Although an earthquake shook D.C. on Tuesday, Aug. 23, another earthquake shook the D.C. Jewish community on Wednesday, Aug. 24.
That was the day that Federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York indicted local rabbi Menachem Youlus on two counts of mail and wire fraud.
On the basis of the prosecutors’ press release and court appearance, we know that they allege that Rabbi Youlus falsified stories about recovering Torah scrolls that had survived the Holocaust, and that he then sold those Torah scrolls to synagogues and individuals. Furthermore, prosecutors allege that Rabbi Youlus misappropriated charitable funds that were given to him for the purpose of his charity, Save a Torah, Inc.
First and foremost, Rabbi Youlus is innocent until proven guilty. He is entitled to a vigorous defense. I know him personally and consider him a friend. I also know that he has done many good things for the Jewish community and for specific individuals. He is not a rabbi of a synagogue, but a scribe who runs a local Jewish bookstore. In that capacity, he has helped many wandering souls who needed advice about Judaism. He frequently gave inspiring and insightful counsel.
He has also helped me personally on many occasions and I often enjoy going to his store as much to buy his books as to see him personally.
However, none of these things excuse or justify fraud and so I pray with all my heart that these allegations are false.
If the allegations against Rabbi Youlus are true, then it is a very sad day. Not only would such actions be wrong and sinful, they would also be a great embarrassment of God’s name. It would be a gross manipulation of the greatest tragedy in Jewish history, the Holocaust, intertwined with an abuse of the actual holiness of a Torah scroll.
If it is true, then in addition to the people who donated to his charity under false pretenses, the other victims in this story are the Holocaust martyrs. Not only were they killed once, but yet again their sacred memory will have been distorted for personal benefit.
I will never forget the time I once entered into his store and saw a Torah scroll. He told me that the Torah scroll had survived Auschwitz. I asked him if I could borrow the Torah scroll for use in our congregation one Shabbat and he allowed that.
That Shabbat in the presence of this Torah scroll I prayed with more intensity than ever before and I connected to the chanting of the Torah as I had never before connected.
The very possibility that those emotional and intense feelings that I experienced can now be the result of manipulation and dishonesty overwhelms me with sadness.
I pray and hope that these accusations against Rabbi Youlus are not true.
Shmuel Herzfeld is a rabbi at Ohev Sholom in Washington, D.C.