Warning: This article discusses the topic of sexual abuse which may be triggering for some readers.
After a decade-long fight, Malka Leifer, the disgraced former principal of an ultra-orthodox Jewish school was finally jailed for 15 years for sexually abusing two of her students between 2004 and 2007. Victorian Supreme Court Judge Mark Gamble said the once-respected educator and mother of eight showed no remorse for the predatory abuse of the vulnerable young sisters who were under her care when she ran Melbourne’s strict Adass Israel School.
When the allegations were first aired in 2008, Leifer fled to Israel, where she fought an extradition order to bring her back to Victoria to face 74 charges against three victims. She has always maintained her innocence, but earlier this year, a jury found her guilty of 18 offences including the rape and sexual penetration of a child 16 or 17 years old.
In jailing Leifer, Judge Gamble said the case was striking for just how calculating Leifer was, and how vulnerable the victims were. “Mrs Leifer took callous advantage of those vulnerabilities in order to sexually abuse them,” Judge Gamble said. “Unsurprisingly, it has had a devastating impact on each victim.”
Leifer, now 56, must serve 11 and a half years before she is eligible for parole. It is likely to be a particular tough term of imprisonment as English is her second language and her family – including her eight children and 17 grandchildren – are all overseas. Speaking outside the court on Wednesday, one of the sisters told reporters, “Today really marks the end of this chapter of our lives and opens the chapter to us healing.”
In 2020, The Weekly sat down with the sisters to talk about their ongoing ordeal. We look back at their fight for justice.
Melbourne’s most wanted
February 2018 was the first time in four years that Malka Leifer had been brought into court as a prisoner. She covered her hair because showing it would be immodest for an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman. Leifer covered half her face as well, to avoid looking at the many cameras in the courtroom.
Leifer, charged with 74 child sex offences in Australia, spent almost seven years making every effort to avoid being extradited back to Melbourne. Aggressive defence lawyers focused on her mental state instead of the alleged crimes, which include sexual assault and rape, in a series of attempts to have her declared unfit to stand trial.
The case has made her notorious in both Australia and Israel, and has damaged diplomatic ties between the two countries. Israel’s justice system has been tarnished by accusations of political interference, and Israeli police have recommended criminal charges against a cabinet minister for his involvement in this case.
Moreover, it has magnified the suffering of three Australian women, Leifer’s accusers, who never found closure about the events they allege happened more than a decade ago, when they were still schoolgirls.
The sect protects its own
Malka Leifer is connected to an extreme sect within an extreme group in Israel’s varied Jewish community. That sect is called the Gur Hasidim. Gur Hasidim men wear black, as they did in 19th century Europe, and on festive occasions they add fur hats, black silk coats, white stockings and black shoes. The women cover their hair with wigs or hats and wear shapeless dark clothes as part of their focus on modesty. Some even shave their heads when they marry.
Israel is home to approximately 50,000 Gur Hasidim, the largest of the ‘European Hasidim’ ultra-Orthodox groups. They live in separate communities, pray in separate synagogues, have arranged marriages and revere their religious leader, whom they call the Rebbe. The same family has led the Gur Hasidim, first in Europe and then in Israel, since the 1850s. And though the men devote themselves to studying the Jewish holy books, there is also a political element to their work. They are represented in Israel’s parliament and their party leader is a cabinet minister.
“The Gur Hasidim have a sense of being ‘other’, even here within the Jewish state,” says Dr Gilad Malach, Director of the Ultra-Orthodox Programme at the Israel Democracy Institute. “Their primary allegiance is to this community. If a doctor says they need an operation, they will go to the Rebbe and ask his opinion. If he says not to, they won’t have it. They are also famous for being more strict than other ultra-Orthodox groups in particular areas, including female modesty, sex and relationships between the sexes.”
Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox community is small and tightly knit, centred around a few streets in St Kilda. When their school, Adass Israel, needed a teacher in 2000, they searched in Israel. Malka Leifer, who hailed from a group linked to the Gur Hasidim and had taught at a Gur school, took up the post. Within two years, the charismatic teacher became principal.
Three students, sisters from a troubled family, caught her eye. Now in their thirties, Dassi Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper lived in a home with four other siblings and their controlling, punishing father. There was no television, no internet, no secular books, no sexual education and little contact with the outside world.
The sisters allege that, after first rewarding them, Leifer began abusing them sexually. They had no words to describe what she was doing to them. That was true when they went to the police years later too.
