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Raider of the Lost Arks
He travels to strange places, makes deals with dangerous characters, spends months doing restorations. He's the rabbi who rescues Torahs. By Susan Seliger
Comments () | Published February 1, 2005
Seated across from me in a noisy kosher restaurant in Wheaton is Rabbi Menachem Youlus, a man who goes around the world, like Indiana Jones, digging up Torahs that have been lost or stolen. Just before the 9/11 attacks on America, he rescued from a mass grave in the Ukraine the Torah that my small congregation now possesses.

He has been beaten up, thrown in jail, and gone $175,000 in debt to bring these holy scrolls out of less-than-friendly places back to safety and a new life. He has brought Torahs out of Syria, Iran, India, and China as well as Eastern Europe, often facing hostile people and governments along the way. He is now in the middle of another secret, potentially dangerous deal to recover hundreds of lost and stolen Torahs. Undaunted by long odds, he is, as he will tell you, “a man on a mission.”

He couldn’t look less like Indiana Jones. His black yarmulke glistens after our four-block walk in the rain from the bookstore—that’s his day job. His slender body and high, sweet voice make him seem more like a boy than a 43-year-old father of seven. But as he takes off his glasses to wipe away the droplets, his blue-green eyes sparkle with energy—a hint that looks don’t begin to tell the story.

“I rescue Torahs—that’s what I have been doing since 1985,” he says.

Between bites of a big lamb-pepper-and-onion sandwich doused in tahini oil, Rabbi Youlus (“No, it’s Menachem,” he insists repeatedly, and in fact everyone calls him by his first name) tells me about my congregation’s Torah. I’m having trouble understanding why he puts his life in danger to go after what looks like just a big book.

“It is not just a book,” he says. “A congregation without a Torah is a congregation without a bond between them and God.”

A Torah is also, in many of the Eastern European towns he visits, the only tangible remains of communities that were wiped out in World War II. So he is doing more than commemorating those whose lives were lost—he is bringing survivors back to life.

The Torah, also called the Tree of Life, consists of the five books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—etched by hand in Hebrew on parchment derived from a kosher animal that has not been killed for its hide alone.

Each of the more than 300,000 ornate letters must touch the top of an almost-invisible line and be drawn with a kosher quill (usually a turkey feather) or reed, in a perfectly flowing hand.

The scribe must not be distracted from the singular thought of serving God as he writes each letter, lining them up in 245 columns of 42 lines each.

Each page, or panel, is hand sewn to the next and rolled up like a scroll. No one other than the scribe can touch the finished pages directly or use any metal that can be used to forge weapons of war, which is why Torah pointers often are made of silver or gold.

The scrolls are kept in a cabinet called an ark, as in the Ark of the Covenant. A full-size Torah, unrolled, will extend almost the length of a football field. It can take a scribe three years to complete one.

EVERY TORAH HAS A STORY

“The Torahs are all over the world,” Menachem says. “The Polish Catholic Church has some; some are buried or hidden in outhouses, garages, warehouses. The one your congregation has, which was rescued from a grave in the Ukraine just before 9/11; that one I found totally by accident,” he says, putting his sandwich down. His eyes begin to dance—you can tell he loves every twist and turn in the tale.

He had been negotiating for three months for a Torah with an “antiques dealer” in the Ukraine. “Let me tell you,” he says, “the difference between an antiques dealer and a thief is not much. It depends on which day of the week it is, which hat they are wearing. So this guy says I have to come to the Ukraine to do the deal.”

Menachem gets on a plane, hires a driver in Budapest, and drives three hours into the countryside, over the border to a town called Kamenets-Podol’skiy. After several hours of bargaining, the dealer says, “No deal.”

Menachem’s driver offers to roll up his sleeves and show the dealer how to close a deal, but the rabbi calmly tells the man with the Torah that he will be back in two hours to resume talks.

“As I was coming out of the house, this farmer in a horse and cart across the street is looking at me, looking at my yarmulke, and he comes over.

“ ‘Are you Jewish?’ he asks.

“ ‘Yes I am.’

“ ‘Then I have a map to sell you,’ he says.

“ ‘What is it?’

“He says, ‘I don’t know for sure, but my father said if I ever saw someone with a special hat like yours, sell him the map.’ ”

Menachem does some fast calculations and realizes that the man, now in his sixties, would have been very young during World War II. He probably didn’t know much of what happened.

“So I ask him, ‘How much?’

“ ‘One thousand, five hundred dollars,’ the farmer says.

“I say, ‘That’s a lot for a map.’ I try to bargain, but he says, ‘Take it or leave it.’ ”

Menachem took it.

