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Peace in the home
It takes 19 minutes to walk from the ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel Synagogue, in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Ripponlea, to the Adass Israel School, in neighbouring Elsternwick. It’s also a 19-minute walk from the synagogue to the kosher butcher in St Kilda. Two minutes on foot to a fish shop, three minutes to one kosher supermarket, 23 minutes to another. Nearby, too, are bakeries, dressmakers, creches, playgrounds, ambulances and builders used by the 220 to 250 families comprising the Adass Israel community. For many of them, the world is walkable.
This is where three sisters – Nechama (Nicole Meyer), 38, Hadassa (Dassi Erlich), 36, and Elisheva (Elly Sapper), 34 – grew up in a house without television, radio, secular books, magazines or newspapers. “Not even a sales catalogue entered the home,” Justice Jack Rush noted, in a 2015 civil judgement in Victoria’s Supreme Court. “Children were not raised having knowledge of world events and were completely isolated from anything ‘beyond the community [they] were within’.”
I often drive through Adass’s micro-world, around which much of Melbourne’s more diverse Jewish community resides. Past the men in their fur shtraymlen (hats), the boys on scooters with their tzitzit (ritual tassels) trailing on the breeze. And, almost always in close proximity to a pram, the females, who only ever seem to be extremely young or extremely old.
Outside the Adass Israel School are two sets of double cameras, Janus-faced, focused only on the street. It was founded in 1953 “to educate the new generation with a guarantee that the unbroken chain of Jewish tradition would be continued, even in a faraway continent”.
The school and the insular subgroup of the ultra-Orthodox community that it serves aren’t far from the Jewish school I attended as a teenager, but in certain ways the distance seems unbridgeable. Take the following story. When a student from a third Jewish school – Beth Rivkah, the girls’ school associated with the Chabad-Lubavitch ultra-Orthodox subgroup – joined my year at Bialik College, I thought her exotically observant in our faith. However, before an occasion when an Adass class – Dassi’s, in fact – visited Beth Rivkah to use their kitchen, the Adass girls were instructed to avoid all eye contact and conversation with the Beth Rivkah girls, who wore immodest knee socks under their long skirts instead of opaque stockings.
“We are painfully aware from experience in the past of the lack of understanding of our aims, works and institutions. Adass Israel concentrates on the preservation of the traditional Orthodox way of Jewish life, as laid down by our great Rabbis,” the secretary of Melbourne’s congregation wrote to The Australian Jewish Herald in March 1962. “‘Separatism’ … has been proved by time to be the most effective, if not the sole way of preservation of our Jewish traditions. To live to the high principles of the Adass community demands self-denial and much sacrifice, from the individual and the community alike.”
Dating back to the 1800s, Melbourne’s Jewish community has always been diverse in its levels of religious observance, cultural assimilation and beliefs. The Adass Israel congregation was founded in a shuttered shopfront in St Kilda following a theological split with the nearby Elwood Talmud Torah around 1939. Its numbers were soon bolstered by Orthodox Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and, after the war, the places where Hitler’s forces had decimated everyone and everything they had known. Among Adass’s earliest members were men and boys who had miraculously escaped to Britain only to be rounded up as enemy aliens, forced aboard the notoriously hellish Dunera transport ship in 1940 and exiled to the Empire’s most distant internment camps in rural New South Wales and Victoria.
In the 1950s, the congregation moved to a small house in Ripponlea that served as both synagogue and boys’ school. There, the traumatised found refuge as they worshipped and studied – those to whom the word was so holy that the books it lived in were kissed like people should they fall. In time, land was acquired for a dedicated school and a synagogue of sufficient size for the growing community.
Australia has one of the highest populations of Holocaust survivors of any country besides Israel. Across the 1950s and ’60s, with its membership, languages and sensibilities strongly shaped by post-Holocaust immigration, Adass – like much of the rest of Melbourne’s Jewish community – was a population subsisting largely on the basis of continuous labour and mutual aid. Many had left Europe with nothing and counted themselves lucky. There were few elders, few grandparents; most had been murdered.
Because Nazi Germany had annihilated one-third of the global Jewish population, those who remained shared an intimate initiation into unfathomable loss and its unlikely sequelae. There was the terror and complex shame that haunted education about, and public discussion of, the Holocaust until, arguably, the mainstream success of Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List in 1994. There was also the subtle sense among a more assimilated mass that the ultra-Orthodox were keeping a certain light burning for everyone else. The Adass school opened in 1964, the night before the foundation stone was laid for the congregation’s adjacent War Memorial Synagogue.
That synagogue, which has the narrow windows of a fortress, would be damaged by an arson attack in the 1990s and rebuilt. The school eventually migrated to the larger premises where the three sisters received their education.
