Menachem Youlus, 50, pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud in a federal court in Manhattan, admitting he had fraudulently obtained funds for rescuing "lost or hidden" Holocaust-era Torah scrolls he never recovered.
“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,” he told Judge Colleen McMahon of Federal District Court. “I know what I did was wrong, and I deeply regret my conduct.”
Youlus, a bookstore owner and self-described “Jewish Indiana Jones,” traded on a rabbinical ordination to advance his crimes, but was neither a pulpit rabbi nor a Jewish educator. His outlandish and harrowing tales of personal risk and improbable finds at former concentration camps led some Jewish leaders to charge he was a "petty crook" and "charlatan".
According to the New York Times, in one case Youlus claimed to have recovered an old Torah at Bergen-Belsen after partly falling through a floorboard in a World War II-era barracks, despite the fact that the British burned the camp to the ground at the end of the war.
A subsequent investigation revealed Youlus had never been to any of the faraway places he spoke of, and that the Torahs he sold to wealthy donors did not have the provenance he claimed.
Prosecutors indicted Youlus for selling fake Torahs scrolls over a period of six years and stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars through Save a Torah, a nonprofit organization he helped found in 2004.
In all, Youlus fraduluently obtained more than $1 million via Save a Torah, which was paid to a bookstore he owned. He then paid himself hundreds of thousands of dollars by writing checks from the bookstore's accounts and charging expenses to the business.
Youlus faces up to 20 years in prison on each of the two counts, but federal sentencing guidelines recommend terms of 51 to 63 months. He will be sentenced on June 21. The federal system does not have parole.