In 2002, a Torah scroll was bought by Congregation Beth El of the South Hills because it was thought to have been a Holocaust-era Torah that had been discovered in Ukraine. This story, however, was fabricated by a man named Menachem Youlus. The story of this ‘counterfeit Holocaust scroll’ is evidence the great meaning that American Jews give to Torah scrolls that were recovered from the Holocaust., Unfortunately, Youlus took advantage of those strong emotions for his own benefit.
History of The Youlus Scandal
In August of 2002, Congregation Beth El dedicated a Torah to the father of Robert Kushner, a congregation member. Any Torah dedication is a cause for celebration, but this one was especially momentous, as it took place during Simchat Torah—a Jewish holiday that marks the beginning of a new cycle of weekly Torah readings.
Kushner had bought the Torah from Rabbi Menachem Youlus, who was known to describe himself as the “Jewish Indiana Jones”. The owner of a Jewish bookstore in Maryland and co-founder of the nonprofit “Save a Torah,” Youlus claimed to have rescued multiple Torahs from unlikely places, often any risk to his own life. When speaking to Robert Kushner, Youlus told him that the Torah Kushner later bought was one of two found in a mass grave, wrapped in a “Nazi body bag”, buried near a Ukrainian pig farm. Kushner felt a connection to the Torah because his father was born in Kamenets-Podolsky, the town Youlus claimed to have found it in. In an article by the Jewish Chronicle, Kushner stated, “The donation of the Torah in my father’s memory was a way of according him the highest honor, which he so clearly deserved”.
Years after Congregation Beth El acquired its Torah, an article in the Washington Post was published questioning the veracity of Youlus’ claims. The author wrote, “In a 3-hour interview, Youlus is unable to provide a single name, date, place, photograph or document to back up the Auschwitz stories or any of the others.” Though the article did not condemn Youlus outright, it managed to spark doubt about Youlus’ tales and his foundation.
In August of 2011, Youlus was arrested in Manhattan on charges of fraud. An investigation into Youlus’ business dealings was in part prompted by Menachem Z. Rosensaft, one of the first to doubt Youlus’ stories. Rosensaft, both the general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and adjunct law professor at Cornell University, began to question Youlus’ tales after Youlus claimed to have found a Torah by falling through the floorboards of the former concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. Rosensaft, whose own parents were liberated from Bergen-Belsen, knew that the camp had in fact been burned down by the British army to prevent an outbreak of typhus.
Prosecutors claimed that Youlus asked for over $1 million from “Save a Torah” to be paid to his own bookstore, and that Youlus was using money from the bookstore to pay for personal expenses, including his own children’s private school tuition. Additionally, prosecutors accused Youlus of lying about his Torah-finding travels around the world. Youlus pled guilty to these charges in early 2012, and stated, “Between 2004 and 2010, I falsely represented that I had personally obtained vintage Torah scrolls—in particular ways, in particular locations—in Europe and Israel”. Just after the publication of the Washington Post article, Robert Kushner was quoted in the Jewish Chronicle as stating, “The whole thing is weird, but I achieved what I wanted to do. There is a Torah dedicated to my father”.
In October of 2012, a Manhattan federal judge sentenced Youlus to 51 months in prison, plus 3 years of probation. Additionally, Youlus was ordered to pay $990,366.05 in restitution. Reportedly, Youlus had managed to sell over 50 Torahs, many of which ended up in the Washington, D.C. area.
The Early History of Congregation Beth El
The counterfeit Youlus Torah currently resides at Congregation Beth El, a synagogue in the South Hills outside of Pittsburgh. As the city of Pittsburgh began to grow economically and industrially at the turn of the 20th century, it rapidly emerged as the leading steel-producing city in the US. The resulting increase in traffic, population size and pollution and smog in the Pittsburgh air caused many families to begin moving out into more rural and suburban neighborhoods outside of the city. One such neighborhood that became populated by Jewish families looking to settle in a more peaceful location was Beechview, in the south hills of Pittsburgh. As the number of Jewish families in this neighborhood began to grow, so did the need to create a religious school in the area, for the nearest religious school was in Squirrel Hill, a long commute away. Interestingly, the initial start of Beth El was due to a group of motivated, forward-thinking Jewish women, and their actions 100 years ago this year set in motion the series of historical events that created and shaped the dynamic and thriving congregation that exists today.