Though remaining only lightly tethered to general society – in case it, too, tried to kill them, or the Messiah appeared to usher them into the utopian World to Come – Melbourne’s Adass community grew and flourished due, in no small measure, to the efforts of those who had taken grave risks to shepherd their forebears to safety in the face of that devouring thing that all humans separate from themselves, as God did the light from the darkness, and call evil.
For more than a decade, the story was one of stunning stasis. Dassi was the first sister to disclose being sexually abused by the then Adass Israel School’s girls’ principal, Malka Leifer. In late February 2008, after disclosing that information to a counsellor she was seeing in Israel, the counsellor, with Dassi’s permission, spoke briefly with her elder sister, Nicole, and then with a psychologist in the Melbourne Jewish community.
On the evening of March 5, 2008, the then school board president, Yitzhok Benedikt, attended a meeting with a second school board member, a lawyer and a psychologist at the home of a respected Adass community member, Izzy Herzog. At that meeting it was decided that Leifer would be stood down, and she was so informed via a conference telephone call. Hours later, Leifer and members of her family left Melbourne on a 1.20am flight to Israel, with tickets paid for by an Adass community member, Robert Klein, and a company associated with Benedikt. The police were not informed about the abuse allegations or Leifer’s departure.
In 2011, Dassi, Nicole and Elly gave statements to police alleging sexual assault by Leifer. Police filed charges against Leifer in Melbourne in 2012.
In 2014, the Australian government formally filed an extradition request in Jerusalem, seeking Leifer’s return to face 74 charges of rape and sexual assault. Leifer was arrested that year and placed under house arrest, awaiting an extradition hearing. Over the next six years, across more than 70 court dates, that hearing was postponed using an elaborate array of arguments. These included the contention that Leifer was too mentally ill to understand the nature of the proceedings, a conclusion supported by psychiatric reports submitted to the court on her behalf.
In June 2016, the Jerusalem District Court accepted that argument, ruling that she would not face extradition proceedings until completing psychiatric treatment at an undetermined future date. Leifer was released and required to appear every six months before a medical board that would determine whether she should continue receiving treatment.
By 2017, despite advocacy by the sisters in Australia and Israel, progress on the extradition remained undetectable as Leifer lived freely in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Emmanuel in the West Bank. “No one was watching her,” Shana Aronson, then of Jewish Community Watch (JCW), a victim-survivor advocacy organisation, explained when I spoke with her in late 2019. “The level of what was required for her to ‘prove’ she was mentally unfit was so low it didn’t seem logical.”
Over two weeks in late 2017, Tzafrir Tzahi, a private investigator hired by JCW, filmed Leifer going about her daily life. “She does the shopping,” Tzahi reported, “hosts her children on Shabbat, goes to the grocery store, goes to the post office, speaks a lot on the cell phone, laughs, converses with people – nothing that could indicate a problem with her daily functioning.”
After the release of the footage, Interpol requested an investigation that resulted in Leifer’s re-arrest in February 2018. The next month, however, the Jerusalem District Court ruled, after hearing from ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Yitzhak Grossman on her behalf, that Leifer should be released from custody and placed, again, on house arrest. Following an eruption of community outrage, Grossman retracted his support, the ruling was overturned and Leifer was remanded to a women’s prison where she remained as the extradition hearing continued to stall over conflicting expert reports regarding her mental fitness.
In August 2019, Israeli police recommended that the deputy health minister, Yaakov Litzman, chairman of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism political alliance, 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 mentally unfit. As part of a plea deal in 2022, Litzman admitted to a charge of breach of trust, avoiding charges of obstruction of justice and moral turpitude, and paid a $940 fine.
In May 2020, the Jerusalem District Court found Leifer fit to stand trial for extradition. She was extradited back to Australia in January 2021.
On February 7, 2023, after being escorted by a correctional officer from the holding cells in the basement of the Victorian County Court up to the fourth floor, Leifer, 56, sat in the dock at the back of courtroom three, bowed over a petite white siddur (prayer book) as three sketch artists translated the planes of her thin face onto their pages. Her trial was about to start.
It’s just past 10 on the first morning of the trial, according to the clock incorporated into the courtroom’s wood-panelled wall, though its numerals are so discreet it appears ashamed of its accuracy. Defence counsel Ian Hill KC, stands at the left side of the bar table, his white wig a similar shade to the brush of his moustache. Next to him, his junior, Lucinda Thies, sits tapping at a slim metallic laptop.