“The policewoman said, ‘you have to be specific,’ but I didn’t know how to … I didn’t even know the name for the body parts,” says Dassi. “The level of naiveté that I had would probably shock you,” Nicole, now 33, told The Weekly, sitting at a cafe in Jerusalem’s colourful marketplace. “So much so,” she alleges, “that the abuse went on even when I stayed on at the school as a teacher, up to when I was getting married, which I did at 21.”
Vivacious and attractive, Nicole is a teacher and a mother of four, who describes herself as religious. She wears a wig to cover her hair, but also make-up and nail polish. The decision to go to the police was an incredibly bold move for young women from this insular community, and the sisters have suffered for it.
“Unfortunately, it’s a culture where people blame the victims for trying to get justice, versus trying to protect them so that it won’t happen again,” Nicole explains. “But if people can change that culture, then maybe there won’t be so many victims.”
Madness and lies
By March 2008, rumours about Leifer’s behaviour with a number of female students were circulating in Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox community. On the night of March 5, members of the Adass Israel school board, including its president and a barrister, met at a private home. They rang Leifer to confront her. She denied everything. They fired her, but did not report her to the police. Leifer flew out that same night, with a one-way ticket to Israel.
In 2012, after taking statements from all three sisters, Victorian police pressed 74 child abuse charges against Malka Leifer. Australia moved to extradite her that year, and in 2014 she was arrested by Israeli police and held under house arrest while awaiting a hearing.
Not long after, Dassi Erlich brought a civil suit against the Adass school for its role in the alleged abuse against her. In 2015, Victorian Supreme Court Judge Jack Rush called the school’s behaviour deplorable and disgraceful, and criticised its “disdain” for the criminal justice system. He awarded Dassi more than $1 million, one of the largest payouts in a sexual abuse case in Australia.
Fit for trial
In January 2020, a court-appointed panel of psychiatrists found that Leifer was fit to stand trial. But that wasn’t the end of it. Leifer’s lawyers sought to cross-examine the three psychiatrists in closed court. And Nicole Meyer, sensing that this was a critical moment, flew in from Australia to be there.
“I decided to leave four kids, at the last minute, because I’ve been waiting for closure for nine years, along with my sisters Dassi and Elly. I want the judge to see my face and to know that I’m not just a name on paper. My sisters and I are all in therapy, more than once a week, and the tension over this unresolved case means we never get closure, we never get to heal. It’s not just Malka Leifer’s mental state that is at stake here,” she told media outside the courtroom.
After attending the closed hearing, Nicole told The Weekly that the panel’s findings confirmed what she’d known all along.
“Out of all of her [alleged] victims, I’d say I’m one of the ones who knows her best,” she says, explaining that she was in contact with Leifer from her arrival at the school in 2000 until her hurried departure in 2008.
“I know how she operates, I know how she pretends, I know how she fakes stuff, I know how she gets people to cover for her. I know her inside and out. She’s extremely charismatic and knows how to get what she wants. She’s very goal oriented. She’s definitely fit to stand trial. There’s no way that she can’t understand that she’s standing up in a court. Because that’s all she has to be able to understand and her cognitive level is very high.”
It was this recurring issue of Leifer’s mental competence that kept her case in limbo. In 2015, Jerusalem District Psychiatrist Jacob Charnes concluded that Leifer was fit to stand trial. By the end of that year, however, he’d changed his mind, accepting her sister-in-law’s description that Leifer was barely functioning and lying in a darkened room “like a sack of potatoes”.
By mid-2016, the Jerusalem District Court accepted that Leifer’s condition wasn’t improving. It suspended the extradition proceedings and lifted her house arrest. Leifer walked free, required only to appear before a psychiatrist every six months.
While the case ground to a halt in Israel, back in Australia, Leifer’s accusers were convinced the mental incompetency argument was a ruse. They gathered support from political leaders, including then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, but even his intervention led nowhere.
Then, Shana Aaronson came along to shake things up.
Who is Shana Aaronson?
Shana Aaronson is Chief Executive Officer of the Israeli office of Jewish Community Watch, an organisation that fights child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community.
“What we do is try to see how we can help in cases that are kind of stuck, especially in these international cases where the victims are in one country and the alleged abuser is in another,” Shana told The Weekly. “Malka Leifer’s case is an example of why an organisation like ours is so important.”
Shana met the Australian sisters in Israel in 2017. “I don’t think any of us thought it would be such a significant meeting,” she says.