“I have been in Eastern Europe long enough to know to trust my gut,” he says. The farmer had been told by his father that this map was his inheritance and that it would be considered valuable by Jews.

The farmer handed over an old map of his farm, on which an X had been circled. Menachem handed over $1,500 from his money belt full of gold coins. “They don’t deal in dollars” in Eastern Europe, he says. Gold is nontaxable and untraceable.

When the farmer led them to the spot where they were supposed to dig, he told Menachem he could not dig.

“This map is no good unless I can dig,” Menachem said. “Well, it will cost you,” the farmer said.

“How much?” Menachem asked, knowing the answer.

“One thousand, five hundred dollars,” the farmer told him.

Menachem shakes his head and shrugs. “Thank God that was the highest he could count. So I gave him another $1,500 for the right to dig—for that, he threw in two shovels.”

With the deal sealed, Menachem and his driver began to dig. “My driver is a big guy—he can dig. I am no slouch either,” he says. “I work for two burial societies.”

At about four feet down, Menachem and the driver hit bones. After unearthing three bodies, Menachem knew what they had. He called a well-connected friend and rabbi in St. Petersburg—“and I don’t mean Florida,” he says. Within hours, the friend had sent two backhoes and arranged for the permits to dig.

“Everything you do in Eastern Europe requires a permit. It’s a nice way to say schmear money,” Menachem says with a laugh, explaining that he spreads gold as liberally as he smears cream cheese on a bagel. “We were supporting the local economy in a big way.”

They dug for the rest of the day and through the night. “I am not sure whether there were 262 or 263 bodies,” Menachem says. “It’s not because I can’t count—we found parts of bodies that we couldn’t put back together.”

Halfway through the unearthing of the mass grave, Menachem says, they found what looked like two small bodies wrapped in tattered clothes with Jewish stars on them. They were Torah scrolls.

“I could not save the covers on the Torahs—they had pieces of bone and hair. According to Jewish law, they had to be buried when we reburied all the bodies,” he explains. “But we could save the Torahs. One of those is the Torah your congregation now has,” he says, pleased to have finished the story and his sandwich at nearly the same time.

THE DEAL THAT CHANGED HIS LIFE

We walk back to the Jewish Bookstore of Greater Washington, formerly known as Abe’s Bookstore, nestled in a strip mall on Georgia Avenue in Wheaton. Menachem runs the store along with his father, Joshua Youlus; his brother-in-law Ayson, a Torah scribe; and other family members and friends.

The front room is filled with books on Jewish history, the Holocaust, Jewish humor—175,000 titles in all. The store’s motto: If it’s Jewish, we have it.

The rear part of the store is jammed with gifts of all sorts, menorahs, jewelry, prayer shawls, and more.

I notice what looks like a rabbi doll on a top shelf. Menachem takes it down, claps at it, and the doll starts dancing the hora and singing Hava Nagila.

In an alcove near the back of the store, floor-to-ceiling shelves are filled with Torahs, some waiting to be repaired, others to be sent out. The mailing labels reveal their destinations—France, Russia, Belarus, North Dakota.

There are Jews in North Dakota who need a Torah?

Menachem smiles and fills me in on a few other things—including how he got started rescuing Torahs.

“About 20 years ago I was a CPA working in New York,” he says. Even though he was ordained as a rabbi, his grandmother always told him to have a second degree as a fallback, and he was doing pretty well in the tax business.

“One Sabbath, my uncle tracked me down with news: ‘Come home now. There’s been a terrible accident.’ ”

Menachem’s father and his sister’s fiancé were coming out of a synagogue a few miles from the bookstore in Wheaton when they were hit by a car. The doctors did not believe the two men would live until morning. The relatives said, “Menachem, go buy burial plots.”

“But that night I made a deal with God,” he says. “It wasn’t a promise, it was a deal. If He would heal my father and brother-in-law, I would devote a year—my first year of marriage—to the study of the Torah, God’s word.” He shrugs.

“They lived. Baruch Hashem [thank God]. Nobody thought they would, but they lived. And when I got married three years later, I went to Jerusalem to study.”

Giving up a CPA career after five years of working his way “up the big ladder” wasn’t easy, Menachem acknowledges. Uprooting his life to study in a foreign country, with a new wife and no savings, was not what he had set out to do. But for Menachem, a deal is a deal.

His father told him if he was going to study, he might as well get a “real” ordination. So the CPA enrolled in two rabbinical programs, at two schools side by side. “They never allow that and probably would have excommunicated me if either had known,” Menachem says. He took a class in Torah writing at night.

“It was a gift from God that I was able to do the Torah writing,” Menachem says. It takes not only artistic talent to reproduce the calligraphy but also a kind of meditative spirituality.