At the other end of the table, Crown prosecutor Justin Lewis chats with his junior, Stephanie Clancy, their robes sheeting down to dark shoes. At the table, too, are both parties’ instructing solicitors, surrounded by paper – highlighted, tape-flagged and persuaded into neat bricks filed into binders. So many binders surround the lawyers that they occupy no less than five rolling suitcases plus, at the defence end, a three-tier metal trolley.
At the back of the assertively air-conditioned room, the siddur open in her hand, Malka Leifer’s lips move rapidly in what looks like silent prayer while her eyes sweep the body of the court. She wears a long black skirt over sturdy tan stockings and a subtly sparkling dark jumper over a black turtleneck that emphasises the paleness of her skin, its white opacity like marble. A navy blue turban, also glinting with glitter, covers her head. She looks different from the photos of her Israeli court appearances, where she was cuffed at the wrists and ankles, peering out from the pleats of a maroon turban pulled close around her face like curtains. She appears to have lost half her former body weight.
Reduced too, are the charges against her. She now faces 29 charges in relation to the three sisters: 11 counts of rape; 10 counts of indecent assault; five counts of committing an indecent act with a 16- or 17-year-old child under care, supervision or authority; and three counts of sexual penetration of a 16- or 17-year-old child under care, supervision or authority.
She has pleaded not guilty to everything. Licking a finger, she turns a tissue-thin page.
Everyone stands as Judge Mark Gamble enters. His tipstaff intones, “All persons having business before this honourable court are commanded to give their attendance and they shall be heard.”
Over the next six weeks of evidence, the seasons will change, Melbourne cooling into autumn. At least three people in the courtroom, including the judge and his tipstaff, will contract Covid-19. A member of the public will be asked to leave for breastfeeding her baby, in an exercise of judicial discretion intended to reduce jury distractions that will make it onto the BBC. The faces of the judge, jurors, correctional officers, security guards, journalists and those regularly attending in support of Leifer or the sisters will become so familiar I’ll be able to tell when someone gets a haircut.
Before the jury is brought in, Gamble reminds the media about the suppression order in place to protect the fairness of the trial. So while, as with body memory, the history of this matter is imprinted forever on the internet, any publication or re-publication of that history before a verdict is reached carries a high risk of contempt.
The jury therefore won’t know about Leifer’s flight to Israel under the cover of night. They won’t know about the 2015 civil judgement, in the lawsuit brought by Dassi in the Supreme Court across the road, condemning the conduct of Leifer and the school board in the strongest terms and awarding Dassi record damages. “The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that Leifer had a contumelious disregard for the plaintiff’s rights,” Justice Rush found. “I have described Leifer’s conduct previously as a massive breach of trust, yet this description does not adequately set out the destructive and evil nature of her sexual abuse of the plaintiff over a period of years.” As to the liability of the school board, which had elaborately argued that it had none, Rush found otherwise. About the failure to report the allegations to the police, Rush stated: “At the time of her departure, the President of the Board, Mr Benedikt, was aware of at least eight separate allegations of sexual misconduct involving Leifer and girls at the School, in addition to the initial complaint. The allegations amounted to Leifer being a serial sexual abuser.” He also criticised the manner in which the school arranged for Leifer’s departure from the country: “The conduct demonstrates a disdain for due process of criminal investigation in this State.”
The jury will hear about the egregious delay in the case: the time elapsed between the police statements in 2011 and the trial in 2023, and its deleterious effect on Leifer’s ability to mount an effective case in her defence. They won’t, however, be told that the delay was the result of her own efforts to avoid extradition.
To safeguard the presumption of innocence, only the words spoken in the presence of the jury will describe the world and its contents. This fiction of factual completeness is one of many on which our imperfect system of impartial justice rests. It means that in courtroom three, the world is walkable. It has its own physical space, hierarchy and rituals. Its own modest dress, its own head coverings, its own calls to stand and to sit. Its own in-groups and out-groups. Above all, it has its own construction of reality and what counts as truth – its own holy words preserved across generations to guard against the annihilating effects of overwhelming emotion.
“You are the judges of the facts,” Judge Gamble tells the seven women and eight men of the jury, after reading out each charge against Leifer. “You and you alone.” Because Covid remains more probability than possibility, three additional jurors are sitting in case of illness.
Leifer busily writes on a small sheet of paper with a ballpoint pen.
Exuding a tightly coiled aura of exacting attentiveness, Gamble will run this trial in stark contrast to the majority of the Israeli proceedings, in which counsel shouted over the judge, prayer groups rose in the public gallery, and defence delays elongated proceedings seemingly indefinitely. Media attendees here are warned against typing in a way that creates undue noise. Proceedings will be paused so that coughing from the public gallery does not interrupt juror concentration. If we leave to use the toilet we cannot re-enter until court is adjourned. The tipstaff will at one point inform us to return from a break at 11.27am.
