“You have to be as normal as possible so you don’t have black marks against your name, so that you can get married, and your children can get married,” Dassi Erlich explained to me the first time we met, at a café in Melbourne. “As soon as you have mental illness, sexual abuse, someone going off the derech”—off the religious path—“in the family, you start having black marks against your name. And when you’re not from a very wealthy family, those marks mean a lot.”
Growing up as one of seven siblings in an ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, home in Ripponlea, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, Erlich knew about black marks. She was born with a whole mess of them. “A, my mother is Sephardi,” she said. “B, my parents joined the community as adults, they didn’t grow up in it. C, my parents are not wealthy. So growing up, my mother drilled into us that we had to be perfect students, because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t get married. … No matter what was going on, we knew we would face severe punishment if we didn’t get A’s in everything.” The severe punishment to which she is referring included being denied food and locked for extended periods in a dark cupboard under the stairs. “We were absolutely petrified to explain to anyone what was going on at home because we knew that would be used against us,” Erlich told the television news program Australian Story. An abusive home was another black mark.
That indoctrination into the need for secrecy, from her earliest years, would seem to make Erlich the unlikeliest of candidates to be a whistleblower, or to stand up in any way against the powerful inner sanctum of her Jewish community. Yet she and two of her sisters have accused Malka Leifer, a 52-year-old mother of eight and their former principal at the Adass Israel School, of sexual assault and rape. It’s a case that has shaken the Australian Haredi world, and had reverberations well beyond it. With Leifer’s flight to Israel, where no significant progress has been made for the past seven years on Australia’s request to extradite her, the case has, ironically, become a cautionary tale of why a victim of child sexual abuse might decide never to come forward. Erlich and her sisters have fought for years, lost the whole world they knew, and still may never get anything that they consider justice.
Of all the stories of sexual abuse in Australia’s religious Jewish community, this story of justice frustrated is hardly the most frustrating. It’s just the most obviously ludicrous. And the one most likely to inspire cynicism. Erlich, 32, went public with her story first, in early 2017. She was joined later by her sisters, Nicole Meyer, 33, and Elly Sapper, 30. Leifer, the revered principal, has never answered these charges in Australia. Rather, over a decade ago, she fled Melbourne for Israel, under the cover of night, using an airline ticket quickly purchased by Adass Israel School. Seven years ago, Australia made an extradition request to Israel for Leifer to be returned to face 74 charges of child sexual abuse.
Currently held in Neve Tirza women’s prison, Leifer continues to fight her extradition. There have been 62 procedural hearings in Israel so far, mostly in the Jerusalem District Court, which have resulted in little progress. That could be coming to an end, finally. Last Thursday, Jan. 9, a panel of psychiatrists reportedly found that Leifer is fit to stand trial, despite her lawyers’ arguments that she is mentally ill. Its report will be presented to the Jerusalem District Court today, Jan. 14. “That means,” The Times of Israel reported, that “the ultra-Orthodox former teacher wanted for more than 70 sexual offenses in Australia could face extradition soon, after years of court proceedings.”
The case of Malka Leifer shows how her supporters, in Australia and communities around the world, have played on dysfunction within the Israeli political and criminal justice systems to keep judgment for a possible rapist at bay. It also shows how certain sections of the Haredi establishment continue to control their narrative by shunning people who report these crimes, labeling them moserim, informers—Jews who would destroy the community from within, selling it out to secular authorities. Whatever happens now, even if Leifer is finally returned to face the criminal charges—and her accusers—victims will think twice about reporting the crimes against them.
Of course, Erlich has no reservations. “It’s that belief that I’m doing the right thing—there’s a bigger purpose,” she told me, when I asked what kept her fighting over these years. “This is not just about the campaign to extradite Leifer anymore. It’s about so much more than that.”
