The Indiana Jones of rabbis
For scribe Rabbi Menachem Youlus, Torah restoration can be a dangerous cloak-and-dagger business.
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The Torah, written in Hebrew, contains the Old Testament. For Jews the Torah transcends theology and law; it embodies Judaism's soul. For that reason there have been those from the Spanish Inquisition to Stalinist Russia who have sought its destruction.Skip to next paragraph
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It's a visceral feeling Youlus recalls when once, in the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, he stood before one of the oldest known versions of the Talmud. "All I wanted to do was break the case and rescue this work from a regime not known for treating Jews very well," he says. Hussein considered Torahs talismans and ordered hundreds of Iraqi scrolls defiled. Youlus hopes to someday save these Iraqi Torahs.
According to Jewish law, damaged Torahs, unless repaired, must be buried. Thus the Westport scroll must be restored, explains Rabbi Robert Tobin of The Conservative Synagogue. "If we bury that Torah scroll we will lose the last living thing from that community," he says.
"Rabbi Youlus may be the only person who can save the scroll," says Rabbi Tobin. Some argue that preserving these scrolls intact, keeping their scars from Nazi bayonets and Jewish blood, can refute Holocaust deniers.
But for people like Chusid, "putting them in display cases is not much better than what the Nazis intended. It makes the scrolls relics."
Youlus's Save A Torah Foundation retains 27 scribes and 20 spotters who help find endangered scrolls. The spotters may be Jewish, Roman Catholic, or Muslim; they may be priests, diplomats, or curators.
Once Youlus locates a Torah, he brings it back to the US to assess damage with digital cameras and infrared scanners. The Torahs can cost between $8,000 and $12,000 and are then resold to carefully screened communities for between $12,000 and $20,000. Youlus earns nothing from this work and, in fact, has gone into debt.
In the beginning he faced many hurdles: "I didn't know the laws for getting Torahs out of countries. I made too many unscrupulous contacts."
He has disassembled a Torah into 62 panels to conceal it in a false-bottomed suitcase. He once even "wrapped a Torah around my body and hid it under a trench coat to get it out of Iran," he says.
Recounting his experiences with all the calm of reciting a grocery list, he says, "I once spent a night in a Soviet prison. I was beaten up in Germany and lost two front teeth. I was once knocked out."
Many governments, including Russia, have nationalized their Torahs. This riles Youlus: "They have no more Jews, but they're still keeping our property – our cultural property."
Several years ago, he had his most startling discovery. In Kamenets-Poldoski, Ukraine, a farmer approached Youlus, staring at his yarmulke. The farmer offered him a map for $1,500. His father had instructed him to sell it to the first Jew he met. Like a child's treasure map, an X marked the spot. Tiny pictures of shoes showed how many "boots" it took to get to the spot.
Ivan, Youlus's bodyguard, looked wary. "But my gut told me something was there," recalls Youlus. "I paid him and climbed into his wooden cart. It was an old cart with an older horse." Ivan ran behind. Then, Youlus says, a farmer told him that "we have to own the land to dig. So we pay. Ivan digs like there's no tomorrow, because our plane is [leaving] in less than three hours. We hit upon something."
Two Torah scrolls lay nestled among 260 sets of bones that belonged to Jewish children slaughtered in the Holocaust. Unable to identify the remains, Youlus's father suggested that words from psalms grace each headstone.
Since Youlus began, he has resettled Torahs everywhere from New Orleans to Uganda, he says. "I have kept my promise but I'll never be done. There are thousands of Torahs out there."