Michaela McGuire, Charismatic school principal Malka Leifer was adored within a strict Jewish sect in Melbourne’s east. Despite whispers of inappropriate acts with students, it was years before her dark secrets were exposed., SBS
“My childhood was very difficult,” Sarah* says, in a matter-of-fact way. Now in her mid-20s, she has a quiet voice, but speaks with a forceful elegance.
“I just knew that when my mother hit me and when she screamed at me, I couldn’t tell anyone. For anybody to know would be the scariest thing.
“We weren’t allowed to go to the toilet. We weren’t allowed to sleep, or we had to sleep in the way she wanted us to. We’d go to bed and she’d decide she wanted some food made for her in the middle of the night, so she’d wake up. But we had to be dressed in a certain way.”
Sarah and her siblings would dress in socks, dresses, dressing gowns; layer upon layer, so that they appeared “modest”.
“She’d wake us up, just as we’d fallen asleep, make us get her food, and then go back to bed. Ten minutes later, she’d wake us up because she wanted a glass of water.”
At the age of 10, Sarah gave up on the idea of ever having a normal childhood.
“I knew what that looked like, though,” she says. “I’d go to friends’ houses and see how their mothers would feed them, how they would look at them and give them hugs.”
None of the children were exempt from abuse, but Sarah and her youngest brother suffered most. They were also the darkest-skinned and looked more like their mother.
“She used to tell us all the time how ugly we were,” says Sarah, “and how she wished we would die.”
The children “self-diagnosed” their mother as having borderline personality disorder.
“There was no love, there were no hugs, there was no encouragement. It was basically trying to survive.”
Sarah says her mother routinely hit her until she turned 16 and was “very smart about it”, hitting her in places covered by her clothes – places even an observant teacher wouldn’t notice.
“A teacher with the right knowledge would be able to see that we looked… haunted,” Sarah says.
That teacher was Malka Leifer.
“I would say it took her about two years to work her magic,” Sarah says.
Malka Leifer was principal of the ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel School in Elsternwick, Melbourne from 2002 to 2008, a pillar of her tight-knit community. At 48, Leifer was, according to parents of former students, recruited specifically because of her ultra-Orthodox beliefs.
At the time of her appointment, she was widely regarded within the community to be its second-holiest member, behind spiritual leader Rabbi Avrohom Zvi Beck.
A scholar of Biblical texts, Jewish law and Hasidic philosophy, Leifer is a mother of eight. But evidence given earlier this year in a civil case in the Victorian Supreme Court portrayed her as a calculating, predatory paedophile.
“She knew exactly when to do it,” alleges Sarah.
“It was all planned. Slowly, when she set herself up in the community and had their love and respect, at the point when such a thing would never enter their minds, that’s when she started.”
Sarah claims she was systematically abused by Leifer for years, along with “seven or eight” other female students.
“I don’t know how I could explain how charming she was,” says Sarah.
“The community absolutely respected and loved her. They basically treated her like God.”
“The way she played her game was… she’d start by calling you out of class, in the middle of a lesson, and would sit with you and ask you how you were doing, how you were feeling. When I finally, eventually opened up to her and told her that things were really bad, that’s when she made her move.”
Sarah says she heard whispers about Leifer’s relationships with other students, but was not equipped to comprehend the implications behind the rumours.
“I heard little things, but I didn’t really understand. All I knew was that at school if she likes you… that’s what you should aim for.”
Adass Israel is a strain of Hasidism, a movement which was founded in the 18th century by Jewish mystics and quickly became a populist alternative to traditional Judaism. The Hasidim, or “pious ones,” are an ultra-Orthodox movement with a focus on self-preservation.
After generations of persecution, many Hasidic Jews today are second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors, who take quite literally the Lord’s order to “be fruitful and multiply”, to replenish a devastated population. Today, Australia has the second-highest population of Holocaust survivors per capita in the world.
The insularity of the movement is, in part, born of the caution that comes of a history shaped by adversity. It’s also the product of a rich cultural heritage and religious strength that has allowed it, and others like it throughout the diaspora, to flourish and bring new prosperity – both to itself, and to its adopted home of Melbourne. That same insularity has also allowed it to harbour dark secrets. Growing up in the Adass community, Sarah tells me, is to grow up in a culture of humiliation and shame, particularly centred around the body.
