The Maryland rabbi convicted of using phony stories of Indiana-Jones-style recoveries of Torahs lost in the Holocaust to defraud donors of nearly $1 million was sentenced to 51 months in prison in federal court in Manhattan Thursday.
Menachem Youlus, 50, and his lawyer begged U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon to show him mercy in the interests of his nine children and ill wife, but the judge said she was swayed by letters and remarks by dozens of victims stunned by the invocation of the Holocaust to steal.
"I am not about forgiveness," McMahon said. "That is between Mr. Youlus and his maker. . . . For a member of the clergy to do anything to prey on the religious sentiments of his coreligionists fraudulently is a crime that turns my stomach in a way that few others do."
Youlus, of Wheaton, Md., began his Save-A-Torah charitable foundation in 2004, touting himself as a "Jewish Indiana Jones."
He spun tall tales of risking life and limb to find lost Torahs at the sites of concentration camps and in mass graves to attract donations. In reality, he was reselling Torahs that he had gotten from dealers to synagogues and families that paid high prices because of their alleged provenance.
As the sentencing began, Youlus, a slight man in a dark suit and yarmulke, appeared to be mouthing a silent prayer, eyes closed. Later, when he stood to make brief remarks to the judge, he was stooped and spoke quietly.
"I don't know whether I merit compassion, but I have prayed and still pray that you find it in your heart to punish me compassionately and hopefully not separate me from my family," he said. "I know that I have a lifetime of atonement ahead of me."
His lawyer, Ben Brafman, said that Youlus -- who managed a Jewish bookstore owned by his parents -- had no obvious motive for the fraud, and had kept most of the money in bank accounts rather than spending it on an exotic lifestyle. He will make $990,000 in restitution almost immediately, the lawyer said.
McMahon said he didn't have the usual motives, but said that didn't absolve him of his crime. "As near as I can tell, the reason is that Mr. Youlus has a screw loose, because he has a desire to be something he is not -- which is an adventurer," she said.
Three victims who had donated to the charity or bought Torahs from Youlus spoke before the sentencing, including Robert Kushner of Pittsburgh, who said he paid $14,000 to honor his father by buying a Torah that Youlus said he found in a mass grave in the Ukraine near the father's birthplace.
"Memories are being treaded upon," Kushner said, "and there is disappointment and sadness when that occurs."