“My teacher told me it was very good that I became a scribe—otherwise I could have made an excellent living as a forger,” Menachem says.

“Your heart must be pure when you write the Torah, each letter, you must be focused—only—on—serving—God,” he says, pronouncing each word distinctly, as if he has entered the trancelike state one must achieve to write the word of God. “You cannot lose your focus, or the Torah is not kosher, even if it looks perfect.”

There are rituals one must perform while writing. “We are required to immerse in the mikvah [the ritual baths] every morning before we write, and if you write four Hebrew letters of God’s name [YHVH, pronounced Yahweh], you have to get up and immerse again,” he explains. There is one section of the Torah in which the scribe has to write the name of God ten times close together—making the process of getting up, undressing, immersing in the water, getting dressed again, and returning to the text seem like an Olympic event.

“Others say the baths are for purity,” Menachem says, but he has his own take on the matter. “I think God makes you ritually immerse to remember you are human—you take off your clothes, you are like everyone else, naked. It is a humbling experience.”

When his evening classes let out, Menachem met many people doing night jobs in Jerusalem. He befriended Russians and Eastern Europeans who had emigrated as professionals but in Israel were performing menial jobs—flipping burgers and cleaning bathrooms.

“I decided—with the help of my whole family—to establish a teaching institute for these emigrants that would help them become Torah scribes.” To do so, a student must study to become a rabbi and then go on to see if they have the talent and temperament to become a scribe. Finding recruits required the right incentives. “We guaranteed that we would pay for the schooling and two years’ wages to anybody who graduated,” Menachem says. The school, Tikkun Sofrim [Fixing Scribes], was launched in Jerusalem in 1987 and has graduated more than 500 scribes.

As proof that no good deed goes unpunished, the success of the school put Menachem in a bind. “I had to support my habit—I had to find Torahs for these students to work on and restore,” he says. That’s when he began making trips to Eastern Europe. Today he has expanded his solo operation into a network that includes 20 spotters worldwide (for their protection, he keeps their identities secret) who investigate leads, maintain safe houses and access to money, take photos, and set up deals when Menachem cannot be there.

Rescuing Torahs did not come cheap. “For the first 18 years I used my own money to finance these trips and the school,” he says offhandedly, as if anyone else would have done the same. Much of the money he borrowed. Besides the costs of travel and acquisition, Menachem maintains a warehouse in northwest Baltimore where the chemical treatments involved in restoring damaged parchment are done, and he keeps five to seven scribes busy cleaning, lettering, stitching, rolling, and otherwise making the scrolls kosher, or usable, again.

He does not divulge financial details until pushed. Finding and restoring an old Torah can cost $17,000 to $20,000, including “schmear money.” A new Torah can run into the tens of thousands of dollars—if you buy it from others in the business. From Menachem’s scribes, committed not to make any profit from this enterprise, it can run from $10,000 to $20,000.

“If a congregation is poor, I often tell them it only cost me $6,000,” he says. That is what he told my tiny congregation when he offered us our Torah.

“I think it is a lie that God will allow me,” he says.

Menachem’s mission to save Torahs and return them to their rightful owners or to deserving synagogues has put him and his family—this has always been a family affair—into serious debt. But in the last few years he has accepted the advice of a financial expert who shares his dream and launched a foundation, Save-a-Torah, to reduce his debt and perhaps expand his operations.

“He’s a true mensch, committed and dedicated,” says Rick Zitelman, cofounder of the Save-a-Torah foundation and president of the Zitelman Group, an investment and merchant banking firm in Rockville. “For all the wonderful things he’s doing, he only thinks about how much more there is to do. He’s not going to stop until it’s done.”

He’ll tackle jobs that others would give up on. A Torah dug up in a cemetery in Hungary was in poor condition—it had boot prints and a footprint on the back of it. “Some Nazi deliberately stepped on it,” says Sue Korman, a teacher in Goldsmith Early Childhood Education Center in Baltimore. Menachem was able to repair the Torah and get rid of the bootprint. “But you can still see the footprint—the toes, the heel, the whole foot,” adds Korman, a member of Chevrei Tzedek congregation in Baltimore that uses the Torah every week.

“This is not a for-profit business,” Menachem says, laughing at the understatement. “It is a labor of love.” Any profit goes to maintaining the cemeteries in which the bodies from the mass graves are reburied. “We have 12 cemeteries to maintain in towns with no Jews living there,” Menachem says. “And, of course,” he adds, “it is a mitzvah [a blessed act] to give the bodies in those graves a proper Jewish burial.”

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 02/01/2005 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles