How has Malka Leifer evaded justice?
Why has Israel been unable to bring an end to the shocking saga of alleged sexual abuse by the principal of an Australian haredi school?
In 2000, the ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel School in Melbourne, Australia, began looking for a new head of Jewish Studies for its girls school, the most esteemed and prestigious position in the highly religious institution. One school board member had heard of a particular teacher in Israel who was known as a vivacious and charismatic teacher from Bnei Brak, and quickly went about persuading her to join the school’s senior staff – and the Australian Immigration Department to enable it.
The new appointment was an instant hit, winning over the confidence and affection of staff and pupils alike, so much so that in 2002 she was appointed school principal, with oversight over the very ethos of the Adass Israel School.
She was charming, warm, outgoing and displayed a good sense of humor. Pupils were eager to win her favor, and her fellow teachers and community members were keen to help her with whatever she needed.
But despite this rosy picture, all was not well at Adass Israel, and by 2008 the new school principal, Malka Leifer, was fleeing from Australian authorities in connection with dozens of charges of pedophilia, rape and sexual abuse of minors.
Following her escape from the Australian justice system, Leifer hid herself in a secluded, ultra-Orthodox settlement in the West Bank, but an extradition request eventually caught up with her when she was arrested in 2014.
Those who knew Leifer in Australia described her as a magnetic and intelligent individual, someone who was sociable, affable and knew how to get what she wanted.
But ever since her arrest, she, her family and her attorneys have claimed she has been transformed into a forlorn wretch, paralyzed by severe psychiatric illness, who is unfit for extradition and trial in Australia.
For the last five years, this defense has served her well, and the Israeli judicial system has proven unable to bring an end to a now decade-old saga and bring a measure of justice to her alleged victims.
As the number of court hearings have racked up, and with yet another panel of psychiatric experts expected to give a new opinion on Leifer’s mental fitness to stand trial, the process has begun to appear farcical in the eyes of many.
How did this situation transpire? How has it affected Leifer’s alleged victims? And is there an end in sight to one of the most embarrassing legal sagas in Israel’s history?
THE AWFUL and shocking tale begins in 2000 when Leifer was brought to the Adass Israel School, an institution belonging to that city’s highly insular and austere haredi Adass Israel community, numbering some 500 families.
Leifer was brought from Israel to serve as the head of Jewish Studies Department of the Adass Israel girls’ school in December 2000, following a favorable impression received by school board member David Rosenbaum, and she served as principal of the primary and secondary girls’ school from December 2002 until March 2008.
Leifer quickly made her mark as a friendly and personable individual who became well-liked by fellow teachers and pupils who sought her favor.
“She was a very charming person. She was a woman that everyone loved, and everyone looked up to her,” recalls Dassi Erlich, one of the three sisters who were alleged victims of Leifer, and who came forward to make criminal complaints against her.
“She is very intelligent. She knew the right things to say to the right people to get what she wanted. She was very loving,” says Dassi.
Girls in the school were always eager to help Leifer out in the various and frequent errands with which she apparently needed assistance, including at her home.
Pupils would help look after her children at her home, and teachers and parents would chauffeur her around to wherever she needed to go, since Leifer herself did not drive, in accordance with the modesty strictures of the more hardline ultra-Orthodox communities.
Sharon Swiatlo, a drama teacher who taught at Adass Israel during Leifer’s tenure as principal, was also impressed by and enamored of Leifer.
“Malka Leifer was very charismatic, she has an outgoing personality, and knew how to get what she wanted from people,” says Swialto.
“She had a sense of confidence and authority. She was very pleasant in her manner. She had a good sense of humor. She knew how to laugh with the staff and was very friendly, very talkative and sociable.”
It was with this apparent charm and charisma that Leifer gained the confidence of her victims.
She would cultivate and groom pupils, show them affection and play favorites, says Dassi, calling on them in classes that she taught, and bringing them into the staff room for a personal chat.
“It was a status that you were one of Mrs Leifer’s favorites,” says Dassi, and pupils enjoyed that status and were proud of it.
At times, Leifer would call some of her favorites out of class to run errands for her or speak with them, or on occasion even ask them to cover a kindergarten class when a staff member was absent. In this way, she would cultivate their confidence.
