A former principal who sexually abused two sisters at an Australian Jewish school, before fleeing to Israel and then being extradited back, was sentenced on Thursday to 15 years in jail.
Victoria County Court judge Mark Gamble said Malka Leifer abused her position within Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox community and her “insidious offending” had scarred the sisters for life.
Leifer, a mother of eight, fled to her native Israel when rumors of her crimes started swirling in 2008, fighting tooth and nail to halt her extradition across more than 70 separate hearings.
She was hauled back to Australia in 2021 and was earlier this year found guilty on 18 of 27 charges of sex abuse against sisters Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper.
A jury acquitted Leifer of sexually assaulting a third sister, Nicole Meyer.
The most serious convictions were for six counts of rape, each carrying a potential maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.
In a victim impact statement read out to the court on Thursday, Sapper said the abuse had left her feeling “utterly broken,” “ashamed” and haunted by “vivid flashbacks.”
“She continues to blame herself for allowing Ms. Leifer to love her. She feels ashamed for not stopping the abuse at the time,” said Gamble, reading from the statement.
Wearing a light blue prison jumpsuit, Leifer was impassive, as she watched the sentencing via video link from a maximum security prison in Melbourne.
Leifer maintains her innocence and Gamble said she had shown no remorse.
Gamble said Leifer was a “serious sexual offender” who had shown “callous indifference” to the suffering of her victims.
Leifer must serve at least 11 years and six months of the sentence before she can be considered for early release. As soon as she is released from a Victoria state prison, she will likely be deported to Israel.
Gamble gave her 2,069 days off her sentence for time already served in custody in Australia since she returned in January 2021 and for time spent in Israel in custody and under home arrest — meaning she’ll have less than six years left in prison before being eligible for parole.
The charges spanned from 2004 to 2007 when Leifer was in charge of the Adass Israel School in Melbourne and the two sisters were teenagers.
The school is part of a reclusive Jewish community 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. “The only books they had access to at home were those that were approved by their parents and written by Jewish authors.”
Gamble said this stifling environment and Leifer’s high standing in the Adass community made it extremely difficult for the sisters to come forward.
According to the indictment, Leifer assaulted one of the sisters in 2006 after inviting her home to “sleep over for kallah lessons” — a kind of pre-wedding 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 the prosecution. “This is what is good for you,” she allegedly said during another incident.
Leifer fled Australia in 2008 after one of the sisters confided to her therapist about the sexual assaults.
She eventually settled in the ultra-Orthodox Emmanuel settlement in the West Bank.
Australian police filed charges against her in 2012 and requested her extradition from Israel two years later, sparking a lengthy legal saga.
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 uninhibited by the mental illnesses she claimed.
But even then, the proceedings dragged on in Israel, with a state psychiatrist reversing his opinion several times on whether Leifer was mentally fit for a trial. It later was discovered that then-health minister Yaakov Litzman had been pressuring the doctor to deem Leifer — who has ties to his Gur Hasidic sect — unfit for trial.
Litzman was found guilty of breach of trust but escaped with just an NIS 3,000 ($907) fine last year.
Defense 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.”
Manny Waks, who heads VoiCSA, a group that works to combat child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community, hailed the sentencing.
“Today’s conclusion to this trial sends a powerful message to victims and survivors: justice can be achieved even when the road is long and challenging. It also acts as a strong deterrent to perpetrators; no one is above the law and the authorities will pursue justice regardless of when the crimes are alleged to have occurred,” he said.
He also praised the Australian authorities for continuing to probe the involvement of the school in the crimes.
“We are pleased that Victoria Police is continuing to investigate the alleged criminal actions of the Adass Israel School leadership in facilitating Leifer’s evasion from justice in 2008 by spiriting her out of Australia to Israel in the darkness of night. We hope and expect that they, too, will be held to full account,” Waks said.