The Melbourne Adass Israel School, where Erlich and her sisters say they were sexually abused by Malka Leifer, was founded in 1953 to serve a deeply insular strain of Australian Haredi Jewry, many of whose members descend from, or are themselves, Holocaust survivors. The approximately 200 families who today constitute the Adass Israel community do most of their living within a single square half-mile, a micropocket of Melbourne suburbia close to the neighborhoods where much of Melbourne’s broader Jewish community resides. In Erlich’s childhood home, there was no television, radio, internet, secular books, newspapers, or magazines. “Not even a sales catalogue entered the home,” Justice Jack Rush noted, in 2015, in his civil judgment awarding Erlich more than 1 million Australian dollars (roughly US$700,000) in damages against Leifer and the Adass Israel School. Students were only allowed to read Jewish books from the school library that had been vetted to exclude anything concerning a relationship between a male and a female.
At Adass Israel, Leifer, recruited from Israel for the position of headmistress in 2000, was lionized. It was considered a privilege to be the student selected to stand in the spotlight of her attention. Erlich was 15 when Leifer started pulling her out of class to give her private lessons in her office and then at her home. She said this is when the alleged sexual abuse started.
“I didn’t say anything,” Erlich has recalled, of the abuse, which allegedly continued over the next three years, later under the guise of teaching her about marriage. “I didn’t move. There was just this heavy, heavy silence in the room.” She would discover later that Leifer had also been abusing her older sister, Nicole, and her younger sister, Elly.
At 18, Erlich married a man selected by her parents and moved with him to Israel for his religious study. She struggled to become pregnant, suffered a miscarriage, became increasingly depressed. She began seeing a therapist to whom she disclosed, for the first time, Leifer’s alleged actions. The therapist did not initially believe her, yet when she explained that her sisters had also been abused, the therapist relayed the claims to a colleague in the Melbourne Adass community.
Back in Melbourne, on the night of March 5, 2008, a group that included the president of the Adass school board, a lawyer, a psychologist, and a teacher met at a private home. The group was aware of at least eight allegations against Leifer involving girls at the school, and they put those allegations to Leifer, who was on speakerphone. Leifer vehemently denied them all. “You have destroyed my reputation, I’m not going to stand for this,” she said, before being informed by the group that she was being fired as headmistress.
However, the reasons that were strong enough to immediately remove Leifer from her position were not considered sufficiently important to report to the police.
And so, that same night, hours after this meeting concluded, a member of the school community asked a local travel agent to book Leifer a plane ticket to Israel. The payment for that ticket was reimbursed by the school. By 1:20 a.m., Leifer and four of her children were on a plane. Joined later in Israel by her husband, Jacob, a rabbi, Leifer settled into the clean morning of a new life in the West Bank, where for the next four years she lived, unsupervised.
Signs of post-traumatic stress disorder began to surface in 2009. Erlich had returned to Melbourne pregnant but deeply frightened by her lack of emotional response to impending motherhood. It only got worse after her daughter was born. Assailed by flashbacks, she was self-harming, suicidal; her marriage broke down. With divorce proceedings and a child custody battle ahead of her, she was admitted to a mental health clinic with her baby and one suitcase. And though it sounds like rock bottom, this was when life, in some ways, began. Erlich’s ex-husband has declined to comment for this article.
“I got my first taste of the outside world,” Erlich said, explaining how she began searching the internet and reading books that had previously been forbidden. “Talking to other moms [at the mental health clinic for post-natal issues], there was this very sudden dispelling of all these things I had grown up with. Dogma—I don’t know how else to describe it. The Adass community have this super superiority attitude. Like, ‘We are better than everyone else. … Everyone else is beneath us.’ Those are the things you’re brought up with.” Interacting with the other mothers dispelled those assumptions. “‘They’re not drug addicts, they’re not alcoholics,’” she thought to herself. “‘They’re just good people. … What else have I been taught that’s wrong?’”
She was surprised to find two other women from the Adass community at the clinic. They told her that they’d been admitted multiple times. “They were people I grew up with. I would have never, ever known. They were worried that I was going to say something to someone.” Hearing the other women’s fears forced her to confront her own. “I knew that I didn’t want to be in a community where [being treated at the clinic] was seen as a black mark against my name, and I didn’t want my daughter growing up in a community where she was punished because that was what I did. I decided I wasn’t going to allow that to happen to my daughter. So that’s when I decided to leave.”
It was at this point that Erlich started considering legal action against Leifer. She knew that if she went ahead, there would be no returning to the only life she had ever known. But although she lacked the language to describe the physical acts that had been forced on her, she forged ahead anyway, making a statement to police. In 2012, Australia submitted its extradition request to Israel. In 2014, Leifer was arrested in Israel, placed under house arrest instead of in jail while awaiting an extradition hearing.