The jurors’ faces are pinned in profile as they listen to Gamble explain their task. Selected for their impartiality – which involves, in this case, unfamiliarity with the matter’s history – each juror is handed a copy of the indictment, and I wonder that a case I’ve followed in the headlines for years has never made it into their awareness. We share this small room, the cafe near the train station, a city, and yet we move through our own tunnels as if inhabiting different worlds.
One pointy brogue crossed over the other, Crown prosecutor Lewis leans against the lectern, faces the jury and outlines the case against Leifer in a quiet baritone. A few minutes into his opening remarks, the rapt attention on the jurors’ slowly softening faces indicates that Lewis’s calm is a superpower. They hear that Leifer was the revered principal of the Adass girls’ school when the three sisters were high-school students and then junior teachers between 2003 and 2007. He sets out how Leifer groomed them – by acting as a caring confidante about abuse they suffered at home – before sexually exploiting them at the school, on camps and at her home. As he outlines the circumstances surrounding each of the charges, Leifer closes her eyes for extended periods, hugging her torso, the siddur in her hand tucked close to her abdomen. In contrast, the eyes of the jury are now widening. One woman’s jaw hangs open, so too a male juror’s. Another covers his mouth with both hands.
Though they are watching the hearing from elsewhere in the building, the three complainants are present in the room to the extent that the prosecution’s opening paints a picture of the vulnerability of their younger selves, their betrayal by a trusted protector. Cultural norms in Adass’s insular community meant that the sisters had “no understanding of sex”, “no concept that people kissed each other on the mouth” and no understanding that what Leifer was doing to them was wrong despite their growing fear and distress. An attempt by one of the sisters to establish sufficient familiarity with another teacher to ask whether what was happening was normal was thwarted when discovered by Leifer. Cultural norms, too, effectively restricted their ability to speak out against those in positions of power.
Given how long this moment has taken to arrive, Lewis’s calm address might seem almost anti-climactic. But it is only on television that lawyerly theatrics signify strength. Over the next six weeks, Lewis and his junior Clancy will demonstrate the force contained in facts frankly stated.
Cheese to Lewis’s chalk, defence counsel Hill, who took silk in 1995, brings a certain Rumpole-ish energy to the room. It’s in the activity of his moustache, the handling of his spectacles, his vigorous activation in his client’s defence. Most significantly, it’s there in his decades of experience which, in umwelts as reflexively deferential as the law, is its own armour.
In the defence opening, Hill tells the jury that Leifer’s interactions with the sisters were “professional and proper”. That there are “material inconsistencies” between the sisters’ accounts, and “questions of collusion and contamination” when it comes to their police statements. Like Lewis, Hill emphasises the sisters’ “exceptionally difficult home life”, albeit for diametrically opposed tactical reasons. He paints a discrediting picture of wounded children who displaced their anger towards a mother that abused them “in unimaginably sadistic ways” onto the “positive, glowing relationship” they had with the altruistic Leifer, when they “took her on as a substitute parent”. Aside from the sisters’ reliability and credibility, he aims at their veracity. Their memories of abuse are “erroneous, fabricated”, inconsistent with their gratitude at having been among Leifer’s favourite students. “We deny that they are telling the truth.”
Timing, as they say, is everything. These arguments hit the air in the week following Cardinal George Pell’s funeral mass, so the news has been recently focused on the Catholic Church’s attempt to silence protests by victims of clerical rape. Further, while the reasons for delay in this case can be excised from jury consideration, one of its inadvertent consequences cannot. In the years between Leifer’s flight and her forced return, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has occurred, and the #MeToo movement has shifted paradigms of understanding. General knowledge about how grooming works, and the prevalence of sexual violence by those who hold positions of power in closed hierarchies, has exponentially improved. This is perhaps why, soon after Hill’s line of argument becomes clear, four jurors cross their arms over their chests and tilt their heads to the side. One woman sits up straighter, juts out her chin and slides her eyes sideways to stare at Leifer.
At the conclusion of the opening addresses, the jury has heard a phenomenal amount of complex and distressing information. The first day done, media and the public will not be admitted into the courtroom for the next two weeks, because of statutory protections for complainants testifying in sexual offence trials. While the evidence against Leifer remains to be seen, the openings have drawn the battlelines: this will be a contest of what still passes for common sense.
The evidence the three sisters gave before the jury is contained in hundreds of transcript pages stacked inside three white folders, which I read over a number of days in a windowless room reserved for media at the court. Their voices rise up from the page, distinct and clear.
