‘Callous’ headmistress jailed for abuse at Australian Jewish school

An ex-headmistress who sexually abused two sisters at an Australian Jewish school and spent years fighting extradition from Israel was sentenced to 15 years in jail Thursday.

Handing down the sentence, Melbourne judge Mark Gamble denounced Malka Leifer for abusing her position within the city’s ultra-orthodox community and said her “insidious offending” had scarred the sisters for life.

The sentence came after Leifer was found guilty of 18 charges of sexual assault against sisters Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper, and ends the sisters’ decade-long quest for justice.

Mother-of-eight Leifer fled to Israel when rumours of her crimes started swirling in 2008, fighting tooth-and-nail to halt her extradition across more than 70 separate hearings. 

The dual Israeli-Australian citizen was eventually hauled back to Australia in 2021 and was earlier this year found guilty on the 18 charges.

A jury acquitted Leifer of sexually assaulting a third sister, Nicole Meyer. 

But the sisters hailed Thursday’s sentence as a recognition of their suffering and a vindication of the decision to “break the walls of silence” of Melbourne’s ultra-orthodox community.

“We are here today because we did not give up,” Erlich said outside court.

“This fight was never just for us. We are showing that the voices of survivors will not and cannot be silenced, no matter what the obstacles” she said.

“To any other survivors in this nightmare, you are never alone, we are all behind you.”

Wearing a light blue prison jumpsuit, Leifer was mostly impassive as she watched proceedings via video link from a nearby maximum security prison.

Judge Gamble described her as a “serious sexual offender” who had shown a “callous indifference” to the suffering of her victims. 

She will not be eligible for parole for 11 years.

The offences spanned from 2004 to 2007 when Leifer was in charge of the Addass Israel School in Melbourne and the two sisters were teenagers. 

The school is part of a reclusive Jewish sect on the outskirts of the city.

“It was a life in which Jewish laws and customs were very important and strictly adhered to,” Gamble said.

Gamble said this stifling environment, and Leifer’s high standing in the Addass community, made it extremely difficult for the sisters to come forward.  

– ‘Professional and proper’ –

According to an indictment, Leifer assaulted one of the sisters in 2006 after inviting her home to “sleep over for kallah lessons” — a kind of pre-wedding etiquette class that includes sexual education. 

On other occasions, Leifer told the students she was preparing them to be wives, prosecutors told the court earlier this year. 

“This will help you for your wedding night,” Leifer said after one sexual assault, according to Lewis. 

“This is what is good for you,” she allegedly said during another incident. 

Leifer fled Australia in 2008 after one of the sisters told her therapist about the sexual assaults. 

She eventually settled in the ultra-orthodox Emmanuel settlement in the occupied West Bank.

Australian police filed charges against her in 2012 and requested her extradition from Israel two years later, sparking a lengthy legal battle. 

Leifer claimed that crippling depression had left her catatonic and that she was mentally incapable of standing trial. 

The extradition process was suspended — until a private investigator secretly filmed Leifer going about her daily chores, apparently unafflicted by the mental illnesses she claimed. 

Defence lawyer Ian Hill previously said Leifer denied “all of the criminal conduct alleged by each of the complainants” and that her interactions with the students were “professional and proper”. 


Originally published as ‘Callous’ headmistress jailed for abuse at Australian Jewish school

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