Criminal proceedings against Leifer cannot progress until she returns to Australia to answer the 74 charges against her. However, Erlich was able to successfully proceed with a civil suit in her absence. In September 2015, the Supreme Court of Victoria, in Melbourne, ordered Leifer and the Adass Israel School, which it found both directly and vicariously liable for the abuse due to the extent of power and control it had given Leifer, to pay damages to Erlich. The school was ordered to pay $1,024,000 in compensatory damages for pain and suffering, loss of earnings, and medical expenses, plus $100,000 in exemplary damages, punitive in nature, for arranging Leifer’s departure without informing the police. Leifer was ordered to pay $150,000 in exemplary damages.
“The evidence discloses the sole motivation of Leifer in her dealings with the plaintiff was for her own sexual gratification,” Rush, the judge, wrote. He found that the school’s conduct in orchestrating Leifer’s speedy departure was most likely motivated by a deliberate flouting of the state’s criminal jurisdiction. “The conduct amounts to disgraceful and contumelious behaviour demonstrating a complete disregard for Leifer’s victims, of which the plaintiff was one. The conduct demonstrates a disdain for due process of criminal investigation in this State.”
After winning her lawsuit, Erlich started a public campaign to bring Leifer back to Australia. Where did it come from, I wondered, that inward compass that pointed her past the shame and the fear, through the concentric circles of disclosure until she was speaking, eventually, to the world? I put that question to her at the café in Melbourne.
“It started with that first reporter knocking on the door,” she told me. Although she initially slammed the door on Cameron Stewart, a journalist for The Australian newspaper, she eventually decided to let him in. “Something my daughter said to me made me realize that if no one does anything, Malka Leifer is going to continue abusing people in Israel. … She was living as a free woman, and I heard that she was teaching again. That made me so angry. And I was like, ‘If I can do something about it, I’m going to do something.’”
Yes, a free woman: In June 2016, Judge Amnon Cohen in the Jerusalem District Court accepted defense arguments that Leifer was mentally unwell and lifted the conditions of her 2014 house arrest, allowing her to walk free. He suspended the extradition proceedings on the grounds that she was mentally unfit, ruling that she would not face an extradition hearing until completing psychiatric treatment at an undetermined future time. She was required only to appear every six months before a medical board which would determine whether she should keep receiving psychiatric treatment.
Erlich met with organizers at Tzedek, a victims’ rights organization, who told her that they had received no response to letters they had been sending out about the situation to politicians. “So I thought I’d give it a try,” she said. “The first thing was to own my story.” She started speaking with Stewart, whose article was published in early 2017. The public response was overwhelmingly positive—except from certain predictable quarters.
“Adass were very angry at me,” she recalled. “I heard different comments about what people were saying. Everyone was discussing it around their Shabbat tables.”
Within the community, the charge that a revered teacher—somebody everyone knew, and many people loved—was also a sexual abuser seemed simply absurd. It did not make sense, not given what people knew about Leifer, and not given what they fervently believed about the morality of their Torah-based world. For example, Erlich said that “a couple people” called her up to ask why she was doing what she was doing. “Like, ‘Why are you throwing Adass under the bus?’ My response was, ‘I’m not throwing Adass under the bus. I’m stating facts. This is what happened. If you owned up to your responsibility about what happened, and proved to the broader Jewish community that you have changed, and are doing everything you can to protect the children in your community, that’s all that people expect from you.’”
Erlich kept at it. She set up the #BringLeiferBack campaign page on Facebook. “It started very slowly,” she said. “I made an effort to meet with every single community organization that had anything to do with Israel or represented the Melbourne Jewish community. For the most part they were quite receptive, but I felt like it was lip service. I felt there was quite a bit of reservation in regards to how it would make Israel look if they supported me.” She believes that things started to change when Mark Leibler, a prominent Jewish Melbourne lawyer, wrote an article supporting the campaign. “It was like a switch had flicked on,” she told me, explaining that some in the larger community were initially hesitant to support her campaign out of fear that it might attract criticism about Israel or its justice system. She said it made her think, “‘Well, if Leibler can approve of this, as Zionistic as he is, then we can.’” With that tacit demonstration that it was possible to both support Israel and criticize its failures at the same time, Erlich says that the resistance faded into the background.