Sexual education exists only in the form of a special lesson administered by a community member – with a strict focus on procreation – after a young man or woman is already engaged.
Sarah recalls reading Enid Blyton books at school, where every third or fourth paragraph would be missing a word. Sarah read the whole of The Magic Faraway Tree without knowing the names of two main characters: Dick and Fanny.
“We wouldn’t have even known what ‘Dick’ was supposed to mean, because we didn’t know what a dick was,” she tells me. “Their crossing it out only made us more inquisitive, but biology wasn’t even a subject.”
Outside school, a few of Sarah’s classmates had read different books without their parents’ consent and they shared with friends what they had learned.
“We knew that a penis goes into a vagina when you get married,” she recalls. “And I remember a friend saying, ‘There’s no fucking way I’m letting that near me’.”
Sarah grimaces. “I also said that I was never going to let that happen.”
Without sex education, Sarah had no defence against sexual predators.
“I’ve always wanted to share my story,” Sarah tells me on a particularly bleak morning, over three cups of strawberry tea. But it has taken her seven years to feel comfortable doing so.
I ask about her earliest memory.
“When people ask me my memories of my childhood, the good things don’t come to my mind,” she says. “I try not to dwell on that too much. The main good thing about my childhood was having my siblings. If I didn’t have them, I probably wouldn’t be alive.”
She talks about being eight years old.
“We used to go on family holidays and we couldn’t go to the beach because it wasn’t modest enough. Or we’d walk down the street in summer and everyone else would be in shorts and singlets, and we’d be wearing long dresses and tights.
“I remember thinking even at that age that I didn’t want to be different, I just wanted to be the same as everyone else,” she says.
Sarah’s entire universe was contained in one suburb: “We went to Carnegie once, and that felt like going to the end of the world.”
Her parents had moved to Australia fleeing disapproval of their marriage, and soon started a family. “Then they decided to become religious, and they went all the way to the extreme,” Sarah says.
“I think a lot of that shift has to do with my mother’s extreme nature,” Sarah says. “She needed to grab onto something and when she encountered someone from our community who was really kind to her, she decided they were the type of people she wanted to be around.”
Sarah believes her mother’s urge to fit in prompted her to join the community.
“Only if you become so extreme can you become one of them,” she says.
“There’s no middle ground. You’re either extreme or you aren’t part of the community.”
When Sabbath begins on Friday evenings, what is already the quietest neighbourhood in Eastern Melbourne becomes almost eerily silent. Restaurants close down, cars are parked in driveways where they remain for the next 24 hours, and families gather indoors to feast and to pray, shutting out the white noise of contemporary life even more resolutely.
Without the internet, television, media or movies, she says, “you don’t have much to talk about.” Sarah characterises the community as “a world of nothing”.
“What do they talk about? Who has the nicest car. Who has the nicest house. Who has the nicest clothes. I find all that stuff really trivial.”
“It sounds very… strict,” I offer.
Sarah corrects me. “It was a cult.”
The Adass community is the most insular of the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox spectrum of Jews. Melbourne’s Jewish communities have long dominated the Eastern suburbs of St Kilda East, Balaclava and Caulfield; the Adass community is confined to a small grid bordered by Brighton, Orrong, Balaclava and Glenhuntly Roads.
The concept of an eruv encircles this boundary: all buildings within are ritually integrated into a private domain where residents may carry objects that are otherwise forbidden to be held on the Sabbath: prams, house keys, tissues, medicine and babies.
They have their own telephone directory, schools, ambulance service, synagogue, shops, cemetery, bathhouses, security patrols and rabbinical court system.
Male “Adassniks” have long, dark beards and wear black silk coats that reach their knees over white pantaloons and stockings. Twin sideburn ringlets curl down beneath enormous mink fur hats. Female members of the community wear thick tights, long skirts and loose blouses. Married women wear wigs, in keeping with the law that their heads must be covered for modesty’s sake.