Dassi became one of Leifer’s favorites. She says that at first, she enjoyed the attention and status that the principal’s attention conferred on her.
She was also particularly vulnerable due to the abuse she suffered at home at the hands of her parents, and was happy when Leifer “stood up to them” and insisted, for example, that they let her come on school outings, which her parents were wont to refuse.
After one such incident, Leifer requested that Dassi’s mother allow her daughter to come into school on Sundays, when school was closed, for some “private lessons.”
“I was so excited to be away from home on Sunday and be away from the abuse at home, and to be instead with someone who I looked up to,” Dassi recalled.
It was during these sessions, however, that Lefier’s alleged sexual abuse of Dassi began.
According to Dassi, Leifer sexually abused her in various ways and in various settings, including in Leifer’s school office and at Leifer’s home when her husband was away.
Leifer was ably assisted in her sexual abuse by the school’s total absence of knowledge about anything to do with intimacy, sexual relations and even their own bodies.
The Adass Israel community is isolated from the rest of Australian society, including the rest of the Jewish community. Television is banned, and the Internet is strictly controlled.
Swiatlo related that the pupils in her drama classes had no idea at all about sex or even the concept of romance.
Dassi says that the mere mention of an interaction between boys and girls in books permitted by the school were blacked out, even in novels as innocuous and innocent as Biggles and The Hardy Boys.
“The community’s plan is that we have no knowledge of sex or sexuality. We never heard about sex, we had no idea about sex,” says Dassi.
THIS TOTAL lack of knowledge had several consequences. First was that Dassi was not even sure that what was happening to her was wrong and abusive.
Dassi says that Leifer groomed her for sexual abuse between the ages of 15 and 16 through various forms of inappropriate touching. She says the actual alleged abuse started when she was 16 and took place in various locations, including in Leifer’s office at school on Sundays, at her home and at a community camp.
Leifer would tell her that this is how a person cared for and loved someone else. She told Dassi that she was a mother to her and was showing her love by touching her, but Dassi had no point of reference to be sure if that touching was right or wrong.
“I had no understanding of what she was doing,” says Dassi. “It didn’t make any sense to me.”
When asked why she did not tell one of her sisters about the incidents, Dassi says she didn’t even have the vocabulary to explain where she had been touched, let alone the ability to understand what was being done to her and why it was wrong.
“I didn’t have the language to describe my body parts,” she noted, stating that she felt “massive inherent shame and embarrassment” about her assault.
“I didn’t know how it was wrong, just that it was wrong. I knew it was wrong because I hid from her sometimes, but I didn’t know how to stop it.”
Dassi says that when Leifer was abusing her, she “disappeared inside myself,” and that she sometimes felt disassociated from her own body.
“Sometimes I felt like I was watching myself from above, like I wasn’t in my body.”
‘Malka Leifer is very intelligent. She knew the right things to say to the right people to get what she wanted, she was very loving’ – Dassi Erlich
After finishing school, Dassi got married and eventually moved to Israel, where she lived with her husband and had a child.
But because of the severe abuse she had suffered, she experienced problems in connecting emotionally with her child, and breastfeeding in particular became a difficult experience, since it revived memories of Leifer’s sexual assaults.
Dassi eventually sought the assistance of a social worker and therapist who was also from Australia and actually knew Leifer.
Although Dassi did not immediately reveal the abuse she had suffered, the therapist soon discerned that something was amiss. When Dassi did eventually relate what had happened, the social worker was incredulous.
Dassi told her to call a school staff member whose daughter Dassi knew had also been abused, and for that staff member to ask her daughter whether Leifer had ever abused her.
The daughter confirmed the story, as did Dassi’s older sister, Nicole Meyer. The information was then relayed to the Adass Israel School board of governors, after which events moved very quickly.
At the beginning of March 2008, senior figures in the Adass school and community were made aware of the allegations by the teacher, and Leifer was fired on March 5.
The wife of a board member of the Adass school then phoned a travel agent late that night and booked oneway airline tickets to Israel for Leifer and four of her children, and they fled Australia the very next morning on a flight that left at 1:20 a.m.