The Adass community is small but the families comprising it are large: typically between six and 16 children. Matisyahu (Mark) and Smadar (Sammi) Sapper had a smaller family of seven children: five daughters in a row followed by two sons. The family lived in homes around Balaclava and East St Kilda as it grew and then shrank when the eldest two daughters married early and left home.
In all aspects of Adass collective life – prayer and learning, work and play – there was a strict physical separation based on gender, which was understood to be binary. If gathering at a home, males and females socialised in different rooms. If music was playing, it was male voices only. When the girls’ school put on their end-of-year play, only women populated the audience. The sisters did not interact with men or boys outside their family. “If they were related to my family, we would be allowed to pass by on the street and lower our eyes and say hello,” Elly explained.
“The only people that we associated with were the people within our community, who all lived the same way,” Dassi said.
When Lewis asked Nicole about her experience of engagement with the broader Melbourne community, she replied, “None at all.”
In the sisters’ experience, casual or affectionate touch was unusual between female adults and female children, or within female peer groups. Though they shared a bedroom at various times, they changed into their pyjamas separately in the bathroom and slept in housecoats and tights. Dassi explained that everything about a woman’s body was a secret. “So my whole body … wasn’t supposed to be seen, talked about, referenced to.” They knew “absolutely nothing” about anatomy, puberty, periods, pregnancy or sex.
“From a very young age,” Dassi testified, “we were taught as girls that our job was to be completely covered and modest, so that our bodies shouldn’t distract men. And we didn’t know what that ‘distraction’ meant. We were just taught that the distraction was because our bodies were different … So we covered up to look like we had no feminine shape at all … I was taught that my job as a woman was to not distract the men, to let them learn Torah and for me to grow up and give birth and have the next generation of Torah children.”
At the school, all non-religious books were “vetted”. Dassi testified that if maths or science exercise books depicted “girls and boys together, the boy or the girl would be blotted out, or if it was just a girl by themselves, then they would have religious modest clothing drawn onto them”. Books judged immodest were censored by redacting the unsuitable material with permanent marker, covering it with a sticker, or sealing it between pages permanently stuck together. Having gone through the Adass school for most of their education, the sisters graduated with no official academic qualifications, the curriculum not having met the standards of the Victorian Certificate of Education.
All of which indicates that the 11-kilometre distance between the Adass school and the County Court is more accurately understood in astronomical units. When Dassi made her first police statement, she lacked the language to explain what parts of her body had been violated. Just being at the police station – and then speaking in public to advocate for Leifer’s return – meant that she and her sisters had to overcome the enormous interior hurdle of reassessing everything they had been taught about the world and their place in it.
“It happened quite organically,” Dassi told me, at a cafe not far from the Adass school in 2019, about lobbying for Leifer’s extradition. “The civil case finished in 2015 and was reported quite widely, and it was ‘victim this’ and ‘victim that’. I had been working really hard, did not see myself as a victim and that bothered me. Then a reporter knocked on my door a few weeks after the trial.” That was Cameron Stewart, of The Australian. She eventually let him in.
“It was something my daughter said to me which made me realise that if no one does anything, Malka Leifer is going to continue abusing people in Israel and I was in a position to do something about it.
“She was living as a free woman there, 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 am going to do something.’” Dassi set up a #BringLeiferBack campaign page on Facebook, never imagining it would attain worldwide reach. She met with community organisations and with former premier of Victoria Ted Baillieu, who told her, at a time when she was encountering resistance both overt and subtle, that if she kept going her campaign would eventually succeed.
“Adass were very angry at me … I did have a couple of people ringing me up, saying ‘Why are you doing this?’ 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 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 people expect from you.’”
The three sisters met with then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and with the Israeli ambassador. They met with Israeli politicians at the Knesset in Jerusalem, trailed by television crews from the ABC and an Israeli news station. And they met with Jewish Community Watch.
“They went so far above and beyond,” JCW’s Shana Aronson told me, “to the point of inspiring heads of state to get involved, which is just unbelievable. When you listen to them talk, you’d think they were born for this, or that they were trained for this, in terms of their advocacy.”
It pours from the transcript: the vulnerability of the girls these strong women once were. Describing their abusive family life, the sisters spoke of bruises hidden beneath their modest clothes, broken ribs, being chased and cut with knives, hit. “If my mother told [our father] to beat us with a belt, he would do so,” Dassi stated. If there was bruising on their face, they were kept home from school. They were locked in a dark cupboard under the stairs, singly or in combination. “I remember a particular instance of being locked in that cupboard for hours,” Dassi said, “and missing dinner, or missing being put to bed by my older sisters, or sometimes being left for a lot longer than that.” The children were sometimes forced to sleep outside.
