NEW YORK — A Jewish charity co-founder who claimed he traveled the world as a “Jewish Indiana Jones” to rescue Torahs has pleaded guilty to fraud charges, saying he lied when he claimed he had personally obtained vintage Torah scrolls in Europe and Israel for six years.
Menachem Youlus entered the plea to mail and wire fraud charges Thursday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. Youlus is the owner of the Jewish Bookstore in Wheaton, where he lives. A plea deal with prosecutors called for him to serve up to five years and three months in prison.
“I know what I did was wrong, and I deeply regret my conduct,” Youlus, 50, said as he described the lies he told between 2004 and 2010 to obtain funds from his Save a Torah charity and some of its contributors.
Prosecutors said he defrauded the charity he founded and its donors out of $862,000.
The government said he fabricated detailed accounts of exploits 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.
During his plea, he said his lies included telling prospective buyers that he had personally retrieved parts of one scroll from a metal box at Auschwitz.
A criminal complaint said Youlus had distributed Torahs he bought from U.S. dealers to synagogues and congregations nationwide, sometimes at inflated rates. It said he put nearly a third of $1.2 million collected by the charity into his personal accounts, spending some of it on private school tuition for his children and on personal expenses, including meals and health care.
The publicly stated mission of the charity was to locate and acquire Torahs that survived the Holocaust or had been taken from Jewish communities worldwide and repair them so they could be used in communities that need them. But authorities said Youlus rarely traveled abroad during the years he had claimed to go Torah hunting.
At a 2004 Torah dedication, Youlus wrote: “I guess you could call me the Jewish Indiana Jones,” the complaint said, referencing the action-adventure hero played by Harrison Ford in the 1981 Stephen Spielberg classic “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
In a statement, attorney Benjamin Brafman said he will seek leniency at a June 21 sentencing for Youlus, “a good man with the best of intentions who ultimately strayed into fraudulent conduct that he now accepts full responsibility for.”
In July 2010, the co-founder of Save a Torah, P. Richard Zitelman, signed an agreement with the Maryland Office of the Secretary of State and the Office of the Attorney General, under which the charity said it would make claims about the origin of its Torahs only if verifiable or independent documentation can be found to support it.
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.
Temple Isaiah in Fulton bought a Torah from Youlus in 2007 for a reported $20,000. 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.