NEW YORK — A Jewish charity co-founder who billed himself as a “Jewish Indiana Jones” bent on rescuing vintage Torahs across the globe was sentenced to more than four years in prison on Thursday for conning donors out of about $1 million.
Menachem Youlus told a judge in federal court in Manhattan that he was ashamed of his scam, but still hoped for leniency.
“I will carry that shame and dishonor with me for the rest of my life. … I know I have lifetime of atonement ahead of me,” he said.
U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon gave Youlus 51 months behind bars — the maximum under sentencing guidelines. She imposed the term after hearing some the victims express anguish over discovering that their donations — given to help to save the sacred scrolls in Europe and Israel — instead went into his pocket.
“We’re here because Mr. Youlus is a liar and because he lied in order to obtain money,” the judge said.
Youlus — a 50-year-old father of nine children and owner of a book store in Wheaton — had told donors he traveled the world to recover Torahs lost or hidden during the Holocaust, including at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.
At a 2004 Torah dedication, Youlus wrote: “I guess you could call me the Jewish Indiana Jones,” a criminal complaint said, referencing the action-adventure hero played by Harrison Ford in the 1981 Stephen Spielberg classic “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
But prosecutors said Youlus rarely went abroad during the years he had claimed to go Torah hunting. They accused him of instead distributing Torahs he bought from U.S. dealers to synagogues and congregations nationwide, sometimes at inflated rates.
Authorities also alleged Youlus put some of the donations into his personal accounts, spending the funds on private school tuition for his children and on personal expenses, including meals and health care.
Defense attorney Ben Brafman insisted Thursday that Youlus actually had “squirreled away” most of funds. He also sought to assure victims they would get back all their money.