The tickets were paid for by an Adass Israel community member and a company associated with the school board president. The school reimbursed them for the expense.
The school never reported to the police the allegations against Leifer that were brought to its attention before Leifer fled to Israel.
In a civil suit brought by Dassi against Leifer and the Adass Israel School in 2012, the Supreme Court of the Australian state of Victoria described the conduct of the school board as “deserving of the Court’s disapprobation and denunciation,” and said its conduct “amounts to disgraceful and contumelious behavior demonstrating a complete disregard for Leifer’s victims, of which the plaintiff was one,” as well as “disdain for due process of criminal investigation in this State.”
The court awarded Dassi more than 1.1 million Australian dollars (over $747,000) in damages to be paid by the school, as well as $150,000 payable by Leifer herself. IT WAS only in 2011, three years after Leifer fled Australia, that Dassi’s younger sister Elly Sapper submitted a complaint to the police for sexual abuse at Leifer’s hands.
Eventually, Dassi and her older sister, Nicole, would also file complaints with the police, and Leifer was eventually charged with 47 counts of indecent assault, 13 counts of indecent assault on a minor, 11 counts of rape and three counts of sexual penetration of a minor.
Dassi, together with her two sisters Nicole and Elly, are the only three pupils from the Adass Israel School to have come forward with criminal complaints against Leifer.
It is thought, however, that there are other girls who were abused, although no others have come forward with complaints, likely due to the fact that they are still within the Adass Israel community, and doing so would be harmful to their status within it.
A request was sent by Australian officials to Israel in March 2012 for Leifer’s extradition back to Australia, although it took until August 2014 for her to be arrested by the Israel Police.
Today, seven years after the extradition request was made by Australia and more than five years after she was first arrested, Leifer remains in Israel and continues to evade extradition.
In what can only be described as a Kafkaesque series of events over more than five years, in which key state officials have reversed themselves multiple times, Leifer’s attorneys have succeeded in averting her extradition back to Australia.
There have been more than 60 hearings in the Jerusalem District Court and the Supreme Court on Leifer’s case, with the time between major developments and judicial decisions often excruciatingly long.
The most egregious of these delays is connected to the vacillations of the Jerusalem District psychiatrist, Dr. Yaakov Charnes, on Leifer’s claims to be mentally unfit for trial. These claims were made despite the fact that Leifer had no record of mental illness before 2008.
Charnes initially said Leifer was fit for trial, then changed his mind and said she wasn’t, and then after evidence came to light showing Leifer was feigning mental illness, reversed himself again and approved a psychiatric review saying she was fit for trial.
Incredibly, he then recanted that position under cross-examination in court by Leifer’s defense attorneys.
Charnes initially examined Leifer on April 15, 2015, and determined that she was fit for trial, writing that in his examination he did not find signs of mental illness in the legal sense, and that she was therefore able to stand trial and understand the proceedings against her, the basic legal requirement for mental fitness for trial.
Leifer’s attorneys managed to significantly delay proceedings, however, with claims that she was unable to appear in court due to health concerns. Then, at the beginning of 2016, a development totally changed the path of the case.
Having determined in his medical opinion in April 2015 that Leifer was fit for trial, Charnes then submitted an opinion asserting the exact opposite of his previous position, with his written submission citing Leifer’s sister-in-law saying, “The patient is totally non-functional, confined to her bed, and is on the verge of having a power of attorney appointed for her.”
What caused Charnes to reverse his position 180 degrees, and adopt the claims of Leifer’s sister-in-law?
This question confounded Dassi, her sisters and activists involved in the case, but Charnes’ psychiatric opinion stood and eventually, in June 2016, the court ended legal proceedings due to Leifer’s supposed mental illness, although the judge ordered bi-annual reviews of her status.
It would be almost three years before the reasons for the inexplicable nature of Charnes’s severe about-turn in his psychiatric opinion of Leifer’s mental state would begin to become clear.
In the meantime, the case was frozen for nearly two years, during which time three psychiatric review panels found Leifer unfit for trial, and her family continued to claim she was incapacitated and lay in bed all day.
Despite the claims about severe mental illness and supposed incapacitation, Leifer was not hospitalized in a mental health institution or hospital and was able to live at her home in Emmanuel without legal hindrance.