Adass Israel School is responsible for the education of 600 students from preschool to year 12. The girls’ and boys’ campuses are strictly segregated, separated by a two-minute walk and gated security. The VCE curriculum that is the benchmark for university entry is not offered: boys leave around the age of 16 to pursue religious education, while girls complete a vocational certificate – if they aren’t married off beforehand.
Mornings are dedicated to Jewish history and scripture. Three hours in the afternoons are spent studying maths and science.
“I was very under-stimulated and very under-challenged,” Sarah says. “Kids would play up because they didn’t care about secular subjects, because their parents kept instilling ‘this is not important, you don’t need to know this,’ because you get married and then that’s it. You won’t ever get a degree because you don’t need one.”
The only boys with whom Sarah had contact growing up were in her immediate family: “We didn’t have cousins here, and even if we did have cousins, we wouldn’t have been allowed to talk to them.”
Much of the wealth within the community of 2000 Adass Jews comes from inheritance, Sarah tells me.
“Most of the elderly in the community came to Australia after World War Two and set up textile and manufacturing businesses. The rest of the community is bred from these heads of the community – cousins marry first cousins and second cousins – and everyone is basically related.”
“It’s very feudal,” Sarah explains. “Heads of the community lay down the network to support all their kids and grandchildren, so most of the community is living off their parents’ or grandparents’ money, or working in their businesses. One person would own the meat, so his children and grandchildren would own all the meat. Another would own the fish.”
Malka Leifer became principal at Adass Israel School when Sarah was in Year Seven. The current principal, Professor Israel Herszberg, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Leifer had eight school-aged children — seven sons and a daughter. “It was really cool that we had her mother as principal,” Sarah says. Leifer taught Year 10 and up, so although Sarah didn’t have much to do with her yet, her older sisters “didn’t stop talking about her”.
The students’ attitude towards Leifer was a potent mix of fear and respect. To be greeted “hello” by Leifer, says Sarah, was “just amazing”. Intensely charismatic, Leifer spent her first two years at the school ingratiating herself to the community and, according to Sarah, didn’t touch a student during this time.
“You just wanted her to like you,” says Sarah. “You really, really wanted her attention . You wanted her to give your time.”
“She was very intelligent, she had a very good way with words. She was very good at listening, so you really thought… she was giving you all the time in the world and that she really cared about you.”
“I see it like a chess game,” says Sarah.
Sarah alleges Leifer began abusing her during Year 12, by which time there were only about half a dozen other girls in her class.
Her teacher’s game, says Sarah, involved “a really long, emotional ride” as much as anything else. She recalls Leifer acting like a teenaged girl herself towards the students who had fallen out of her favour: “She’d drop you, and not speak to you for a week.”
The time that this happened to Sarah was one of the longest and loneliest weeks of her life: “After that time, I’d be hanging out for her attention. It was like being in a relationship.”
“This is where I’m saying it’s calculated. She didn’t pick the girls who came from stable homes: she picked the girls who were vulnerable who she knew, when she eventually abused them, wouldn’t go home and tell their mothers.”
Having taught Sarah’s older sisters, Leifer already suspected what sort of home environment she came from. It began when Sarah was called out of class in the middle of a lesson one day. Leifer asked her how she was feeling, and continued to foster this closeness for some time.
“She got me at my weakest point, and got me to open up and be vulnerable. Then, she set out to make me believe that she was going to be the one to save me. And of course, at the time, I did. I wanted to, because I just wanted to get out of that situation, and she was the one offering that kind of support.”
Today, Sarah identifies Leifer’s manipulations as textbook “grooming”: a series of private meetings, a period of growing closeness and trust, lavish praise alternating with sharp rebukes, and, finally, demands for sexual acts.
“It was very slow,” says Sarah. “Once she got my trust, she’d start sitting across the table from me, but then the next time she’d come and sit next to me. It was painstakingly slow. It would be a hand on the leg, or a hand on the shoulder until, eventually…”
Sarah pauses, admitting that even now it’s hard for her to talk about. Instead, she offers to share some of what she’s written, saying it’s easier to get the words out on a page.