Next, she decided to try to take her case to the Australian prime minister. Her first email to his office went nowhere. “I thought, ‘OK, it’s not the answer I want, so I’m going to find a different answer.’” The Executive Council of Australian Jewry then sent a request on her behalf and received an invitation in reply. In autumn 2017, accompanied by her sister Elly Sapper, Erlich met with then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The timing was opportune; Turnbull was about to attend the Israeli-Australia Beersheba Commemoration. He promised he would raise the issue with the Israeli prime minister. Having gone as high as it was possible to go in Australia, Erlich turned her attention to Israel, going to Canberra to meet with the Jewish state’s ambassador.
The work, however, was taking a toll. Though supported by her siblings, she was still the sole public face of the campaign, which was draining. Then, at the end of 2017, her two sisters, Meyer and Sapper, decided to go public with their own stories. The three sisters traveled to Israel, meeting with the Israeli prime minister at the Beersheba event. Followed by television crews from the Australian Broadcasting Company and an Israeli station, they met with the heads of Jewish organizations and Israeli politicians, and they went to the Knesset. The justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, assured them that if extradition papers came through the courts to her desk, she would sign them.
Meanwhile, Leifer was still living as a free woman, deemed so mentally ill that she required a daily caretaker. “We met with the state prosecutor, and said to them, ‘What’s happening here? We know a hundred percent this is untrue,’” Erlich said. They showed the lawyers a photograph of Leifer attending a festival celebration; the picture had gone viral a few months before. “We said, ‘This is her running around having a normal life.’”
While in Israel, the sisters met with Jewish Community Watch (JCW), a nonprofit support and advocacy organization founded and run by primary and secondary victims from the Orthodox community. “When we were founded, no one was talking about this,” Shana Aaronson, JCW’s chief operating officer, explained. “Sexual abuse in the Orthodox community—it wasn’t just a matter of being taboo, a lot genuinely believed that it just didn’t happen that often. But then even if it did, you just didn’t talk about it.”
JCW hired a private investigator, Tzafrir Tzahi, to look into Leifer’s claims that she was too unwell to function normally. For two weeks near the end of 2017, Tzahi filmed Leifer interacting normally in Emmanuel, the settlement in the northern West Bank where she was living. “She does the shopping,” he stated, “hosts her children on Shabbat, goes to the grocery store, goes to the post office, speaks a lot on the cellphone, laughs, converses with people—nothing that could indicate a problem with her daily functioning.” He watched her pay bills, and travel alone to Bnei Brak.
Responding to the footage, released in early 2018, Leifer’s attorney, Yehuda Fried, told The Jerusalem Post that her mental health issues did not prevent basic functioning such as shopping and traveling, but that stressful situations could lead to an eruption of symptoms which severely debilitate her.
Following the release of the footage, Interpol requested an undercover police investigation; the results cast further doubt on Leifer’s claims. She was rearrested in February 2018. In early March of that year, however, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that Leifer could be released from custody and again placed on house arrest. Rabbi Yitzhak Grossman, the recipient of the prestigious 2004 Israel Prize, had appeared in court and told the judge that Leifer should be placed under house arrest with his supervision, arguing it was “humiliating” and bad for her mental health to remain in jail. After a burst of community outrage, Grossman retracted his support, the ruling was overturned, and Leifer was remanded to the women’s prison in Ramle, where she remains.
A major arbiter of Malka Leifer’s mental state has been Jerusalem psychiatrist Jacob Charnes, who throughout the ordeal has seemed to have trouble making up his mind about what he was seeing. In April 2015, Charnes had signed off on an opinion that Leifer was fit to face an extradition hearing. In December 2015, he signed off on a subsequent opinion with the opposite conclusion. When Leifer was rearrested in 2018, and state psychiatrists finalized an updated legal opinion finding her fit for extradition proceedings, Charnes refused to sign off on it for several months, but eventually did so. However, when cross-examined by the defense on that evaluation later in 2018, instead of making a determination, Charnes recommended that yet another panel be convened.