Rebecca Ruderman was a mother of eight children living on Stratford Avenue in Beechview in 1912. That year, she began to go door to door asking her neighbors to join her in her pursuit of establishing their own local religious school for their children. She and several other women formed The Jewish Mother’s Club of Beechview, a group that consisted of 20 women in 1912 and 53 just 5 five years later. These women began a fund to build a local Jewish Community center. At the same time, the Jewish men of Beechwood were gathering with one another at the home of a man named Benjamin Cohen for prayer, and there they also began to discuss their communal need for a local, Orthodox synagogue in the area. This group of motivated men, many of whom were married to the motivated women of The Mother’s Club, obtained a charter for their new congregation. In April 1919, the Beechview Hebrew Congregation of Beth El was chartered under the elected chairman Jacob Rosenberg, and they continued to meet in the home of Ben Cohen to pray and give their children the religious training that Rebecca Ruderman had worked so hard to develop.
The Jewish Mother’s club worked hand in hand with the newly formed congregation of men, and in 1919 they donated $2,500 to the congregation so that they could purchase their own building to hold the meetings of the congregation. Because of their efforts, on March 28, 1920 the Beechview Hebrew Congregation purchased an empty lot at 1910 Broadway in Beechwood. The men sought donations of $1, $5, and at rare times more, to go towards the construction of a building for the congregation. Seven years later, the vision that Ruderman and the other women had would finally be realized as the finalized building was dedicated as the original synagogue of Pittsburgh’s South Hills.
As the suburbanizing trend increased in the 1960s and 1970s, the congregation grew in size. In 1963, the congregation constructed a new building to accommodate the increasing membership and religious school. This congregation continued to expand, as the 130 families that had membership in 1963 grew to over 300 in 1977. The congregation that sits at 1900 Cochran Road now is a thriving, welcoming, and inclusive group of Pittsburgh Jewish community members that are connected together not only by their faith, but through the intricate history of congregation Beth El and of the South Hills of Pittsburgh as a whole.
Other Individuals Affected by Youlus
Youlus’ scam affected many synagogues in addition to Beth El. Though Youlus only claimed to have found two Torahs in the Ukrainian mass grave, five people ended up buying what he said were the two Torahs. The first was Martin Ingall of Potomac, Maryland. Ingall gave a report about buying the Torah in the Jewish genealogical newsletter Avotaynu, which mentioned that both his Torah and another were found in “Gestapo body bags” in Kamenets-Podolskiy, Ukraine. Ingall mentioned in this article that “it would be nice for this other Torah to find a home” with someone else with a connection to Kamenets-Podolskiy. This likely prompted Robert Kushner to buy what he thought was the remaining Torah.
Around the same time, Phyllis and David Malinov bought a Torah from Youlus, which ended up at the Jewish Fellowship of Hemlock Farms, a synagogue in Pike County, PA. The Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center outside of Baltimore also bought one of Youlus’ Torahs. Finally, the Reconstructionist Group of Southern Westchester bought a Youlus Torah, facilitated by then-member Rabbi Shoshana Hantman.
Perhaps Youlus’ most famous customer was David Rubenstein, a billionaire philanthropist and member of the Carlyle Group, a Washington, D.C. equity firm. Though not himself a member, Rubenstein donated a Youlus Torah to Central Synagogue, a Manhattan temple, in the spring of 2008. Supposedly, Youlus unearthed this Torah in the Polish town of Oswiecim (known in German as Auschwitz); however, the scroll was missing four panels. A metal detector was allegedly used to find the Torah, which Youlus claimed was buried in a metal box (supposedly, the sexton of a nearby synagogue deposited the Torah near the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust). Youlus claimed to have placed an ad looking for “parchment with Hebrew writing on it”; he claimed to have found the exact match to the missing panels of the Auschwitz Torah the very next day.
Rubenstein’s doubts about the veracity of Youlus’ claims were likely set off by the original Washington Post article from 2010. Rubenstein hired Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum to investigate; this private investigation may have sparked the federal investigation that ultimately lead to Youlus’ arrest. About Rubenstein’s Auschwitz Torah, Berenbaum stated, “we cannot fully and unquestionably establish that the Torahs are what I had been led to believe”.
While reactions to Youlus’ fraud have been mixed, most synagogues in possession of a Youlus Torah, like Congregation Beth El, seem to have chosen to keep the scrolls. Rabbi Alex Greenbaum of Congregation Beth El confirmed that their Youlus Torah is kosher, and the synagogue still brings the Torah out for services. The general consensus of most affected synagogues is that, while the fraud is a shame, the Torahs themselves are kosher and largely in mint condition. They remain holy objects and valuable assets, in spite of Youlus’ unscrupulous behavior.