Sarah’s journals do not directly document the sexual abuse she suffered; rather, an entry titled “Dear Teacher” contains line after line in which a young woman struggles to understand how she had allowed herself to be so vulnerable: “I came to you hoping to find a mother figure, I came hoping I could learn how to trust again, I came to you believing that you would help me. You portrayed warmth, understanding and love, all of which I was yearning for.”
Elsewhere, she writes: “I felt so special and wanted, and my vulnerable mind did not stop to think why: why me, out of everyone?”
In May this year, another former student of Leifer’s brought a civil suit in the Supreme Court of Melbourne against Leifer and Adass Israel School, suing the school for damages stemming from the abuse she allegedly suffered at the hands of the former principal. Over the course of the two-week trial, the court heard evidence that the abuse began in 2002, when the victim was 15 years old, and occurred up to three times a week.
In a damning judgment, Justice Jack Rush said that “the students were vulnerable and Leifer was able to conduct herself with unrestrained power and control within the school.”
Evidence was given from former teachers and students alike about Leifer’s intense charisma, and how this allowed her “to rule the school with an iron rod.”
Like Sarah, the plaintiff in this case felt incapable of asserting herself against Leifer. The court heard that: “She was very, very,very powerful – she had a very powerful personality that everyone looked up to. I saw the way that she reacted to people that attempted to cross her… and I could see the way that she reacted to that and I was scared.”
“I vividly remember the first time that she touched me on the skin. I was in Year 11 at the time, and she took me out of school and took me to her house. Someone else drove us there because she didn’t drive. I recall her being very scared that her husband would come home sometime during the day and find us there. I remember her locking the doors… She created an atmosphere in which she said she was very close to me and that she loved me.”
The court heard that Leifer then asked her to lie on a couch and began rubbing her hands over her, above her clothing at first, then underneath her jumper.
“I recall thinking that it was very weird at the time, but didn’t say anything. I remember wondering if she realised what she was doing. Then she got me to roll over and was touching me on my stomach and over my bra.”
The sexual assaults continued at Leifer’s home, at school camps, then over and over at the school, in different classrooms and offices where Leifer could draw the blinds closed.
The plaintiff told the court that she believed other teachers at the school were well aware that Leifer was spending a great deal of one-on-one time with students: “She always had teachers coming to ask her things, and if she would just disappear for a couple of hours they would have been aware that she wasn’t on school grounds.”
When the plaintiff was in Year 11, the two senior girls’ classes were taken on a two-day holiday to a house in Emerald, Victoria. On the journey home, another teacher, Mindel Weisner, told the court that she saw Leifer in a van with a Year 11 student sitting on her lap and thought it was “very strange”.
When asked in court why she had not reported it, Weisner’s response was simple: “I didn’t have anybody to turn to. Mrs Leifer was the principal.”
On the same trip, the plaintiff was abused by Leifer for hours. She told the court: “The class was doing some sort of group activity and she asked me to come and help her put her child to bed, or she wanted to talk to me while she put her child to bed.”
“Her child was in the pram and she was rocking the baby, who continued screaming, and she told me that she wanted to show me what it was like to kiss me. So she kissed me on the mouth, which I didn’t know was something that could be done. I didn’t have any understanding of what that was. I thought it was disgusting.”
Leifer often pulled the plaintiff onto her lap and held her like one of her own children, muttering how much she loved her and how beautiful she was.
“She would pull me onto her lap and kind of rock me or hug me,” the plaintiff said. “She kept telling me that she loved me and this was her way of showing me how close she felt to me, and that I should consider her like a mother who loved me, and that I was special.”
Hours later, when the plaintiff left the room and went to rejoin her fellow students, a parent from the school who was assisting with the trip commented on the relationship between the plaintiff and Leifer.
“She mentioned that she saw that Mrs Leifer and I were very close,” the plaintiff said. “And she said it in almost a jealous tone, as if it was something she really, that she looked up to.”
Sarah tells a similar story and believes she was doomed, as much by her troubled family life as by the community she was raised in.
“Without any sort of sex education, when someone that you trust tells you that this is the right thing, even when your body was telling you that it wasn’t the right thing and that nobody should touch parts of you that you don’t want them to, but if they’re telling you that it’s a good thing…” Sarah trails off.