In November 2018, Erlich, Sapper, and Meyer traveled to Israel for the 42nd court date, hoping to face Leifer in that context for the first time at the hearing to determine her mental fitness. However, Judge Chana Lomp accepted a defense motion that appearing at the hearing would cause Leifer severe emotional stress and did not require her to attend. Lomp also ordered that the courtroom be closed to the public. The hearing began at 10 a.m., and at 5 p.m. the defense was still questioning district psychiatrist Igor Barash on his report deeming Leifer mentally fit. Lomp adjourned proceedings until late January.
The next day, reports surfaced that Leifer’s family had recruited a public relations firm to develop a campaign to prevent her extradition. Media strategist Ronen Tzur’s Rosenbaum Communications confirmed the campaign’s existence but clarified it had not yet been implemented, nor was it certain to happen. According to a slideshow obtained by the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, the campaign intended to frame Leifer as a “51-year-old grandmother” while claiming (without evidence) that Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked was a “rotten” and biased arbitrator with a “clear agenda that for every suspect who commits an offense, there is a presumption of innocence … provided you have close ties to her.”
In addition, the campaign proposed seeking to recruit a state psychiatrist willing to testify that Leifer was not fit to stand trial, and target the medical experts who had rejected the notion that her mental health should prevent her from extradition by seeking to file complaints against them for medical malpractice. “We will expose the despicable conduct of Minister Shaked in the Leifer case, the strange connection between the minister and crony capitalists in Australia, and the earth-shattering failures of the judicial system,” one of the slides stated.
In July 2019, an unspecified medical official confirmed to The Times of Israel that the medical panel ordered by the court had been gearing up to find that Leifer was feigning mental illness. The panel was set to reconvene on July 11, and its members given additional documents that had been requested before making a final decision. That date was delayed several times, with Leifer’s attorney, Yehuda Fried, calling in sick one week and going on vacation the next. When the sides did reconvene, the hearing was again adjourned following Fried’s successful request to remove a doctor he alleged held prejudices against Leifer. After the court recessed during August, the panel decided to defer its decision.
In August 2019, Israeli police recommended that Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, chairman of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, be indicted on fraud charges for pressuring staff in his office to change the conclusions of their psychiatric evaluations so that Leifer would be deemed unfit for extradition. An unspecified legal official confirmed to The Times of Israel that Charnes was among the officials allegedly pressured.
Further allegations against Litzman have been made. Israel’s Channel 13 news reported that he was alleged to have helped at least 10 serious sex offenders among the ultra-Orthodox secure improved conditions, including home visits, by pressuring psychiatrists and prison service employees. Through his office, Litzman denied allegations of blocking Leifer’s extradition, stating that his actions were legal and “for the good of the public.” “As far as Litzman is concerned, sexual delinquency and sexual abuse are like murder,” his office said. “There is and will be no forgiveness for it, and the place of sexual offenders is in prison without relief.”
Jews aren’t alone, or uniquely culpable, in not dealing properly with sexual assault. We’ve all heard of the scandals in the Catholic Church—and other religions have been hit, too. All religious hierarchies have a similar impulse, almost by nature; governments that are not of them—secular governments, or governments of another religion—can’t be trusted fully to understand them.
In 2013, in response to reports that child sexual abusers had been moved within the institutions to which they were attached instead of being reported to the police, the Australian government established the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Over the next five years, the commissioners examined in granular detail the history of child sexual abuse in Australia’s religious and nonreligious institutions, hearing evidence at 57 public hearings held around the country. They also held private sessions at which more than 8,000 personal stories of child sexual abuse were heard in a protective environment.
Testimony from the public hearings is available on the commission’s website. It will crack you like an egg. The commissioners examined the responses of the local Catholic Archdiocese, Anglican Archdiocese, the Salvation Army, the YMCA, the Boy Scouts. They heard evidence about the response of the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy to child sexual abuse complaints in their orphanages. They examined state government responses, police responses. Heard about abuse in youth detention centers, foster homes, homes for indigenous children, homes for disabled children. Abuse in schools run by the Marist Brothers, the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church—and in Yeshivah Melbourne and Yeshiva Bondi in Sydney, schools run by the Chabad sect of Hasidim.