IN ADDITION to the damage to Leifer’s alleged victims, the protracted legal saga has done damage to Israel’s diplomatic relationship with Australia.
In October, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for the legal proceedings against Leifer to be expedited, while Australian diplomatic delegations have met on several occasions in the last four years with Israel’s former justice minister Ayelet Shaked with questions about the lengthy legal process.
Diplomatic officials are concerned that the trust of Australia’s politicians and general public in Israel as a state that upholds the rule of law has been eroded by the legal imbroglio, although it is also thought that this one issue will not do serious, long-term damage to the relationship.
Aside from any diplomatic concerns, Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler says the Leifer case has caused embarrassment to the Australian Jewish community.
“There is disbelief here. People are very disappointed, although they understand that this is a judicial issue,” he says.
Today, seven years after the extradition request was made by Australia and more than five years after she was first arrested, Leifer remains in Israel and continues to evade justice
Leibler added that revelations regarding the apparently illegal intervention of Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman cast a shadow over Israel’s legal system for the Australian Jewish community, although he, too, says that relations between the community and Israel would not be seriously affected.
FOR CLOSE to two years, the legal proceedings against Leifer remained frozen, until a picture emerged of her attending Lag Ba’omer celebrations at the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron in the Galilee in May 2017.
The photo aroused suspicions that Leifer was not as bedridden and incapacitated as she had been described, and eventually Jewish Community Watch (JCW), which fights sexual abuse in Israel’s Jewish communities, hired a private investigation company in December 2017 to look into Leifer’s situation.
What they found would turn the case on its head.
“She was functioning like any other normal person,” said Tsafrir Tsahi, the head of the private investigative team that tracked Leifer around Emmanuel and beyond for more than two weeks.
“She went to do her shopping at the grocery store. She bought toys for her grandchildren. She went to the post office and wrote out a check. There was nothing out of the ordinary at all,” he said of the team’s observations of Leifer.
Tsahi said that on one Shabbat during their observations, Leifer hosted her children and their families at her home.
“On Sunday morning, she came down with all of them to wait for their bus and to see them off,” he noted. “They were all talking together, smiling, the children were playing, and when the bus came, she helped them get on and sent them on their way.”
Tsahi added that his team also followed Leifer as she got on a bus and traveled to Bnei Brak to carry out various errands, and on a visit with her family.
The picture the investigation uncovered was a far cry from the incapacitated, helpless, depressed woman whose lawyers had described as akin to “a sack of potatoes.”
The investigative team and JCW passed the material on to the State Attorney’s Office, and in short order the Israel Police initiated its own undercover investigation, which revealed similar findings to Tsahi’s private investigation.
Unaware of these investigations, Leifer’s family requested medical power of attorney over her during her third bi-annual psychiatric review at the end of January 2018, claiming Leifer was severely unwell and incapable of making her own medical decisions, and that she was uncommunicative and had no comprehension of anything around her.
The psychiatric panel subsequently determined that Leifer was not fit to stand trial and that another review would be scheduled in six months.
But her arrest just three weeks later on February 12, on charges of feigning mental illness and obstruction of justice, made it look like the paradigm of the case had changed, and it appeared to many that Leifer’s extradition would now not be long in coming.
On February 25, a new psychiatric opinion authored by two psychiatrists appointed by Charnes determined clearly that Leifer was not mentally ill according to the legal definition of the term since, they wrote, she understood the significance of the legal proceedings against her.
The two psychiatrists wrote in their statement that Leifer “understands the significance of the legal proceedings and the severity of the actions attributed to her, and is therefore afraid of the consequences of the legal process and the punishment awaiting her.”
But despite the seemingly incontrovertible evidence and expert opinions, a final decision by Judge Chana Lomp, who had taken over the case from Judge Amnon Cohen, still did not come.
Leifer’s legal team challenged the investigative findings, requested another psychiatric opinion, and found numerous ways to delay the proceedings.
At one stage, the judge acquiesced to demands for a new psychiatric opinion, due to the defense’s submission of a statement by a prison doctor from a facility where Leifer was being held that she needed anti-psychotic drugs.
