A charity co-founder who claimed he travelled the world as a "Jewish Indiana Jones" to rescue Torahs has pleaded guilty to fraud charges, admitting that he lied about his exploits.
Menachem Youlus, the owner of the Jewish Bookstore in Maryland, entered the plea to mail and wire fraud charges in the US District Court in Manhattan. A plea deal with prosecutors called for him to serve up to five years and three months in prison. He will be sentenced on 21 June.
"I know what I did was wrong, and I deeply regret my conduct," Youlus, 50, said as he described the lies he told between 2004 and 2010 to obtain funds from his Save a Torah charity. Prosecutors said he defrauded the charity and its donors out of $862,000.
The government said he fabricated detailed accounts of exploits to recover Torahs lost or hidden during the Holocaust, including at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. During his plea, he said his lies included telling prospective buyers that he had personally retrieved parts of one scroll from a metal box at Auschwitz.
A criminal complaint said Youlus had distributed Torahs he bought from US dealers to synagogues and congregations nationwide, sometimes at inflated rates. He put nearly a third of the $1.2 m collected by the charity into his personal accounts, spending some of it on private school tuition for his children and on personal expenses, including meals and health care.
The publicly stated mission of the charity was to locate and acquire Torahs that survived the Holocaust. But the authorities said Youlus rarely travelled abroad during the years he had claimed to go Torah hunting.