Food was weaponised. Nicole remembered, “[T]here were times when we were forced to eat food, and if you threw up the food, you’d have to eat the vomit.”
“I remember being starving for a lot of my childhood,” Elly said.
Each took their turn being idealised as the family’s golden child before being demonised as the scapegoat. “[M]y mother had her good or bad children,” Dassi testified, “and sometimes I was the good child, which meant I wasn’t punished as severely that week, and sometimes I was the bad child, which meant that all of her anger was directed at me.”
The daughters were “cleaning constantly”. “[T]here was always a consequence for not cleaning something perfectly right,” Nicole testified.
Elly described her mother saying, “I’m gonna kill you”, “I wish you were dead” and “I wish you were never born”. As is common, and psychologically adaptive, in those with developmental trauma, Dassi doesn’t have many childhood memories. “But I vividly remember my mother deciding at points that she didn’t want that child anymore,” she said, “and she was going to discard that child.” She described her father dropping them off at a park where they would remain, thinking they didn’t have a home anymore, until he eventually picked them up. Elly described being “constantly hypervigilant and scared”. Nicole described a childhood spent “almost afraid to breathe the wrong way”.
“[I] grew up feeling there was something inherently wrong or bad about me because of the way that my mother acted,” Dassi testified. “I felt like I couldn’t do anything right and that … there’s something inherently wrong about myself.”
Into the moonless night of overt piety and covert brutality that was the sisters’ daily life, suddenly came striding Malka Leifer “with this massive burst of energy” through their school, their safest place.
She was called Rebbetzin Leifer, as a sign of reverence and respect. When asked what rebbetzin means, Dassi explains: “A woman that’s revered or kind of holier than… closer to God, in a way.” So revered was Leifer that her name was literally blessed with a wish for long life in a note written on behalf of women and girls in her new community, which, two decades later, would be introduced into evidence in her defence:
“We have no words of thanks to thank you for opening your house to us each Shabbat, giving us a comfortable place to sit and sing songs of forgiveness and … at the same time providing … babysitting and toys for our Kinderlich. Help all of our prayers … May you continue your Holy work together with your revered family.”
Nicole, the eldest of the three complainants, is the first witness called by Crown prosecutor Lewis. She first encountered Leifer in Year 10: “[S]he was a new person to the community, which is unusual, and she came into the school and she was a very warm, charismatic, friendly person. Everyone liked her…”
Leifer arrived in Melbourne from Israel with her husband, Jacob, and their children in 2001, to take the role of principal – menaheles – at the Adass girls’ school. “Menaheles would be the most respected [role],” Jennifer Ann Measey, the executive head of the school who has worked there since 2002, will later explain in her evidence. “Mrs Leifer’s duties were to look after the welfare and the education of the girls on the girls’ campus. She would make sure that materials given to the students were appropriate according to the ethos and the philosophy of the community of the school.”
With 21 students, Nicole’s Year 10 was the school’s largest year level at that time. She testifies that while Leifer interacted with many students, “it was very clear that some were favourites and some were not”. Nicole was struck by Leifer’s physical interactions with students. “[S]he would just put her arms on people’s backs and shepherd them down the corridor. It was very unusual to have any teacher ever touch us, so it was very distinctly different.”
Leifer taught Nicole for certain classes in Years 10, 11 and 12, including those intended to prepare senior students for teaching roles at the school after graduation. Nicole had dreamt of becoming a teacher and school principal since she was little.
In Year 11, Nicole started being called out of class to run errands. “And that is the year that she began to show that she cared for me – but she touched me as well.” Once Nicole was inside Leifer’s office for a chat, or to help with photocopying or borrow a book, Leifer would hug and kiss her, touching her over and under her clothing saying, “‘I love you. You’re special to me. Don’t tell anyone. It’s a secret’ – any of those words,” Nicole testified.
In Year 12, she began receiving “private lessons” from Leifer at the school on Sundays. These eventually moved to Leifer’s home “in preparation for teaching”. Soon, she stated, Leifer requested she occasionally sleep over. “[I]t was considered special and privileged to be able to be invited to sleep over at Mrs Leifer’s house.”
Recounting one of those overnights, Nicole explains that after she was dropped off by her father, Leifer showed her to a bed in the eldest daughter’s bedroom. Her daughter was sleeping elsewhere. “So, Mrs Leifer came into the room, and it was dark. The blinds were venetian blinds and so there was light filtering through. That was the little bit of light there was in the room, and headlights of cars driving past or streetlights. She sat down on the bed to talk and then, I don’t recall how long after she began talking, she began hugging and kissing and pulling me towards her…”
After her father picked her up at 7am, as arranged, Nicole did not tell him, or anyone, what had happened. When Lewis asks why, she replies, “Firstly I was told over time that it was a secret … I didn’t have that kind of relationship, or words to put to anything, because I didn’t even understand what was happening at all. There was just no words possible to me at that age at that time.”
