They were ripe for the picking”. With those stunning words, Crown prosecutor Justin Lewis summed up charges of sexual abuse relating to three vulnerable sisters at Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel school between 2003 and 2007 – allegations that for two of the sisters, Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper, satisfied a jury that Israeli-born former Adass principal, Malka Leifer, 56, was guilty beyond reasonable doubt of 18 charges, including rape.
With sentencing imminent, the April 3 verdict in the County Court of Victoria was the penultimate act in an epic saga that captured world headlines, and tugged at the Canberra-Jerusalem relationship at the highest levels.
Trouble at Adass first came to light when an anxious, anonymous caller phoned The AJN in March 2008 to blow the whistle on Leifer’s nocturnal bolt back to Israel, together with her husband and children, after the school’s board was told of sexual abuse allegations against her. The AJN splashed the story on its cover, ignoring pressure from some quarters of the community not to publish.
The scenario of who was involved in assisting Leifer’s hurried departure in those critical hours was investigated by Victoria Police, a probe that was ended in 2018. After the verdict, former Victorian premier Ted Baillieu, who championed the sisters, told The AJN he wants the case reopened. “There can be no escaping their culpability.”
Benjamin Koppel, Adass president in 2008, told The AJN at the time that the school first got wind of the allegations on March 4 that year.
Adass stated it was “deeply saddened” and had engaged trauma counsellors for its students.
Initially admired by the sexually unknowledgeable sisters, their principal presented herself as a figure of warmth in stark contrast to their harsh home life. Later feared by them, Leifer had warned that if the girls spoke publicly about any abuse, she would shame them by publicising details, as the court was told, about an abusive mother with psychological problems. And weighing on the women was the burden of communal betrayal and “loshon hora”, evil language, attached to speaking out beyond the bounds of their cloistered world.
“Right across the political divide, Australians are united in support of Dassi, Nicole and Elly. These sisters have carried a huge personal burden in taking on this public pursuit of justice.” Josh Burns, Member for Macnamara
But for the sisters, their trauma, though buried deep, was festering. In 2008, Erlich, by then married and living in Israel, was seen by a counsellor, Chana Rabinowitz, for depression. Rabinowitz would tell the 2023 trial it was clear to her that her client had been seriously hurt. Counsellor Vicki Gordon, who treated Sapper, would tell the court that in their sessions, Sapper would only use phone texting to send descriptions to Gordon, in the room with her, of the sexual abuse she endured at Leifer’s hands “because she couldn’t mouth the words”.
Three years later, Sapper contacted Victoria Police and made a deposition alleging sexual abuse. Her two sisters soon did likewise. Two years on, police requested Leifer’s extradition from Israel. Then Australian ambassador Dave Sharma presented the extradition request. This month he recalled to The AJN “unacceptable delays” in the extradition process.
In 2014, police laid 74 sex-related charges against Leifer. But the Israeli response was seen as tepid. Leifer was placed under home detention. And when the extradition process began, Leifer’s lawyers would later claim she had mental issues that should prevent her being extradited.
The following year, Erlich was awarded $1.24 million in a negligence case she brought against the Adass Israel school over the sexual abuse. During the case, the Supreme Court of Victoria heard claims that in 2000, Israel’s fundamentalist Gur community, where Leifer had taught in a school, had wanted her sent to Australia.
In Israel, Leifer was evading court with claims of mental anguish. Then came a stinging setback for the victims. Leifer was given her freedom, required only to undergo two psychiatric evaluations a year to assess her ability to attend court.
By 2017, the matter had become a bilateral stressor between Australia and Israel. In Israel, Malcolm Turnbull, as PM, impressed on his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu how critical it was that Leifer be extradited. And Caulfield MP David Southwick later accompanied Erlich, Sapper and Meyer to Israel, where the sisters implored then justice minister Ayelet Shaked to push harder.
In December 2017, another bombshell struck. Some 200 hours of undercover video, recorded by activists, showed Leifer leading a normal lifestyle – shopping, smiling, shmoozing, getting about in her kitchen. The mentally anguished, dysfunctional figure her lawyers were portraying to the Israeli court was nowhere to be found.
The footage played a big part in Leifer’s rearrest in February 2018. In Melbourne, the sisters finally sensed a ray of justice.
“I thought ‘oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh’,” Meyer had told The AJN. “This was the day we were waiting for.”
