By August Steigmeyer
Rabbi Menachem Youlus called himself the “Jewish Indiana Jones,” but he may be little more than a charlatan. Youlus’ “Save a Torah” organization claimed to have spent thousands of dollars recovering and restoring Torahs that had been taken from Jewish communities during the Holocaust. One of these “recovered” scrolls was purchased by Kenyon parents Michael and Deborah Salzberg, who donated it to the College in the fall of 2007. At the time, Kenyon Hillel Director Marc Bragin told the Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin that this scroll was a “story of survival.”
But Youlus was arrested on Aug. 24, 2011 on charges of fraud after court papers indicated that he had never visited the places from which he claimed the Torahs originated. The rabbi has been accused of pocketing at least $145,000 from his allegedly non-profit organization.
Following this development, Kenyon has decided to purchase a new cover, known as a “mantle,” for the scroll. The old mantle describes the origin of the Torah, which can no longer be confirmed.
“It’s more sad than anything in my mind; it’s just sad that this happened,” Miriam Dean-Otting, professor of religious studies, said. “Nobody says we have to get a new cover for this. The Torah scroll does not become less sacred without a cover, but the cover advertises an organization that is under suspicion.”
The Torah itself, however, is a legitimate artifact. Though its history is unknown, the scroll is “kosher,” meaning that the appropriate type of parchment was used, the type of ink fits with Jewish traditions and every letter is in the right place and written in the right script.
“The Torah is still a Torah scroll; it’s still a beautiful Torah scroll. It’s one that we can and will continue to use in our services; it’s one that our students will go to the archives and see,” Dean-Otting said.
Many religious studies courses take time to visit the Torah, which is currently housed within a custom-made wooden chest, called an ark, in the Greenslade Special Collections and Archives. “It’s one thing for me to talk about the Torah scroll in the classroom; it’s a whole other thing for them to stand around and see one,” Dean-Otting said.
“It’s about 80 years old. It’s in great shape – we’re very lucky to have it,” she added. “Before we had this Torah scroll, I had to show my students copies and while it may not make as big a difference to them, it makes a big difference to me.”
Dean-Otting has taken on the task of finding a local artist to design a new cover. She said no design has yet been chosen, but she is beginning to search for interested artists. There are no specific guidelines related to the design of a mantle.
“The Torah covers have some historical value and some of the artistry can tell a lot about the community that each Torah belongs to, so I’d like the cover to reflect a love of Judaism and a love of Kenyon,” Bragin said. “If we can combine those two somehow, that would be great. We are more than happy to take suggestions from students and the community.”
Both Bragin and Dean-Otting said they want to emphasize that this incident in no way hurts the sanctity of the scroll or its importance to the Kenyon community. “It was not given to just the Jews of Kenyon; it was given to the College,” Dean-Otting said. “It’s an amazing gift to have here. … It’s something that we should all take pride in.”
“Within Judaism, a lot of what we believe in, our morals and our ethics, are centered around the Torah,” Bragin said. “To have this piece of parchment that is hand-written with such care and such intricacy, it’s an amazing thing to have within a community.”
“This is a Kenyon College Torah,” Bragin said. “We will continue to respect both its contents and what it means to us.”