Lewis asks what she thought when these things were going on.
“I just froze.”
Selected by Leifer to teach, the private lessons continued after graduation. “The nature of the lessons were the same as they were in Year 11, but Mrs Leifer did more – took more ownership of my body, I suppose.”
Testifying about an incident that she alleged took place at a 2006 winter camp, Nicole describes sharing a bedroom and a bed with Leifer, and Dassi coming to the camp separately and sleeping in that room, too. How Dassi arrived late in the day and soon disappeared for some time, as did Leifer. How, when Dassi returned and sat in a circle of girls doing an activity, her face was red. And that when Mrs Leifer re-joined the group, her face was very red.
In her evidence, Nicole testified about incidents of sexual assault that took place at Leifer’s home, on school camp and at the school, including in Leifer’s office, which had a window that overlooked the entrance of the school but was “so high up that no one could see in”.
Cross-examining Nicole, Hill refers to the fact that her first police statement, in November 2011, made no reference to the non-consensual digital penetration that she described in her testimony. Nicole explains that she had made that police statement in circumstances where she had three young children and the legal process had reopened her trauma.
Hill states that it was also not mentioned in her second statement, in December 2011. “The first time we see that allegation in the form of a police statement is 10 years later – a decade later, in September 2021,” he says. “Correct?”
“Yes. You, of course— sorry, 16 March. I’m out by some months,” Hill says, correcting his mistake, his human error. “Almost nine and a half years later – 16 March 2021 – that’s the first reference to any digital penetration – correct – in a police statement?”
One focus of Hill’s questioning is whether Nicole read Dassi’s statement before finalising her own. Nicole testifies that she did not. Hill reads out Detective Sergeant Gregory Nunn’s note from November 11, 2011, four days before Nicole signed her first statement: “Nechama [Nicole] had told me that she had seen Dassi’s statement. I had advised her that it was important that she only included things in her statement that she had seen or heard and asked her not to look at it again or other statements.” Hill asks if she had that conversation with Detective Nunn.
“Not that I can recall.”
“But you swore, only moments ago before the jury, that you did not read Hadassa’s statement prior to making your first statement, didn’t you?”
“Because I have no memory of ever doing so.”
Nicole is then cross-examined on information she disclosed to two psychiatrists. She did not mention digital penetration to one, and she did not mention an incident of assault in Year 11 to the other.
Hill asks whether she told her sisters that “things of an inappropriate nature” were occurring in Years 11 or 12. She replies no, not that she can recall. He asks if she told them during her first year of teaching.
“It could be at one point, I don’t recall when Dassi and I warned Elly that Mrs Leifer wasn’t all who she seemed, but that was the extent of that conversation, as we had no words anyway.”
“You didn’t have any words?”
“Is that your excuse for not saying in your first statement to the police not one word about digital penetration?”
“It’s not an excuse, it’s trauma.”
“So, trauma caused you in that first statement to say nothing about digital penetration?”
“On the day I gave my first statement I found out I was pregnant with my youngest. That was the only way I remember that day as clearly as I do. It was extremely difficult for me to talk about anything for the first time in my life and it’s still difficult for me to talk about it now.”
“But 10 years later you were able to give a statement to the police for the first time about it?”
“Correct, because I have been to therapy and I’m working on processing some of that trauma.”
The psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, a specialist in traumatic stress and memory, wrote that trauma “changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think … The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”
Later, Hill points out that Nicole misidentified the year of the winter camp in her initial statement, remembering it as “June or July 2003”. She explains it was later amended for that reason to 2006.
“This is at a time, what – six weeks or thereabouts before your wedding?”
“Had you forgotten that fact when you came to make your first statement to the police, that it was six weeks prior to your wedding?”
“There are many things I didn’t say in that first statement because it was so traumatising for me to speak about it for the first time.”
“Is that your excuse for not saying things in that statement?”
Lewis interjects: “I object to the word ‘excuse’, Your Honour. It’s a reason.”
Hill continues, “Is that your reason for not saying things in that statement?”
“Trauma is a very real reason.”
About the camp, Hill asks, “The room that you were in, you’ve told us it had a double bed and a single bed. Correct?”
“Was the single bed in an alcove?”
“There may have been an additional single bed in an alcove. But there was a single and a double bed next to each other, with some distance between them.”
In another line of questioning, regarding an incident Nicole described happening at Leifer’s home when guests were in attendance, Hill says: “You’re not suggesting, are you, that anything inappropriate happened to you on those occasions?”