“She used to say it was good for me, and to trust her, that I’d enjoy it. Without any other knowledge, what was I to fall back on? I had to believe her.”
Sarah thinks back to the first question I asked her: to recall a happy moment from her youth. She now has an answer: “I ran away once,” she tells me, “for just a few hours.”
“I was going to take the train to Geelong. I didn’t make it in the end, but I felt so free. At the same time, I knew that it was going to be the worst punishment when I came back – and I had to go back.
“There was no thought that just maybe I could go and tell somebody, because there was nobody to tell. The community didn’t condone that – you couldn’t speak out against anyone else. That would make everyone look down on me.”
“But for those few hours of feeling free,” she says, “it was probably the best feeling in the world.”
Like many victims, Sarah felt that everything she was experiencing had to be kept secret. But at the same time, secrecy was breaking down as other communities came under scrutiny for their treatment of sexual abuse.
Over the last five years, former students of ultra-Orthodox schools around Australia have begun to speak out. A full week of evidence from former students of ultra-Orthodox schools was heard at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse in Melbourne in February this year.
Prominent Jewish victims’ advocate Manny Waks, who was the subject of last year’s Walkley award-winning documentary Code of Silence, is just one former victim who has spoken out against the community’s tendency to “brush these stories underneath the carpet”.
“In many cases the police can’t deal with it because victims are too intimidated to come forward,” Waks says.
“We’re aware of around 25 alleged paedophiles within the Jewish community in Australia,”says Waks. “Around 15 of those are within the Yeshivah Centre in Melbourne.”
This code of silence, Waks says, is the Jewish concept of mesirah, a prohibition against turning over another Jew to civil authorities.
“It’s a principle that was invoked mainly in centuries where anti-Semitism was rife in Eastern Europe,” Waks says. “The concern was that if a Jewish person was going to report another Jew for a crime they had committed, the entire community would essentially be held accountable for that and the level of anti-Semitism would be increased.”
According to the 12th century Torah scholar Maimonides, a Jew who informs on another is a “wicked man” who has “blasphemed against the law of Moses.” Informants are known as “mosers” and rabbinical rulings today still invoke this principle. Exceptions can be made to mesirah, but they are rare, as approval needs to come from the rabbi before any alleged crimes can be taken to civil authorities.
But in Sarah’s case, her rabbi was Leifer’s husband.
The civil case brought in 2015 heard evidence on how the allegations came to light. In August 2007, Hannah Bromberg, a teacher at Adass Israel School, received a phone call from a Melbourne psychologist, Ms Ruthie Casen, who asked her, “Is it possible at all that Mrs Leifer has crossed any boundaries with the girls?”
Bromberg decided to visit Leifer in person. “I said to her: Mrs Leifer, someone asked me a question about some of your interactions with the girls and I think you need to know that not everybody is entirely comfortable with that,” she told the court.
Leifer thanked her friend for visiting and said she had actually already talked about the issue with the Vaad HaChinuch, the rabbinical umbrella.
“She told me that she had actually had a chat with them about it and all was in order, all was good,” Bromberg told the court. “I didn’t do any more at that point.”
Unwilling to believe that Leifer was capable of what had been alleged, Bromberg was apparently satisifed with this response.
The following year, Bromberg received another worrying telephone call, in which she was told “there seems to be some substance to these allegations”. The court heard that the same psychologist, Ms Casen, told Bromberg that a former student of Leifer’s had divulged to her therapist in Israel what had allegedly taken place between her and Leifer.
The court heard that Bromberg, who knew the student, telephoned her herself and believed that “clearly sexualised behaviour” had taken place and “important boundaries had been crossed”. Again, Bromberg took these allegations directly to Leifer, who again reassured her that she had already discussed them with the Vaad HaChinuch and had received advice.
Bromberg gave evidence that unsatisfied with this explanation, she made an appointment to see two rabbis from the Vaad HaChinuch, Rabbi Wurzberger and Rabbi Beck. The sabbath was rapidly approaching and the meeting was postponed, but the court heard that the rabbi’s wife, Mrs Wurzberger, told Bromberg over the phone that, “she knew what [Bromberg] was calling about and was literally feeling sick… I’ve heard a little about this before,” and said that she believed the allegations to be true.