At that time – when, according to her lawyers, Leifer was lying in a darkened room – a photo, apparently of her out celebrating a Jewish holiday had been circulating on Facebook.
“That got me thinking,” Shana recalls. “What if there were other photographs of Leifer living a normal life? Would it be enough to switch gears and break the deadlock?”
She hunted down a firm of ultra-Orthodox private detectives, “so they’d know what to do to blend in”. In December 2017, during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, private investigator Tsahi Tsafrir parked outside Leifer’s home in the West Bank town of Emmanuel. He didn’t have to wait long.
“On the first morning, he sent me a photo of Leifer standing on her porch, talking on the phone,” Shana remembers. “It was an incredible moment.”
The private investigator tailed Leifer for nine days. “Five days would have been enough, to be honest,” Shana says with a smile. “He began on a Tuesday and by Thursday Leifer had already done hours of running around. She was on a bus for an hour, travelling to another city by herself. She went to the post office, the dry cleaners, the pharmacy and met up with her daughter. On Saturday she had guests, and came down to see them off. But every day she was on on the phone, hanging out laundry, going to the grocery store down the street. It was hundreds of hours of video and we presented all this to the police.”
In February 2018, Leifer was arrested on charges of feigning mental illness and obstruction of justice. This time she was taken into custody. Still, the court process ground on, with more snail’s pace psychiatric assessments. And once again, Jerusalem District Psychiatrist Jacob Charnes changed his opinion.
A new group of psychiatrists examined Leifer and found she was fit to stand trial. Charnes refused to sign off on this assessment for several months. He eventually did, but when he was cross-examined in court, he cast doubt on the other psychiatrists’ opinions and recommended establishing yet another panel to examine her. Judge Lomp agreed. Would this ever end?
Allegations of interference
In May 2019, Israeli media aired explosive allegations that Israel’s then Health Minister, Yaakov Litzman, had intervened in Leifer’s case. An investigative TV program called Hamakor (the Source), alleged that the Health Minister had instructed Jacob Charnes to change his medical opinion.
The Minister vehemently denied the allegations. His office said that “as far as Litzman is concerned, sexual delinquency and sexual abuse are like murder,” but in August 2019 Israeli police recommended indicting him on criminal charges of fraud and breach of trust. It’s alleged he threatened he would fire people in his ministry if they did not write favourable psychiatric opinions about Leifer. It is also alleged there are recordings of him doing this.
There is no suggestion that Litzman has ever met Malka Leifer, so why would he intervene to help her? It turns out they both share a connection to the Gur Hasidim. And Litzman is one of its leaders.
(Editor’s note: In 2022, Litzman was sentenced to eight months in prison after pleading guilty to breaching the public trust in the Malka Leifer matter.)
Manny Waks is a pioneering Australian campaigner for survivors of sexual abuse in the Jewish community. He was himself abused as a pupil in a Jewish religious school in Melbourne. He sued the institution, and won. Manny now lives in Israel and has attended most of Leifer’s court hearings.
“The ultra-Orthodox are interested in protecting their own,” says Manny. “Sending a fellow Hassid, and a woman on top of that, to [face the prospect of] jail in another country, where she will be seen by non-Jewish men, and may have to have contact with them in breach of their strict modesty rules – that concerns them more than the protection of the girls she is alleged to have abused.”
The price of justice
The sisters who accused Leifer have paid a personal price – within their community and also their family.
Their parents had little contact with them following their decision to speak out. “Our father died in June 2019, and we didn’t go to the funeral,” Nicole told The Weekly.
Dassi is no longer an ultra-Orthodox Jew. Her marriage ended after she had a baby and then a breakdown, as memories of abuse overwhelmed her following the birth. Since Nicole went into intensive therapy in 2017, she’s had to give up the teaching job she loved – the stress became too great.
When asked if she had faith in a resolution, Nicole admitted she’s no longer sure.
“Faith is a very strong word, but there must be some level of that, and hope, because why are we still doing it? Sometimes it feels like why did we start? If we’d predicted how long it would take and the toll – physical, emotional, mental and financial – would we have done it?”
Nicole paused, looked off into the distance at the bright Jerusalem market stalls and the wide blue sky.
“I don’t regret it,” she said resolutely. “I don’t regret any part of it. It’s the importance of standing up, and especially me, as a religious person, standing up to be a role model for other religious people in this situation.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is always available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website, or call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit their website.