The Adass Israel School was not investigated by the commission, and the Adass Israel and Chabad Lubavitch communities differ in many respects. Nevertheless, the evidence from the yeshiva hearings and the evidence in Erlich’s civil case exposed similar dynamics around power and silence when it came to reporting child sexual abuse—dynamics that were not unique to these Jewish institutions.
“There’s nothing unique about Yeshivah’s response when complaints began—denial and cover-up,” David Marr, an Australian journalist, observed in 2016. “All faiths pursue the same strategy to the same point—hide the criminals, save the institution.”
The sisters Dassi Erlich, Elly Sapper, and Nicole Meyer are close with each other and their siblings, but all have been disowned by their parents. Erlich, who maintains a religious home for her daughter under the terms of her custody agreement, said, “Moving away from the community was a decision I made. I was like, ‘I’m giving a police statement and I know if I remain within the community, my daughter is going to face the consequences.’” One of those consequences, she said, was that “the community was very supportive” in her husband getting custody of my daughter. “They got behind him.”
Growing up, Erlich scorned the few women who left the Adass community and wanted to take their children with them. “The fathers were fighting to keep the kids with them, and it was like, ‘Of course you should raise money for the fathers. The mothers have no right to their kids if they leave the community.’ That’s what I grew up supporting. You’d get these flyers for fundraisers for fathers who were trying to save their kids’ souls and we would say tehilim for them. I remember davening for these people. And now I look back and I’m like, ‘How fucked up is that?’ So I felt like I was fighting not just for my daughter, I was fighting against this whole system that I was less than now because I wasn’t religious and somehow I didn’t deserve to be a mother to my daughter because I wasn’t religious. And that persists today. That hasn’t changed.”
The experience of Erlich’s sister Nicole Meyer shows that remaining in the Orthodox community is no bar to being ostracized. Meyer describes herself as the ultra-Orthodox face of the Bring Leifer Back campaign. She’s raising her children in a Haredi setting, although, given her own history, she supervises them closely.
“Yeah, you’ll have most of the community scared to talk to you,” she said about her experience of reporting her alleged abuse and remaining religious. “In general, people are really uncomfortable and don’t know what to say so they don’t speak to me. I don’t mind, I’m happy to live this way, in accordance with my values.” From her perspective, significant change is still required in Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox communities.
She wonders, for example, where the rabbis are on this issue, where are the community leaders with the courage to stand with her and other victims. “In the ultra-Orthodox community, which I’m still part of, there has not been any steps taken to speak out in that way,” Meyer said. “It’s time for the ultra-Orthodox in Melbourne to step up and do something.”
The double violence of disclosure—where the betrayal of the community mirrored the betrayal by her alleged abuser—meant that Erlich was free to find her own understanding of Judaism. Her first act of rebellion, recovering in the mental health clinic, was to read the 1962 book Jews, God and History, by Max Dimont. “It was one of the most influential books for me,” she said. “It just explained Jewish history in a way that finally made sense.” She understood for the first time that Jews had not been alone in their experiences of persecution. I asked if she had heard about Martin Buber and she shook her head. I explained his philosophy that God exists in relationship; that is, in compassionate connections between people. She plucked a notebook and pen out of her handbag, wrote his name carefully inside.
Despite graduating from the Adass school with only sixth-grade proficiency in English, Erlich has since qualified as a nurse and is completing a postgraduate diploma in domestic violence. She has advised the state law reform commission on laws impacting victims and the state police on cultural matters. She is constantly supporting child sex abuse victims in their own battles against their abusers and communities, connecting them to support services. While recently leading a seminar for the police, she ran into the policewoman who first took her statement. “I just had this flashback,” Erlich said. “I was sitting across from her eight years earlier, not even able to say the word ‘vagina.’ I remember her saying I had to use the proper language and I didn’t know what the proper language was. You can’t say ‘she touched me down there.’ You have to say ‘she touched my vagina.’ I couldn’t get the words out. I was so ashamed and embarrassed, overwhelmed. Go forward to eight years later, sitting across from her, telling her and the police from several different stations how to interact with the Jewish community.”
