August 24, 2011; Source: Washington Post (Associated Press)It is difficult to imagine the adventurer Indiana Jones as a rabbi. But Rabbi Menachem Youlus of Wheaton, Maryland gave it his best shot. As the head of a charity called Save a Torah, Rabbi Youlus regaled supporters with tales of his trips to Eastern Europe, Iraq, and elsewhere to rescue sacred Torahs. Youlus even called himself the “Jewish Indiana Jones.”

Indiana Jones is a fictional character, and sadly, Rabbi Youlus’s stories seem to be as well. Earlier this week, according to the AP, he turned himself in to federal authorities “to face mail and wire fraud charges after authorities said he duped benefactors by fabricating dramatic stories about sometimes dangerous trips, including to concentration camp sites in Poland and Germany.”

Prosecutors say that Youlus has been carrying out this scam since 2004, bilking Save a Torah donors out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Rather than traveling overseas to rescue Torahs buried at Auschwitz, for example, he would buy Torahs from U.S. dealers and pass them off as rescued. Court papers say he spent one-third of the $1.2 million raised by Save a Torah on private-school tuition for his children and other personal or family expenses. At least $1 million of the charity’s funds passed to and through the account of a bookstore Youlus owns and runs.

In his Indiana Jones persona, Youlus claimed to have been beaten up and jailed in his quest to locate and acquire Torahs that somehow survived the Holocaust. In reality, it seems that Youlus was a homebody. Other than a two-week trip to Israel, he pretty much stayed stateside during times that he said he was in Poland or Germany. 

The details of Youlus’s alleged financial shenanigans are at first mordantly funny but ultimately, if true, disgusting. Youlus was screwing around with the worst period of history for Jews—the attempted destruction of the religion, culture, and overall existence of the Jewish people through Hitler’s Final Solution. Prosecutors say he passed off one Torah as having been liberated from its hiding place at Auschwitz. Even if the prosecutors’ claims are only half true, it would be a horrible example of someone who should know better—a Rabbi—preying on the memories of the Holocaust of Jews around the world. 

Of course, for us here at NPQ, it also raises questions about donors’ due diligence. For example, we looked at Save a Torah’s 990s and found a number of family foundations and two community foundations (via donor-advised funds) that had made grants to Save a Torah. These funders apparently bought Youlus’s story. Particularly odd is that one of them is the Olender Foundation, established by Jack Olender, one of the nation’s most famous malpractice lawyers. Even if only a handful of the prosecutors’ assertions about Youlus’s behavior turn out to be true, the savvy Olender ought to have sensed that something didn’t add up.

It seems that it was a postal inspector who first began tracking Youlus, as recounted in some detail by the New York Times. But our own examination of Save a Torah’s 990s raises red flags that should have and could have been picked up by the IRS in its regular oversight: minimal travel costs for an organization supposedly conducting expensive overseas “expeditions,” six-figure expenditures for the purchase of Torahs, etc. Thank goodness the U.S. Postal Service did the work the IRS didn’t do.—Rick Cohen