After a 15-year struggle for her to be brought to justice, Malka Leifer, the former principal of a chareidi Jewish school in Melbourne, was convicted guilty of sexually abusing two former pupils.
A jury found Leifer, 56, guilty of crimes including rape, indecent assault, and sexual penetration of a child aged 16 or 17 against two sisters on Monday following a six-week trial in the County Court of Victoria. Yet they exonerated her of all allegations involving a third sibling.
Despite not being informed of Leifer’s flight to Israel when the abuse claims first surfaced in 2008, the jury concluded. Her departure from Australia led to a protracted extradition procedure that soured relations between Australia and Israel, but she was eventually returned.
On April 26, Leifer will return to court to set a date for the plea hearing to determine her punishment.
Sisters Elly Sapper and Dassi Erlich attended Adass Israel School in Elsternwick, a tiny community of chareidi Jewish families in Melbourne’s inner southeast, from 2003 to 2007, when Leifer committed the crimes against them.
Leifer was found not guilty of nine charges and convicted of 18 charges of rape and sexual assault. She was acquitted of all allegations involving Nicole Meyer, the third sister.
Despite leaving the country in the middle of the night in March 2008 as the allegations against her gained momentum, the former principal entered a not-guilty plea to all 27 charges.
When it became clear that the dates of the claimed offense did not correspond to those charged by investigators, Judge Mark Gamble ordered that Leifer be acquitted of two charges midway through the trial.
Leifer has been detained since her return to Australia in January 2021. She has driven daily to court in the prison van away from prying eyes.
Throughout the trial, she paid strict attention to her attorney Ian Hill, KC, barely glancing toward the jury.
After a six-year court fight that at times strained ties between Australia and Israel and enraged Melbourne’s Jewish community, which had been supportive of the sisters, Leifer was deported to Australia in January 2021.
Leifer’s travels between Israel and Australia were disclosed to the jury, but the circumstances surrounding the trip or its relevance to the accusations were not explained.
The jury was also shielded from the ongoing scandal that led to senior Israeli politician Yaakov Litzman’s resignation from his position as minister. Litzman entered a plea agreement with Israeli prosecutors after acknowledging that he had obstructed justice by preventing Leifer’s extradition from Israel to Australia.
Litzman, a former health minister and steadfast supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu, was charged with exerting pressure on ministry staff to change psychiatric assessments to give the impression that Leifer was incompetent to stand trial.
The three sisters described the abuse Leifer inflicted against them during their testimony in closed court, which was only open to attorneys, the jury, and the judge’s staff.
One of the first people to learn of the charges of abuse made by one of the sisters was social worker Chana Rabinowitz, but she chose not to testify in person before a jury.
Instead, her testimony and cross-examination were videotaped and played to the jury via video link in a closed session.
Manny Waks, a proponent against sex abuse, congratulated the sisters for telling their challenging and private experiences in public.
“Today’s guilty verdict is a magnificent day for justice and the vindication of the brave survivors,” Waks said. “Their tenacity and decency have been the hallmark of their long and incredible quest for justice.”
“We hope today’s decision brings them some comfort and aids in their long-term recovery and well-being.”
Waks, the head of VoiCSA, a group fighting child sexual abuse in Jewish communities and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in the chareidi community in Australia, has called on the Adass Israel School to apologize to the sisters.