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Three sisters are among dozens of former students who say they were sexually abused by Malka Leifer, their former principal at the ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel school for girls in the mid-2000s. On Thursday, Leifer was ordered to stand trial on 70 counts of child sex abuse after a Melbourne court heard testimony from the sisters, a former colleague, and an ex-husband of one of the victims.
Leifer fled to Israel to try and avoid the justice system when allegations against her emerged more than a decade ago. The charges against her include 11 counts of rape, 43 of indecent assault, 13 of committing an indecent act with a child, and three of sexual penetration. Most of the alleged crimes were committed on school grounds and at girls’ camps affiliated with the school, according to court records. One charge is described as compelling a victim “without her consent” to sexually penetrate Leifer with an object. Another charge involves Leifer allegedly sexually penetrating the child “while being aware that she was not consenting or might not be consenting.”
Magistrate Johanna Metcalf told the court there was ample evidence to bring the case forward. “Having carefully considered the entirety of the evidence… in my opinion the evidence is of sufficient weight to support a conviction,” Metcalf told the court Thursday. “I propose to commit the accused for trial.”
Leifer, whose husband is Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Leifer, who heads the small Chust Hasidic community in Emmanuel, Israel, pleaded not guilty to the charges on Thursday. Leifer has also been accused of abusing children in Israel, but no formal charges have been filed against her or her husband.
Her trial will begin in October in front of the County Court of Victoria. Sisters Dassi Erlich, Elly Sapper, and Nicole Meyer, who consented to being named by the media but who testified in closed court, leveled charges that led to Leifer’s extradition from Israel earlier this year. Leifer originally faced 74 counts of abuse, but four charges were dropped because they allegedly occurred in Israel, according to ABC Australia news.
Leifer, who is an Israeli citizen, was accused of faking mental illness to escape extradition, according to a court ruling in May 2020. She moved to Australia in 2001 and fled after initial assault accusations emerged in 2008. Australia officially requested her return in 2014 after the three sisters made their case public, but it took 7 years for an Israeli court to finally concede, which led to Thursday’s hearing. Leifer was originally found unfit to stand trial, but an Israeli court later reversed their decision. She is being separately investigated for influencing her psychiatrist who originally signed off on her mental illness.
Testimony from the three sisters was kept from the press, but one of the sister’s ex-husbands did testify in open court that he and his former wife lived with Leifer for a time in Israel and that his ex-wife never told him about the abuse. “All the time that she had spoken about her, she had spoken about her being in place of her mother and being a supportive figure,” Joshua Erlich, the ex-husband of Dassi Erlich, told the court.
Then he testified that he overheard his wife telling a social worker in Israel where they lived about her “relationship” with her alleged abuser and how she panicked at the thought they might investigate Leifer in Australia. “She was very concerned about what was going to happen next, and she was not sure why it was being taken in such a serious way,” Erlich told the court.
Upon cross examination by Leifer’s lawyer Ian Hill, Erlich said he thought the accusations were blown “out of proportion,” according to ABC Australia.
Hill asked Erlich, “Did Dassi tell you... how Mrs. Leifer had been very affectionate, how she would hug Dassi, rub her thighs and generally give her special attention?”
“That's how I remember it,” Erlich testified, to which Hill then asked, “Over the clothes, the touching?”
Erlich then told the court, “I don’t remember what kind of detail, I just remember that at the time, I didn’t find it particularly concerning.”
Erlich also testified about a conversation he said he overheard between his wife and her sisters about potentially harassing the former principal. “I heard them saying they wanted to call her up and to cause her problems,” he told the court. “They were laughing about it. It seemed to me that they just wanted to harass her.”
The prosecutor in the case, Nannette Rogers, then asked Erlich to confirm that his wife had indeed made a statement to police in 2011. Initial allegations of abuse by Leifer first surfaced in 2008.
Another lawyer for Leifer, Nick Kaufman, told The New York Times that the bar for such cases to reach court was “extremely low” and meant very little. “It would be manifestly unfair to draw even the slightest conclusion as to Ms. Leifer’s guilt from today’s decision,” he said. “Ms. Leifer will now finally be entitled to a trial before a properly instructed jury where the complainants’ credibility will be fully tested.”