At the 57th hearing, on Sept. 23, 2019, Judge Chana Lomp decided against ruling on Leifer’s fitness, referring the matter instead to another panel. Jacob Charnes, he of the waffling views on Leifer’s mental state, was slated to select the members of that panel.
“We did not see justice today,” Erlich posted on Facebook. “Five years, fifty-seven court hearings and over 30 psychiatrists have been involved in determining if Malka Leifer can understand her charges. … How much more emotional pain? We feel defeated but we will not give up.”
Erlich did not go to Israel for this hearing, but Manny Waks, a victim advocate who grew up in the Australian Chabad community, spending time at the Melbourne Yeshivah Centre, where he was sexually abused as a child, was in the courtroom that day; like Erlich, he is an outspoken advocate for victims. And he was cautiously optimistic, he told me later. He said that initially it was just him and a journalist or two at the Leifer proceedings, but at the latest hearing there was a considerable contingent of media and supporters wanting to show their solidarity with the sisters. So while much work remains to be done, he sensed a shift.
I asked him about the support that Leifer continues to receive. “She’s a retired school principal with many children. How can she afford some of the best lawyers and PR experts in the country?” he said. “There are still unanswered questions.”
There is no doubt in his mind, he said, that she is being supported financially by deep pockets in Australia, Israel, and who knows where else. He mentioned the appeal sent out by Yosef Direnfeld, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Ashdod, distributed in synagogues in February 2019, asking residents to donate to causes that, without mentioning anyone by name, sound like Leifer’s: “A personal and emotional request of all generous people. An important woman, the daughter of the great and righteous has been imprisoned for a long time under harsh and cruel conditions … for the purpose of extraditing her to a gentile state. … In order to save her, we need specialized lawyers whose costs amount to large sums.”
“There are many good people in these [Haredi] communities,” Waks said. “People who want to report, who want to question. But … if they decide to speak to authorities, they will face a range of consequences. Thinking from the ultra-Orthodox perspective, it’s all for one primary reason—to bring the moshiach here”—the messiah. “From their perspective, they are protecting their community. They are trying to instill their interpretation of the commandments and all means are acceptable to that end. … They genuinely feel like they’re doing it for the right cause.”
He said that whether sexual abuse occurs in or outside of the home, the same arguments are made to justify hushing everything up. “The second and third generation Holocaust mentality—we don’t want to incite anti-Semitism, don’t want to give them fodder. Some want to do the right thing. Others want to tick the boxes,” but show “nowhere near the commitment they show in dealing with other issues, particularly anti-Semitism and security threats. … Where are the resources, the guarantees? In Australia it’s been imposed on them because of the Royal Commission but there needs to be a higher level commitment amongst Jewish leadership. Mexico, South America, South Africa, America, Israel. It’s everywhere and the trend is identical.”
“We still haven’t received an apology from the school,” Elly Sapper, the youngest sister, told me. “There’s been progress in leaps and bounds in the broader Jewish community, but while there has been a shift of awareness amongst the ultra-Haredi, we’re not at the place where we can say the work has been done. Do people feel like they will be supported in the community once they disclose? No, I don’t think so. … The children and adults in the community who have been through similar things don’t feel like there is a place for them to voice these issues.”
Following the Sept. 23 decision, Leifer’s attorney applied to the district court for bail. A hearing was scheduled for Oct. 2, 2019, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—during the Ten Days of Repentance, during which Jews traditionally practice teshuvah, seeking to make things right. When the time came, the judge approved the bail application, releasing Leifer to house arrest.
The response from the broader Australian Jewish community was immediate, and explosive. “This circus has gone on long enough,” said Jeremy Leibler, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia (and Mark Leibler’s son). Anton Block, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said that “so many aspects of this case are simply scandalous.” Israel’s ambassador to Australia, Mark Sofer, tweeted, “There are very many in Israel, including the State Prosecution, who find the recent legal decisions regarding Malka Leifer incomprehensible and are working avidly to overturn them.”