But the wheels of justice jammed again. Israeli politician Yaakov Litzman, head of government coalition partner United Torah Judaism, and a Gur community elder, used his power as health minister to interfere with medical advice that Leifer was fit for trial in Australia. Five years on, Litzman would sign a plea arrangement admitting corruption over Leifer. He paid a fine and quit the Knesset.
His interference, however, did not stop a medical committee of the Jerusalem District Court finding Leifer was feigning mental illness. And on May 26, 2020, an Israeli court finally ruled she was fit for extradition.
In her 62-page ruling, Judge Chana Lomp determined that Leifer “appears with the fullness of her faculties, that she has the ability to operate, and she is fit to stand for judgment”. The decision was hailed by public figures in Australia, including then PM Scott Morrison.
On hearing the news, Erlich had told The AJN, “It just took a good 20 minutes to sink in and realise this is actually true.”
Macnamara federal ALP member Josh Burns, together with Southwick, a state Liberal MP, issued a joint release. “Right across the political divide, Australians are united in support of Dassi, Nicole and Elly. These sisters have carried a huge personal burden in taking on this public pursuit of justice,” said Burns. Added Southwick, “These sisters have done something remarkable – they have changed the culture of our local community to ensure that victims have a voice.”
On December 15, 2020, Leifer’s lawyers exhausted one of their last two appeals and soon after, Israel’s justice minister Avi Nissenkorn signed the long anticipated extradition order. “All who seek to evade justice shall know that they will not find a city of refuge in Israel,” Justices Anat Baron, Isaac Amit, and Ofer Grosskopf wrote in a unanimous decision denying her appeal.
“The arc of history has proven painfully long,” reflected Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler at that point. “But it did bend irresistibly towards justice.”
In the late hours of January 27, 2021, The AJN was at Melbourne airport, awaiting Leifer’s flight. The ex-principal had been transferred to Ben Gurion airport from Neve Tirza women’s prison, and flew to Australia with a Victoria Police escort, hours before the Israeli airport was closed under a COVID-19 emergency.
With Leifer back in the country she had struggled to avoid, the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, a Melbourne women’s prison, would now become her home. She made her first court appearance the following day. She was later committed to stand trial on 27 charges, including 11 counts of rape, 10 counts of indecent assault, three counts of sexual penetration of a 16- or 17-year-old and three counts of an indecent act with a 16- or 17-year-old.
In the County Court of Victoria, on February 8 this year, Leifer’s trial got underway – with a media suppression order in place, preventing any reporting of her 2008 flight, her extradition and other matters not directly related to the charges. The sisters’ testimonies were heard in closed court.
“While we are disappointed that not all charges were found ‘guilty’, we are grateful that justice was served.” Nicole Meyer, Elly Sapper and Dassi Erlich.
Justin Lewis argued that Erlich, Sapper and Meyer had no knowledge of sexual relations as they grew up. They had a difficult home life and Leifer had exploited their trust, abusing them for years.
“She manipulated their emotions while abusing them for her own sexual gratification,” he said. He summarised it in frightening terms: “They were ripe for the picking.”
However, emphasising changes the complainants made over time in details of their allegations, Leifer’s barrister Ian Hill, KC, described the allegations against his client (who had pleaded not guilty to all charges) as “erroneous, imagined and/or fabricated”.
After six weeks of testimony and arguments, Leifer’s jury deliberated for almost 32 hours over nine days. Twice they asked Judge Mark Gamble for directions, as they struggled for unanimity. “What I urge you to do is to return to the jury room and try to resolve your differences,” the judge responded at one point.
On April 3, the jury delivered its verdict. The sisters, who had been following proceedings by video from inside the court complex, entered the courtroom shortly beforehand. On the first five charges, the foreman’s pronouncements of “not guilty” set their faces in stone. But then relief appeared, as “guilty” findings flowed.
Leifer, who had shown hardly any emotion throughout the trial, stood in the dock gazing firmly at the jurors. Meyer said afterwards, “I turned around and looked at her … if she doesn’t want to look at me, so be it.”
Ultimately Leifer was found guilty on 18 of the 27 charges, including six of the rape counts, and not guilty on nine other charges. The proven charges related to Erlich and Sapper, while the jury found Leifer not guilty of any of the charges relating to Meyer, the eldest sister. The school issued an apology.
“The mixed verdict is a bittersweet outcome,” the three sisters reflected to The AJN afterwards. “While we are disappointed that not all charges were found ‘guilty’, we are grateful that justice was served.”
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