Leifer’s defense lawyers also changed their claim that she was totally incapacitated, and now claimed that she had a form of mental illness in which severe psychotic episodes are brought on sporadically by times of extreme stress, such as court hearings.
Another few months went by, until a new psychiatric evaluation was ordered by Lomp in May 2018 and submitted by the Jerusalem District psychiatrist in August of that year, which again determined that Leifer was feigning mental illness and was fit to stand trial.
But Lomp also decided to allow the psychiatric experts who had written the new evaluations to be cross-examined by the defense attorneys.
MONTHS DRAGGED on between hearings, delayed further by various stalling tactics employed by Leifer’s defense team. The delays continued until January 24, 2019, when under cross-examination, Charnes once against changed his mind and cast doubt on the previous psychiatric evaluations.
Further court hearings with witness cross-examinations, Jewish holidays and delaying tactics by Leifer’s defense team all stalled the proceedings still further.
Leifer’s defense attorneys have argued that there are explanations to several of the investigative findings, including a claim that it was not Leifer herself who wrote the check in the post office but her husband.
They have also claimed, in opposition to their pre-2018 arguments, that all mentally ill people are functional at certain times, and that evidence of her functioning does not prove she is not mentally sick.
Critically, Leifer’s attorney’s have pointed to the determination of prison service doctors that she is mentally unwell as proof of their claims.
This has indeed been a difficult claim to contend with for the state attorneys, although they argue that the mental competency standard for extradition is merely that the defendant understand that the process could result in their being removed to the country from where they fled.
In September 2019, Lomp finally issued a decision requiring yet another psychiatric review to reach a conclusive determination.
Lomp wrote in a 59-page decision that the various contradictory medical opinions which had been submitted regarding Leifer’s mental state required a new expert panel be appointed to make yet another, authoritative decision.
The judge also wrote that in the 2018 psychiatric review, Leifer was feigning mental illness, and “a significant portion of the facts presented were faulty,” pointing to various discrepancies and inaccuracies in the report.
Lomp added that the determination by the panel in 2018 was not commensurate with the fact the Leifer was taking anti-psychotic drugs in jail, which can have potentially serious side effects.
As such, the new panel, from which Lomp specifically excluded Charnes, is due to submit its opinion this month, and a court hearing on its findings is scheduled for December 10.
There is a high likelihood that once the panel submits it opinion, the defense attorneys will request an opportunity to cross-examine its members in new hearings, further dragging out the case.
Leifer’s lawyers vigorously opposed any new panel, and recently declared that Leifer would not cooperate with a new review process.
Even if Leifer is determined to be fit for extradition, the Jerusalem District Court will still need to hold hearings into the validity of the criminal complaints against her, all these hearings will be without witnesses and are not expected to be lengthy.
But what of those previous psychiatric evaluations before 2018 that stated Leifer was unfit for trial? Why did Charnes reverse himself after stating in his initial opinion that she was able to stand trial?
The apparent answer to that question was seemingly answered in a bombshell revelation in February 2019 that Deputy Health Minister Litzman, of the haredi United Torah Judaism Party, was under investigation by the Lahav 433 police investigative division, on suspicion of witness tampering connected to the Leifer case.
In August 2019, the police recommended to the attorney-general that Litzman be indicted on charges of witness tampering, fraud and breach of trust in connection with the case.
According to the police, Litzman worked to obtain psychiatric opinions for Leifer which would state that she was not fit for trial. Litzman also allegedly threatened people in his ministry, including senior officials, warning them that if they did not write favorable psychiatric opinions for her, they would be fired.
Police reportedly have phone messages and recordings of Litzman and his associates requesting that officials in the Health Ministry act to ensure Leifer was not extradited to Australia.
Why Litzman would intervene on behalf of Leifer is unclear.
Litzman himself has denied any wrongdoing, saying that as a deputy minister he receives many personal requests for assistance from the general public, and that he always tries to address them regardless of personal backgrounds.
But in a response to a KAN News report, sources quoted as “close associates of Litzman” said the deputy minister had “received many requests from hassidic grand rabbis to help the suspect [Leifer] and to prevent her extradition.”
Interestingly, Leifer’s husband is Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Leifer, the head of the small Chust Hassidic community in Emmanuel.