The following day, both sides filed appeals against the ruling to release Leifer to house arrest: The defense sought her unrestricted release, while the prosecution moved for her to remain in custody. The appeal was heard later that afternoon. Waks hurried to the courtroom to sit under the domed white ceiling, live-blogging the proceedings for the sisters who learn what is happening, line by line, near midnight in Melbourne. The prosecution team entered first, sitting at the bar table, curving in an arc toward the bench where Justice Anat Baron would soon sit between two Israeli flags. Tal Gabbay, one of Leifer’s two attorneys, appeared, followed by Yehuda Fried with Leifer’s family. Waks wrote that the tension in the room was palpable. “This court seems a lot more serious,” he observed, compared to the previous proceedings in the District Court.
The prosecution made two arguments. First, in considering the bail application, Judge Ram Vinograd failed to give weight to the June psychiatric assessment finding Leifer fit for the extradition hearing. Moreover, in February 2018, Vinograd had found sufficient evidence to hold her in custody with no relevant changes since. Second, the prosecution argued that there were risks associated with releasing Leifer to house arrest. Gabbay responded that there was no justification for holding her in prison, that when she was previously released to house arrest, the prosecution had not appealed and that the question regarding her mental state is unsettled but professional opinions exist that she is unwell.
At the end of the arguments, Baron said she would render her decision soon. Leifer remained in jail—and stayed there after Baron returned the following week and announced that the lower court’s decision to release her was overturned.
The next hearing, the 60th, was held on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. Its purpose was to determine the makeup of the next psychiatric panel. Government attorney Yuval Kaplinsky argued that the case had gone on for too long; that if Israel expects other countries to honor extradition agreements, it must do the same. In her ruling, Judge Lomp accepted the state’s argument that Jacob Charnes should not select the three psychiatrists. In his place, District Psychiatrist Uzi Shai was appointed. The panel was required to hand down its recommendation by Dec. 10.
“We are holding on to these small steps,” Sapper said.
On Dec. 3, Leifer’s lawyers filed an appeal in the Supreme Court against the District Court’s decision to compel Leifer to be examined by the panel.
On Dec. 4, that appeal was dismissed, with Leifer to be assessed by the panel on Dec. 5.
On Dec. 10, Judge Lomp informed a packed courtroom that the panel of psychiatrists had stated that it was unaware of the day’s hearing. That is, a three-member expert panel convened by a court, for the sole purpose of conducting a high-profile assessment for that court ahead of a hearing date identified three months in advance, was apparently unaware of its deadline. The hearing was postponed until Jan. 14.
On Dec. 29, the government of Israel approved the reappointment of Yaakov Litzman, the rabbi under investigation for blocking Leifer’s extradition by pressuring his staff to change their psychiatric evaluations of her, as health minister.
“Justice has come!” the sisters stated when news that the psychiatric panel had found Leifer mentally fit broke last week. On Jan. 14, the court will officially consider that report. If it is taken as conclusive, the next step will be the extradition hearing. However, it must first survive challenges by Leifer’s defense. “We expect the court to … reject this legal opinion, which we’ll address in court,” Yehuda Fried stated. Neither Fried nor Tal Gabbay, Leifer’s lawyers, replied when approached for comment on this story.
The experiences of Erlich and her sisters show how much is broken in the administration of Israeli criminal justice—and in the social fabric of certain ultra-Orthodox communities, where victims have faced harsher social consequences than their admitted abusers. It is hard to be optimistic about the structural and psychological changes required to redress past instances of child sexual abuse and prevent future ones.
For the time being, Erlich is not deterred. “At the end of the day it comes down to control,” she said. “Whether you’re going to allow life events to control you or whether you’re going to do everything in your power to resist.” She is, of course, a person of unusual fortitude, buoyed by two sisters who have joined her in the fight—and by many others. Regardless of the outcome of today’s hearing, while Erlich may have started out alone, that is not where she has ended up. “If we didn’t have such amazing support from so many people across the world, I don’t think we could continue going,” she says.
But it is in the nature of insular communities that the victims of crimes sexual and otherwise feel that there is no support, can never be support. When they reach out to a relative or trusted teacher in the community, they are accused of wrecking shalom bayit, peace in the home; when they reach out to secular authorities, they are something worse, informers. It’s the tragedy of the sisters Erlich, Meyer, and Sapper that they overcame all those reasons to say nothing, told everyone, and still have not had their day in court. Although, given their optimistic nature, on such a day as this, they might add, “yet.”
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