Malka Leifer: from ‘revered’ teacher to convicted sexual abuser
A jury heard how sisters in an isolated ultra-Orthodox community trusted their former principal before the Convicted Sexual Abuser them
In an isolated ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, malka leiver was revered in a way three Melbourne sisters had never witnessed in a woman.
For Nicole Meyer, Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper, having the attention of this celebrated woman was something they welcomed and even sought.
Erlich and Sapper had no understanding of the Convicted Sexual Abuser she perpetrated when they were students and student teachers between 2003 and 2008.
Leifer has been found guilty of 18 charges including rape and indecent assault against Erlich and Sapper.
The Adass Israel community is small and confined to a few suburbs in Melbourne’s southeast. They have their own schools, synagogue and shops.
Contact with the outside world is limited.
The sisters had no television, no internet or newspapers. Jewish magazines were an occasional find.
News came from their peers.
Men and women were separated from kindergarten.
Erlich’s first real conversation with a non-related boy was with her now ex-husband.
She was engaged the first time she saw mainstream media – scenes of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in Full House.
She wrote their names in her diary with nine ticks. “It was very exciting to me,” she said.
They were raised to believe a girl’s job was to be covered and modest.
“I was taught that my job as a woman was not to distract the men. To let them learn the Torah and for women, for me to grow up. Give birth to the next generation of Torah children,” Erlich said.
Their bodies were taboo and shrouded in secrecy – girls’ bodies in books would have modest clothing drawn on.
Girls received kallah lessons on family purity and being a good Jewish wife and mother before their weddings.
Erlich was taught sex was a holy act to produce children. Women must have the right intentions and pray in the right way.
It’s against that backdrop that Malka Leifer arrived in their lives, moving to Melbourne form Israel in 2001. She was appointed menaheles, or principal, of the girls’ school a year later.
“She came to the community and became this person that was revered as much as a rabbi, and I had never seen a woman that people looked up to like this,” Erlich said.
Someone more friendly than the old headmaster
eifer’s barrister, Ian Hill KC, suggested something must have gone very wrong with the girls if they thought that was inappropriate.
Physical affection wasn’t something they saw much in their community or at home.
Erlich felt special that Leifer had noticed her and offered to give her private lessons.
“I had this person that everybody looked up to paying attention to me and I was desperate for that support,” she said.
“They also told me that he loved me, which were the words I wanted to hear at that time.”
During those lessons Leifer would rub her thighs, moving her hands higher each time.
Initially it felt loving and affectionate, but Erlich was too embarrassed to ask if Leifer knew how high her hand was going.
Also she trusted Leifer, who told her she was like a mother.
“I thought maybe this is what loving mothers do. I had never experienced a mother that was loving.”
The lessons were also a big privilege. The connection to Leifer would make Erlich look better when it came to marriage.
“But it was also like she was closer to God than I was, and by having those lessons. It was like she was increasing my spirituality and my religion. Which was something that was of the utmost importance to me,” she said.
When Sapper experienced confusion about her religion, she felt safe talking to Leifer, who had chosen her as a favourite to run errands for her and help with her children.
“She made me feel loved when I spent time with her … I was hoping that she would love me like a mother. I wanted to feel loved,” she said.
Sapper told the jury she had walked into a room at the Adass Israel School where Leifer had been abusing Erlich. They didn’t speak of it at the time.
“Mrs Leifer was one of the most respected persons in the community. If Mrs Leifer was doing something then it must be OK,” Sapper said.
A teacher doesn’t even know he should ask about it and he doesn’t have the language to ask.
At one point in the trial Hill quizzed Erlich on a suggestion that, at age 17, she didn’t know the word breast.
“I don’t have a recollection of what I called my breasts at that age, but it wasn’t a term that anybody had used with me,” she said.
The abuse, which began when they were students, continued when they returned after graduation as student teachers.
Erlich tried to get close with another teacher to talk about what Leifer was doing to her, but said Leifer intervened.
“They all tell me that it is not healthy for me to have connections with other teachers, to have more than one mentor,” he said.
At the end too he implies that he will tell others about Erlich’s domestic life – a source of deep embarrassment for him at the time.
Erlich feared she would be seen as “damaged goods” when it came time to marry. When she did, she didn’t tell her then husband. They didn’t have that sort of relationship.
Sapper had been conditioned to respect authority and never question it.
“When Mrs Leifer abused me … even if there were times that it didn’t feel right or comfortable there was no ability to question or to ask or to understand, because you cannot question authority,” she said.
Erlich was the first to disclose the Convicted Sexual Abuser, telling social worker Chana Rabinowitz in early 2008. Rabinowitz phoned Meyer, who confirmed she had been abused too.
The school was notified and Leifer was stood down. Teary, she claimed what was happening was unfair. Days later she left for Israel.
Then the man was arrested in Israel in 2014 and spent six years fighting extradition to Australia on the grounds that he was mentally unfit. Israeli police accuse him of faking a mental illness.
She was later extradited, arriving in Melbourne in early 2020 just hours before the airport closed due to Covid-19.
After a two-month trial in the Victorian county court, jurors took 32 hours of deliberations over nine days to return 18 guilty verdicts against her.