Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

State cracks down on Save a Torah charity

Rabbi Menachem Youlus, of Save a Torah, center, along with Rabbi Dan Sikowitz, left, and Ed Prensky, treasurer of the Kol Ami congregation, display their newly obtained Torah on March 9, 2008 in Frederick.  Money was donated by congregation members so they might obtain the historic Torah from Save a Torah, who had selected the Frederick congregation as recipients. (The Frederick News-Post)

Rabbi Menachem Youlus, of Save a Torah, center, along with Rabbi Dan Sikowitz, left, and Ed Prensky, treasurer of the Kol Ami congregation, display their newly obtained Torah on March 9, 2008 in Frederick. Money was donated by congregation members so they might obtain the historic Torah from Save a Torah, who had selected the Frederick congregation as recipients. (The Frederick News-Post)

A Maryland rabbi who sold Jewish congregations Torahs that he said were saved from the Holocaust era has promised state officials that from now on, he will make that claim only if verifiable or independent documentation can be found to support it.

P. Richard Zitelman, president of Save a Torah Inc., signed an agreement on July 8 with the Maryland Office of the Secretary of State and the Office of the Attorney General, under which the charity said it would modify its claims about the origins of the Torahs in question.

The agreement, which did not include an admission of guilt, was signed after a state investigation into claims made by Save a Torah about the origins of Torahs it said it had found.

“We want Maryland residents to be assured that they’re getting what they paid for,” said Richard A. Morris, director of charities/legal services for the Secretary of State’s office. “And, there was a question about that in the past with this organization.”

Calls to Zitelman and Save a Torah co-founder Rabbi Menachem Youlus were not returned.

Much of the controversy centered on Youlus, who has been styled in the media as the “Indiana Jones” of Torah discovery. In January, Youlus was featured in a Washington Post article that questioned many of the claims Youlus made about where he rescued Torahs. The Torah — the first five books of the Old Testament — is written in Hebrew on a scroll and considered the primary document of Judaism.

“We had an inquiry from the sale of the Torahs, as to the authenticity of where and how they were found,” Morris said. “We couldn’t prove where and when they found the Torahs and this was the solution agreed upon for how they would handle it.”

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is an adjunct professor of law at Cornell University and a vice president of The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors & Their Descendants. Rosensaft prompted the investigation with an inquiry to the Secretary of State’s office about the validity of Youlus’ claims.

He said Thursday that he was “not dissatisfied” with the agreement reached with the charity. He said Save a Torah had at least embellished the histories behind the Torahs sold to congregations.

“With this agreement, not only do they have to tell the truth, but their word isn’t good enough. They have to provide documentation or an independent, verifiable witness,” Rosensaft said. “Normally, someone’s word is his bond, but in this instance, the state has essentially said their word is worthless and they need to provide proof.”

Rosensaft said he was initially outraged over one of Youlus’ claims that he had found a Torah at the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany. According to the claim, Youlus was on a tour of the camp when his foot slipped under a floorboard and he discovered a hidden Torah.

Rosensaft, the son of two survivors of Bergen-Belsen who was born in the Displaced Persons camp there in 1948, said he had one major problem with that claim.

“At the time of the liberation in 1945, Bergen-Belsen was overrun with typhus and other epidemics,” he said. “The British liberators moved all the surviving inmates to a former German army barracks, and then burned the entire camp to the ground. The barracks of Bergen-Belsen have not existed since May 1945.”

Save a Torah’s stated mission is to rescue Torahs, repair them and then place them with Jewish congregations. In one example, Temple Isaiah in Fulton bought a Torah from Youlus in 2007 for $20,000, according to one press account.

That Torah was supposedly found in Mosul, Iraq, during a firefight when U.S. Army 82nd Airborne soldiers ducked into a building that had at one point been a synagogue. The 400-year old scroll was reportedly found under the floor.

Rosensaft said he hoped the agreement between the charity and the state would prevent others from capitalizing on emotions surrounding the Holocaust to make money.

Save a Torah raised $226,623 during 2008, according to the organization’s Form 990 filed with the IRS in November 2009.  Save a Torah said it located and acquired 11 Torahs “which survived the Holocaust.” The charity said it also repaired and donated 13 Torahs to Jewish groups. Save a Torah said the cost for all of that was $343,792.

“The remembrance of the Holocaust is sacrosanct; it cannot be trivialized or profited on,” Rosensaft said. “It is morally impermissible, and to that extent this serves notice to anyone inclined to try a similar stunt that they won’t be able to get away with it.”