings of his donors - they provided a happy ending, if you will, to the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust, because it affirmed that the Jewish community survived.  And he used the most potent and sacred  symbol - the Torah - as the centerpiece of the stories.  How could someone take those two things and use them for his own personal profit and aggrandizement?  I think you'd have to consult with psychiatrists.

Is there any consideration to having this Rabbi account for what he did in the sacred, rather than secular, realm? Like a rabbinical court?

I don't honestly know whether that's being pursued by members of the rabbinical community.

What reactions have you received from people who have read this?

Thumbs up from some.  There were a myriad of responses on the Post webpage, where the article was published.  At least one or two people defended the rabbi.

Did you investigate other things about him? For example is a actually a scribe? Is the rest of his business legit?

Well, when I interviewed him and asked him where and with whom he studied, he didn't answer my question.  (He didn't answer a lot of my questions.)  He clearly knows chapter and verse about the sacred craft of being a sofer, a Torah scribe.  His brother-in-law was working on a scroll in another room at the Jewish bookstore, while I interviewed Youlus.  The Federal indictment indicates that some of the money got funneled into the bookstore's business account.

Will he be facing a trial by jury, and if so, where do you anticipate it will take place? On a personal note, I am very troubled by what has transpired; Rabbi Youlus interfaced with our suburban synagogue in Maryland as well, and it is very hard to reconcile how he presented himself to us, the teaching he engaged in with our congregation, and what he is accused of having done.

I don't yet know about whether it will be a jury trial, a trial before a judge or whether he'll take a plea.  His lawyer indicated he would have his day in court (in New York), but I don't know.

Youlus was a very charming guy - when I interviewed him in the bookstore,  we kept on being interrupted by clients (some of whom were local clergy) who clearly adored him.  But, I'm afraid as this indictment indicates, the whole Holocaust Torah business was a fraud.  It's very disturbing that a rabbi would engage in something like this.  

Obviously, this has brought embarrassment and shame on us all. Did you consider confronting him, having him own up and make amends, and cease such activity rather than writing the expose?

We had a four hour interview in his shop and I did confront him - with the facts about several of the Torah scrolls he sold - and he changed the details of every single story.  

How early did people doubt this Rabbi? Didn't some of his stories appear too amazing to have been true?

I think there were always some people who doubted his stories.  Part of the reason he got away with it for so long is that people only heard the stories they were told.  What Martha and I did was kind of aggregate them, find their similarities, find where he'd take one idea and spin it in several different ways, changing some details.  When you looked at it that way, you saw a definite pattern.  That's how we found out, for instance, that five different people/organizations had purchased two Torahs, supposedly found in a mass grave.

I don't know why some people didn't do their own fact--checking/due diligence.  It only takes a few clicks on a computer to find out that Menachem Youlus couldn't have fallen through floorboards at Bergen-Belsen, because there were no floorboards!  The camp was burned to the ground in 1945 to prevent the spread of typhus.


But when a rabbi comes and tells you a story, is your first reaction to be skeptical?  That's what he relied on.

Is there any evidence that he's damaged any of the scrolls himself in an attempt to inflate his stories? I'm horrified at the idea. I knew the stories sounded fishy when I heard them, a few years ago, but I didn't look into it very much.

I don't know.  The indictment found two people who sold Youlus old Torahs, which he repurposed as Holocaust scrolls, even though the buyers hadn't indicated that was the case.  I don't know if he did anything to damage them - I kind of doubt it.

I've spoken with a respected Torah scribe in New York who told me that most pre-World War II scrolls in the US were written in "Torah factories" in Poland and Ukraine.  (Just the way most new Torahs are written in Israel.)  So, chances are, if you've got a scroll in your ark that's 80 - 100 years old, it actually DID come from Poland, etc..  But that doesn't mean it survived the war in Europe.

No question, just a comment. I've also contributed to Rabbi Youlus's cause. I read an article about him in the Washingtonian a few years ago and was so taken with it that one year I earmarked part of my CFC donation for his organization. The story seemed to have such universal appeal (I'm a Catholic). I feel terrible for the congregations that were misled.

Martha and I feel very badly about this, as well.  A lot of very good people got taken.  I remember hearing a comment from Ricky Jay, the magician who wrote a book about con artists.  I'm going to paraphrase it.  He said he was glad he lived in a world where con artists could exist, because it meant that people still had trust in one another.   A con artist violates people's trust.

Setting religion aside, this case, like the "Three Cups of Tea" author scandal, amazes me because it lays out the large sums of money that people are donating for various small causes that most of the public doesn't even know exist. No real question here, just the comment that in these times when everyone seems to be focused on making ends meet and worrying about the economy, there are still dedicated people out there giving large shares of their wealth to numerous causes. Sadly, some of those times those good hearts are taken advantage of!

See my previous answer...


We're coming towards the end of the hour.  I'll try and answer one or two questions.  Thanks to all who've participated.

Martha - who's in Istanbul - wasn't able to establish an Internet connection.  She sends her regrets.

Is it even appropriate to take "Holocaust" Torah's out of their countries of origin? Shouldn't the communities there, that lived through the events, have the right of refusal at any rate?

You're absolutely right.  And we spoke with people in the Jewish communities over there who made that very  point.  There are also very strict laws about this.  It was another rather questionable part of Save a Torah's mission.

I'm going to say goodbye now. I hope I was able to answer questions to your satisfaction.  Thanks to everyone for participating!

In This Chat
Jeff Lunden
Jeff Lunden is a freelance reporter and radio producer. His stories have been heard on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Performance Today, as well as Studio 360, Marketplace, Weekend America, The Savvy Traveler and Voice of America. He has written print stories for The Washington Post and The Hollywood Reporter. Lunden has produced over a dozen documentaries on Musical Theater and Tin Pan Alley for National Public Radio. He is also a theater composer. His score for the award-winning adaptation of Arthur Kopit’s Wings was produced at the Public Theater in New York and Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
Martha Wexler
Martha Wexler is a freelance reporter and radio editor for NPR. She was senior editor of NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and before that served as the network's Europe Editor. She also reported news and feature stories from Russia for NPR. In January of 2010, she and Jeff Lunden published an article in The Washington Post Magazine questioning the veracity of Rabbi Youlus's Torah rescue stories. That article led to the federal investigation and this week's indictment of Rabbi Youlus.
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