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The Indiana Jones of rabbis

For scribe Rabbi Menachem Youlus, Torah restoration can be a dangerous cloak-and-dagger business.

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With quill in hand, Rabbi Menachem Youlus scrutinizes his latest treasure – a centuries-old Torah, stabbed and burned by Nazis during World War II. Many of the onyx-colored Hebrew letters of the scroll are so damaged they now appear to float like rafts on a sea of tea-colored parchment.

The Torah scribe will painstakingly retrace the letters – 300,000 of them – reapplying the ink six times on each letter to preserve the original penmanship.

It's a quietly tense job he performs. A single mistake on the battered but sacred scroll could render the entire Torah pasul, or unfit. His labors in the sanctuary of his workroom might be considered the easy part of Rabbi Youlus's specialty of Torah restoration. But before he can restore, he must locate and unearth the scrolls. And therein lies the very unlikely cloak-and-dagger lifestyle of the unassuming, sparkling-eyed man with the deft fingers of a surgeon.

Thousands of Torahs lie buried or hidden wherever Jews have been persecuted – from Eastern Europe to the former Soviet Union. Many other Torahs have found their way into hostile hands – such as Baghdad's Saddam Hussein-era National Museum.

Part Indiana Jones and part Sherlock Holmes, scribe Youlus travels the world following leads on sacred scrolls, brokering secret deals for them, smuggling them in ingenious fashion across hostile borders, and even digging in the earth for them. In arranging an interview for this article, the scholar-sleuth had to cut the call short because he was due to meet an ex-KGB general at Exit 11 on the Jersey Turnpike. The former Soviet spy hoped to cut a deal for hundreds of Torahs; to prove he had the Torahs, he mailed Youlus a piece of parchment torn from one of them.

"The Torah is different from other artifacts. Seventy years from now we will not see a Holocaust survivor," says Youlus. "Having these Torahs will make it more real for people than just reading about the Holocaust; the Torah is tangible."

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