Somewhere in an ultra-Orthodox enclave of Israel, former Melbourne school principal Malka Leifer continues to evade extradition to face criminal charges in Australia. Now one of her alleged victims speaks out for the first time.
Malka Leifer’s role in Melbourne’s Adass community was all-powerful.
As head of the Adass Israel School from 2003 to 2008, she was highly regarded in the community, running day-to-day operations at the school and teaching Jewish studies.
Leifer is now under house arrest somewhere in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Bnei Brak in central Israel, where she fled in 2008 — allegedly with the help of senior members of Melbourne’s secretive Adass community.
She is wanted by Victoria Police to face prosecution for 74 child sex offences involving the abuse of girls at the Adass Israel School.
For almost two years, she has managed to evade extradition proceedings and her latest hearing, scheduled for Thursday, has been postponed to an unknown date.
Outraged at the failure to extradite Leifer, one of her several alleged victims, who we will call Rebecca, is speaking out for the first time.
“It’s still extremely difficult for me to go into detail in regards to what happened to myself and the other victims,” she told Lateline.
“But the far-reaching effects the physical and emotional abuse is still having … I can’t find the words.”
Last September, in a civil case against the Adass Israel School and Leifer, a Melbourne judge awarded one of the alleged victims $1.27 million in damages.
Barrister David Seeman represented the alleged victim in that case and he says the abuse occurred over a period of three years.
“It was at times frequent abuse, daily abuse and also at times not that frequent,” he said.
“It was conducted at the school, it occurred at Leifer’s home, it occurred on camps.
“It was made up of what you might regard as abuse low on the scale of severity, all the way up to the most serious horrific abuse.”
Mr Seeman has gained a rare insight into the ultra-conservative Adass community, from which the alleged victims came.
“It’s a very insular community. There’s very little communication or access to the secular community,” he said.
He says the alleged victims were brought up in an extremely strict environment.
“They were not allowed to watch television, books had to be vetted to make sure they were suitable and they had very little contact with the outside world,” he said.
“[They] were very, very naive especially as far as sexual matters were concerned.”
When Rebecca first spoke out about the abuse, no-one believed her.
“Actually the people that I told, they didn’t believe me that it had happened,” she said.
“I only told two people and one of them threatened me that I have to keep quiet. She actually called me and said ‘what happened to you?’ And I started to tell her and she said: ‘That didn’t happen. Make sure you keep it that way.’
“That was the last person that I told.”
Eventually another of the victims revealed what had happened to her.
But only hours after the allegations were first raised, Leifer, her husband and five of her children fled Australia in the middle of the night to Tel Aviv, Israel.
For Rebecca, it was a shocking development.
“I’ll never forget that day,” she said.
“The whole community was in an upheaval and that’s when it properly hit me that the woman who had controlled my life for the past three years had just fled the country and she had just gone.
“And it was the shock, the anger, the pain, everything started coming in at once.”
Even more shocking is that some members of the Adass Israel School board are under investigation by Victoria Police for helping Leifer and her family leave.
The family’s plane tickets — obtained under subpoena — appear to have been paid for by the company of one of the board members.
Six years after fleeing Australia, the law caught up with Leifer and after an extradition request from Australia, she was arrested in August 2014 and placed under house arrest.
But since then, Leifer has managed to avoid seven court hearings into her extradition, with her lawyers arguing that she is unwell, suffering panic attacks and depression whenever a court date approaches.
At a hearing in February, Leifer’s lawyers even asked for the whole case to be thrown out.
Rebecca has been watching the case from Australia.
“I mean, first hand I know how manipulative she is. She manipulated all of us into doing many things,” she said.
“So she’s manipulating the Israeli justice system and even if she is suffering from those panic attacks and even if she is suffering from depression, what is that in comparison to what us victims are suffering every day?”
Leifer’s lawyer Yehuda Fried is refusing to talk to the media, but last year he told the ABC he would fight her extradition all the way to Israel’s High Court.
“We are conducting a court procedure. The Israeli law confirms that anyone in a psychotic state cannot be subject to legal proceedings,” he said.
Rebecca says it is almost unbearable that the woman who abused her and others is still free.
“It’s been very, very long, and every single day for me and any of the victims has been torture to be honest,” she said.
“Day after day we’re waiting for the Israeli justice system to make this woman face her crimes and to come back and be extradited and face her victims and face justice.”
At a hearing in February, Israeli prosecutor Avital Ribner Oron challenged Leifer’s medical claims, telling the judge she believed the former principal was “faking” her illness in order to get rid of the case.
Leifer’s attorney rejected the accusation, but he did admit in court that the panic attacks only occurred around the time of scheduled hearings.
In his ruling, Judge Amnon Cohen also questioned Leifer’s hospital admissions.
A document from the Sheba hospital on January 14 indicated that:
“The defendant arrived at the hospital with a referral letter to the psychiatric emergency department with recommendation of hospitalisation from her physician, from December 30, 2015 and ‘it’s not clear’ why she went to the hospital only on January 3, 2016.
“After the legal hearing took place, the defendant had asked to be released from hospitalisation.”
Judge Amnon also noted concerns about Leifer’s behaviour that were raised by the head of the psychiatric department.
“There is a sharp difference between her behaviour in the [psychiatric] department, among groups, during telephone conversations with family and in her formal examinations,” documents said.
Australian-Israeli victim advocate Manny Waks blew the whistle on sexual abuse at his ultra-orthodox Jewish school and religious centre in Melbourne and also gave evidence to the child abuse royal commission.
Now living in Israel, Mr Waks has founded a new global body to advocate on behalf of victims of child sexual abuse from within the Jewish community.
He has been following Leifer’s case closely and says the latest delay is outrageous.
“It is staggering how long it’s taken and I think it’s a poor reflection on the Israeli judicial system. Especially when we have seen some of the tactics used,” he said.
“It seems to me and to many of us that Malka Leifer and her legal team are really running the show here.”
Speaking from Bnei Brak, Mr Waks said he hoped justice would be served.
“It’s quite sad to think that Malka Leifer is in one of these apartments, living fairly at ease,” he said.
“Almost eluding justice, it’s not right.”
- Reporter: Sophie McNeill
- Digital producer: Brigid Andersen