Bromberg told the court that in the following week, on Wednesday, 5 March 2008, she attended a meeting at the home of the late Izzy Herzog, a respected Adass community member. Several members of the school board were in attendance, along with a barrister and a psychologist.
The civil case against the school heard that the school had become aware of at least eight separate allegations of sexual misconduct involving girls at the school. Those gathered at the meeting called Leifer on a speakerphone and put the allegations to her. Leifer angrily denied them and said: “You have destroyed my reputation. I’m not going to stand for this”.
Leifer was told that she would be stood down as principal immediately.
Several hours into the meeting, Mark Ernst, a member of the school board, called his wife, Dassi Ernst, who worked as a travel agent at Breakaway Travel. He asked her to book tickets for Leifer, her husband and their eight children on the next flight to Israel, saying that they needed to travel “urgently”.
The current principal of Adass Israel School, Professor Israel Herszberg, gave evidence that Leifer borrowed a great deal of money from members of the community before her departure: “She borrowed money on whatever pretences she had, and very large sums of money to my knowledge”. In the weeks that followed, outraged parents told The Age that they believed Leifer had borrowed $100,000 from a family in the community before leaving Australia.
At 1:20am, on Thursday, 6 March 2008, Leifer, along with four of her children, boarded a flight to Hong Kong, then Israel. The tickets were paid for by an Adass community member and a company associated with the president of the board. At one stage of his evidence, Ernst said he “could not recall” the motivation for asking Leifer to leave the country.
Manny Waks acknowledges that there has been denial in many sectors, “not necessarily out of malice, but more so out of ignorance”. Around the time he went public with his story of the abuse he suffered at Yeshivah College, another ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in St Kilda, Waks says: “I was approached by a senior member of the Jewish community, who said to me that ‘I was shocked, because I knew it happened in the Catholic Church amongst the Gentiles, but in our own community…’”.
This is, according to Waks, a representative view within the ultra-Orthodox communities.
“There was also obviously the issue of cover-ups too,” he says, “where some knew it was happening but definitely preferred to deny it and move on, so that our community would come across as untarnished and perfect. That somehow we don’t have these issues, but others do.”
Waks believes that The Australian Jewish News “got it right when they described the Australian Orthodox rabbinate as being ‘rotten to the core’”.
“Of course, this does not mean that each and every Orthodox rabbi is rotten; there are many good rabbis,” he says. “But the rabbinate as a whole has dealt with this issue in a disgraceful manner.”
In mid-2014, The Age newspaper reported concerns from a member of Leifer’s new community in Immanuel, Israel. Leifer’s husband works as a rabbi at a local synagogue, and the unidentified source told The Age that Leifer often took children from the synagogue to her home for after-school tutoring. The Age reported that this caused alarm for members of the community who knew accusations had been levelled against her in Australia. However, there has been no record of any investigations or charges against Leifer in Israel.
Extradition proceedings finally commenced in September 2014, when Leifer was placed under house arrest in Israel, but in the year that has passed, there still has not been an initial hearing. On July 15 this year, Leifer’s lawyers successfully argued for yet another delay, on the basis that she is suffering from “psychosis and stress”.
Lawyer Yehuda Fried said: “The Israeli law confirms that anyone in a psychotic state cannot be subject to legal proceedings”, telling reporters he was willing to spend years fighting the extradition and would appeal to the Israeli High Court if necessary.
Attorney-General George Brandis’s department has confirmed that if returned to Australia, Leifer will face prosecution for 74 sexual assault offences against her students in her time at Adass Israel School.
In the separate civil proceedings brought by the former 14-year-old student against the school, in what has been described as a landmark ruling, Justice Jack Rush found Adass Israel School to be directly and vicariously liable for Leifer’s conduct and awarded the plaintiff more than $1.27 million in damages, including $100,000 exemplary damages against the school, and $150,000 against Leifer.