The source cited by KAN added that Litzman held a hearing on the issue but told the grand rabbis he could not intervene.
An investigative report by Channel 13’s Mekor program found, however, that Litzman had allegedly intervened on behalf of at least 10 convicted sex offenders during his time as deputy health minister.
Litzman has denied any wrongdoing and insisted that the allegations against him have arisen from officials in the Health Ministry who want to harm his political career and prevent him from returning as health minister after the April elections.
Charnes has said that he stands behind all of the professional medical opinions he has submitted, in accordance with the inspections he performed at the specific time.
THROUGH ALL these many months and years, the endless court hearings, the psychiatric opinions, the reversals, the change of judges, court motions, decisions, appeals and interminable legal proceedings, Dassi and her sisters have had to cope with the consequences of their alleged abuse and the fact that their abuser continues to evade justice.
For Dassi, the effect of what she suffered has had a huge impact on her life. As she began to deal emotionally with her abuse, she also began to deeply question her religious faith.
She says that eventually she saw religion as a tool that had been used to facilitate her abuse, due to how the repression of any knowledge and information about sexuality had enabled a sexual predator to take advantage of her enforced ignorance.
Dassi eventually decided she could not be religious anymore. That necessitated a divorce from her husband, who remains strongly religious, and a custody battle ensued in the Australian family courts over their child.
She also had difficulty connecting emotionally to her young daughter, she says, because she had “numbed out a lot of my emotions” due to the abuse she suffered.
“When I had my daughter, I knew cognitively that I loved her, but emotionally I was blocked, so when it came to wanting to feel emotions that was hard for me,” she explains.
Breastfeeding in particular became very difficult because it gave her flashbacks and triggers of what happened during her abuse.
Dassi says that at one stage she had “pretty much a complete breakdown.” She began to self-harm and became suicidal, and eventually checked herself into a psychiatric hospital.
Coping with the effects of the intense sexual abuse she suffered is an ongoing process, she says.
“It’s a constant journey, and I’m still working on it. I’m still trying to feel my emotions, not to disassociate from them when I feel they’re too much.”
Dassi says there are constant triggers that remind her of the abuse, certain scents, including “smells of weather,” which can transport her back in time to similar weather, evoking “the feelings of powerless and helplessness” that she experienced when she was being abused.
“Those triggers are constantly around, and I have to constantly manage them. More than anything I want to put it behind me,” she says.
DEALING WITH constant media requests for interviews, such as this one, and requests for comments on developments in the case bring back the suffering she experienced, and she says it affects her for days after.
“The longer it goes on, the harder it gets. It’s impossible to move on to the next chapter of my life until this is behind me. The more media exposure there is, the harder it is to balance the effect it has on me, and then I have to struggle to get that balance back.”
Although at the beginning of the struggle to bring Leifer back to Australia, she fought to try to stop the issue from taking over her life, she says she has accepted that “this is where my life is right now.”
And as hard as it is for her to talk about Leifer all the time, Dassi says it can also be a “validating and powerful” experience for her since talking allows her “to gain back that power that I lost,” knowing she is now heard and believed.
“It helps balance the effect of being triggered” by recounting these events, she says.
What does she hope for now?
“I hope that the extradition judge sees through the games, and makes a decision quickly to put an end to this ridiculous farce. I won’t be able to get over what’s happened and put it behind me until Leifer is brought to justice.”
There have been more than 60 hearings in the Israeli courts on Leifer’s case
MALKA LEIFER, surrounded by Israel Prison Service guards, covers her face in Jerusalem District Court on February 14, 2018.
DASSI ERLICH stands in front of the haredi Adass Israel School in Melbourne where Leifer took a leading role from the end of 2000 to March 2008.
SISTERS DASSI ERLICH (third from left) and Nicole Meyer (second from right) together with supporters, attend a protest calling for the extradition to Australia of Leifer, outside Jerusalem District Court this past March.
WHY DEPUTY HEALTH MINISTER Ya’acov Litzman would intervene on Leifer’s behalf is unclear.
THE MELBOURNE skyline, home to Adass Israel. The protracted legal saga has done damage to Israel’s diplomatic relationship with Australia.