The Rise in Popularity of ‘Holocaust Torahs’
The Youlus scandal was upsetting and troubling to all those that were affected by his actions. His unscrupulous behavior was particularly devastating precisely because of the rich – and authentic – history of so many Torah scrolls that were discovered in eastern Europe and that hold so much meaning to post-Holocaust Jews.
There is significant evidence that shows the extent to which Nazis destroyed many Torahs during their invasion of European countries; scrolls were destroyed for fun by Nazi soldiers upon their entering villages all across Europe. Elie Wiesel, author and Nobel laureate who wrote of his experience surviving the Holocaust once said, “In Europe the first thing the enemy did was break into the synagogue and burn the Torah scrolls…somehow they understood that if they destroy the Torah they destroy the Jews.” Wiesel touches on a very deep idea here; destruction of a Torah is heartbreaking because each individual Torah often has a long and complex history of its creation and development over many years.
One of the reasons each Torah scroll is so unique and complex is because of the complicated and fragile steps involved in the construction of one; in light of this, most synagogues will purchase and restore an older scroll rather than commission to create a brand new one. The level of intricacy and detail that each line of each page can only be obtained by a level of deep commitment and hard work on the part of the creator. Further, the act of making the Torah is not just a difficult endeavor – it is a spiritual endeavor, an act that is holy and shaped by religious rituals along the way.
In the years after WWII ended, more and more storage spaces that had held confiscated Jewish items – such as Torah scrolls from synagogues throughout German occupied areas – began to surface as people began to repair areas destroyed by the war. The survival and discovery of a set of 1,564 Czech Torah scrolls, for instance, inspired the creation of an organization called The Memorial Scrolls Trust. Their mission is to distribute these scrolls to Jewish institutions throughout the world, and to educate the recipients of the complex and rich history of each individual scroll. They research and explore the background of every single scroll they received in the 1960s, and in doing so, they honor the communities that had cherished these scrolls before the Nazi takeover.
As this restoration and commemoration of Holocaust items was occurring in Western Europe, a similar process of procurement was occurring in Israel as well. Since the country’s founding in 1948, there had been an internal struggle over how the Israeli people should proceed with the dealings of the aftermath of the war: specifically, there was a debate over whether the the ashes of some of the Jews that had perished in the war should be brought to Israel. Many felt this was the right thing to do, and during this time they brought over not only ashes of people but also other religious items that had been recovered after the Holocaust. These items included Torah scrolls that had been floating in warehouses and holding cells all over Europe. In June 1949, Israelis in Jerusalem held services honoring those whose ashes and holy objects had been brought there. This burial ceremony was due to the joint efforts of several organizations: the Jewish Agency, the Jerusalem Municipality, the World Zionist Organization, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and it marked one of the first collective holocaust commemoration services. The area in which the ashes and first collected Torah scrolls were held was called the “Holocaust Cellar.”
In later years, this site grew and eventually became the exclusive site for the burial of Holocaust martyr’s ashes in Israel, as more and more survivors went there to bury the ashes of loved ones. But the significance of this Holocaust cellar was not due to just the burial of human remains; in the following years, it also became a central place for people to deliver damaged or recently discovered Torahs that had survived Nazi occupation. Today, this cellar is called the “Chamber of the Holocaust” and it remains a small yet significant holocaust museum. In the ten exhibition rooms, there exist many of the Torah scrolls that had been brought there throughout the second half of the twentieth century. These are the authentic scrolls that, like the Czech ones that have been distributed to synagogues all over the world through the actions of The Torah Scroll Project, actually survived horror and destruction.
Certainly, Youlus’ scam caused disappointment and heartbreak to many individuals. Fortunately, however, there are many places — even in Pittsburgh — where people can go to view Torah scrolls that really did survive the Holocaust.
Bar, Doron. “Holocaust Commemoration in Israel During the 1950s: The Holocaust Cellar on Mount Zion.” Jewish Social Studies 12.1 (2005): 16-38.
Barnes, Jeannette. “Temple in Sharon Celebrates Restoration of Torah Saved from Nazis.” The Boston Globe, October 23, 2015.
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Daffner, Richard H. “Origins (1917 – 1925).” Website of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, http://bethelcong.org/beth-el-history/
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Wexler, Martha and Lunden, Jeff. “Maryland Rabbi Who Peddled Fake Holocaust Torahs Sentenced to Four Years for Fraud.” The Washington Post. 31 Jan. 2010.