In his judgment, Justice Rush said: “In considering the merits of the case against Leifer, I consider her conduct warrants punishment; in awarding exemplary damages against Leifer I have particular regards to deterrence, both deterrence to Leifer but also importantly to others in like positions of authority and trust minded to act in a similar manner.”
Justice Rush said he believed the school had acted in such a “deplorable” fashion that “amounts to disgraceful and contumelious behaviour demonstrating a complete disregard for Leifer’s victims”. He also commented on the school’s apparent “disdain for due process of criminal investigation in this state,” and said it had likely acted in such a way protect the reputation of the Adass community.
“The conduct of [the school]… in facilitating the urgent departure was likely motivated by a desire to conceal her wrongdoing and isolate the conduct and its consequences to within the Adass community.”
Solicitors for the plaintiff have confirmed that they have been engaged by another former student of Leifer’s.
Meanwhile, the wider Jewish community has rallied around victims of child sexual abuse. Leifer “must be returned to Australia to face justice”, says Executive Director of Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Peter Wertheim.
“The case illustrates yet again the devastating long-term effects of child abuse on survivors and how those effects have been compounded by institutional attempts to cover up, minimise or fail to acknowledge instances of abuse,” he says.
The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies started a child protection task force focused “on educating the Jewish community on all factors relating to this issue.”
“Sixty community leaders participated in our initial seminar, prioritising prevention policies and procedures and the obligation to report to police,” chief executive Vic Alhadeff says.
In 2011, Sarah finally filed a report with the police. Earlier that year, with the help of a friend she had made outside the Adass community, she completely cut ties with her parents – and with the only way of life she’d ever known.
Previously, Sarah had seen that the only other way to escape her life was to be married, and begged her older sister to help arrange a match for her. Sarah met her husband-to-be only three times before they were married, in supervised half-hour visits where they would discuss “what role religion would have in our lives, and what kind of wife I would be”.
Following the wedding, the young couple moved overseas, as Sarah’s husband continued his religious studies. Five weeks after the wedding, Sarah was raped outside her house, near a building site.
“I didn’t actually tell my husband straight away,” she says, “and when I did, the next day, he got really, really angry. He blamed me, saying the way that I was dressed caused the rape.”
Sarah was wearing the traditional attire of a newly-married woman: a long skirt, long top, a wig to cover her hair, and no makeup. “Everything was completely covered, you couldn’t see a thing,” she says.
“My husband took me to five or six rabbis, and without making eye contact with me, they made me sit next to my husband and told me that I should have dressed more modestly, and that my husband should tell his wife that she needed to wear clothes that were two sizes too big for me, and that if I had, this wouldn’t have happened.”
The anger Sarah felt at this moment, she says, is indescribable.
“I’d just been raped,” she spits. “Instead of understanding me, my husband had taken me to people to tell me that it was my fault, and what I was doing wrong.”
The marriage deteriorated quickly and was never consummated. Sarah moved back to Melbourne and this, she says, “is when I realised I didn’t give a shit about what anyone in the community thought about me”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sarah’s religious views have changed drastically over the past decade.
“Honestly,” she says, “I don’t know if I believe in God now, because after everything that has happened to me, I don’t know that there can be a God.”
“When I was young and growing up, I used to lie in bed and pray to God. I would pray, ‘Please make my Mum die,’ and he didn’t listen. Even back then, I used to question. Faith wasn’t something that I held on to. I hold onto people, and I hold on to my support network.”
A female friend from a less Orthodox community helped Sarah to put her old life behind her. The pair moved in together, and soon Sarah had a whole new network of friends. She describes her social interactions as painfully awkward at first.
“I was like a baby,” she laughs. Sarah got a secretarial job and was soon supporting herself. It was the first time she felt valued as a person.
“I always knew I wasn’t dumb,” she says, “I’ve got two very smart parents. But not having any opportunity to develop intellectually was very difficult.”
Today, she’s at university and hopes to be able to help young people who are suffering from abuse.
“Now I don’t have anything to do with the community, which is just the best thing,” she says. Sarah doesn’t often smile, but when she says this, a hint of a grin creeps in.
* Sarah is not her real name.
Malka Leifer’s extradition is still pending. She is yet to face criminal charges for any allegations in Australia.