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'Jewish Indiana Jones' Lassoed in New York for Alleged Fraud

By Ben Fractenberg | August 24, 2011 7:03pm
Menachem Youlus, 50, was arrested on Aug. 24, 2011 for allegedly lying about the origin of Torahs he sold to donors.
Menachem Youlus, 50, was arrested on Aug. 24, 2011 for allegedly lying about the origin of Torahs he sold to donors.
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Alina Treiger/Getty Images

DOWNTOWN — He chose poorly.

A Maryland man who called himself the "Jewish Indiana Jones" was arrested in New York Wednesday morning for defrauding donors who thought he was hunting for Torahs supposedly lost or stolen during the Holocaust, authorities said.

Menachem Youlus, 50, ran a charity called Save a Torah, through which he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to find lost or hidden Torahs in places like Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, according to the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office.

Youlus, who faces one count each of wire and mail fraud, allegedly socked away at least $145,000 of the funds into his own bank account and submitted inflated invoices to Save a Torah during a six year period beginning in 2004.

He then would allegedly purchase Torahs and pass them off as the lost scrolls. One of them ended up in a Manhattan synagogue, according to prosecutors.

"Youlus called himself the 'Jewish Indiana Jones,' but his alleged exploits were no more real than those of the movie character he claimed to resemble," said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in a statement.

"He chose poorly in allegedly exploiting an excruciating chapter in Jewish and international history to perpetrate a brazen fraud that played on the heartstrings of the people for whom the painful memories of that period will never die."

Youlus started the charity in 2004, which he said raised over $1.2 million over the next six years.  

But things started to unravel for him when accounts of his Torah-saving missions were shown to contradict historical records.

Youlus, for instance, claimed to have saved a Torah from beneath the barracks at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. But the barracks were actually destroyed by the British shortly after they liberated the camp near the end of World War II, prosecutors said.

He also allegedly claimed to have saved a Torah from Auschwitz in 2004, which he sold to a donor for $32,000. The donor then gave the Torah to synagogue in the city.

Travel records also reportedly show that Youlus did make any international trips between early 2001 and August 2004, contradicting claims that he traveled to Germany in 2002.

If he is convicted, Youlus faces 20 years in jail for each count and a maximum fine of $250,000.