“I am suggesting that.”
“What happened inappropriately on those occasions?”
“One time we were sitting around a table and Mrs Leifer put her hand very strongly on my thigh in front of everyone, but her hand was in line with the table. So it was, like, if people looked closely they could see, but also not, because it was just below the top of the table. I remember feeling very uncomfortable and very frozen. And other times, if I came earlier and she was alone with me on the couch on the Friday night, sometimes she fell asleep, ’cause she was so tired from the week, and other times she was abusing me on the couch before people came.”
Hill introduces thank-you notes Nicole wrote to Leifer, and reads from them: “I don’t think any card or any amount of words will ever be enough to describe the thanks and feeling I have to you for arriving in my life at the most crucial years and helping me…”
Each complainant will be cross-examined for days. The defence will not be introducing its own case or witnesses. So, like a back-pocket player in the AFL games he enjoys light-heartedly discussing with the court staff during breaks, Hill must make use of his spoiling skills. In such circumstances, the voice of counsel inevitably mirrors the voice of internalised shame.
Shame tells us that what happened didn’t happen. Or that it wasn’t that bad. Or, if it was, that we are to blame. Shame, as my therapist says, is concrete in its understanding, small in its repertoire. It seizes any imperfection as proof of universal discredit. Most victims of developmental trauma, relational trauma or sexual assault live with that voice every moment of every day. It takes an extremely strong person to build a life regardless, and it takes an extremely strong person to endure this style of cross-examination.
I was not watching Nicole on the stand in person. But I know that, too often, strength in a woman is a double-edged sword. From speaking with her, I know that Nicole, an ultra-Orthodox mother of four who wakes in the dark to exercise, presents as extremely strong. She is forthright, articulate and quick, tall and poised in a way that certain people – say, the “man on the Clapham omnibus” used in my law school as the gold standard for reasonableness – might not identify with rape victim-survivors. Clapham’s most average man was not an abuse survivor. And he would’ve known little if anything about the deeply researched, vastly documented psychological processes that trauma-informed therapists encounter daily. For that hypothetically reasonable male, unperturbed on his bus ride, and to very real jurors of a certain mentality, it might just be common sense that Hill is right, and nothing happened to this strong woman at all.
In his re-examination, Lewis refers Nicole back to her evidence that Leifer persistently sexually abused her from 2002 to 2007. “In those circumstances, can you explain to the court how it is that you’re writing apparently affectionate correspondence to Mrs Leifer?”
“Well, she was my teacher and then she was my boss and I worked with her. So there was a complete disconnect and dissociation from the abuse and my ability to carry out my job and appear as normal, and just go on teaching the class that I loved, and giving all to my job, and kind of managing that, but not really knowing that I was managing so much because I was so dissociated from the abuse … [E]ven after everything, I just kept… until the day she left, I was still working with her and talking to her and having that kind of working relationship with her.”
He asks why she sought Leifer’s assistance with various things, given that abuse?
“There was no one else to go to … No one was above her.”
“Just so we understand,” Hill had asked Nicole, “within the Orthodox Judaism that was practised at the Adass Israel School, a rabbi was a male. There were no female rabbis?”
“There are female rabbis in the less Orthodox liberal part of Judaism?”
“I believe so.”
Nicole was correct. When I first started researching this story, I spoke with Rabbi Kim Ettlinger, then of Melbourne’s progressive Temple Beth Israel, who had officiated at my wedding. I wanted to understand why those in a community so closely concerned with halacha (Jewish law) failed to report the allegations against Leifer to the police, despite the biblically derived requirement to rescue and protect.
Ettlinger explained that two major principles were relevant. “The first principle is shalom bayit, which means ‘peace in the home’,” she said. “We have to strive for peace in the home. So how do we define it? As ensuring that there is family harmony.” At some point, however, the optics of harmony became more important than the reality. “A breakdown in family harmony – through our lens, that would be physical, emotional, psychological abuse; there are more categories – is kept quiet. Even if there is no peace in the home, they’ll say, ‘Well, I’m not going to talk about it, because that will show other people that there’s no peace in the home, and isn’t having that the most important thing?’ Shame, embarrassment, stigma – you don’t want to be that one family that shows that level of dysfunction.
“The second principle that the Orthodox community should have adhered to, and I am still dumbfounded as to why they didn’t, is a Talmudic one.” It is a principle so old we know it in the Aramaic, which pre-dates Hebrew: Dina demalchuta dina – “The [secular] law of the Kingdom is the law [that must be followed].”
“Except, and this is the addendum,” Ettlinger explained, “where the government is known to be anti-Semitic. That was a phenomenally important exception if you lived in Russia with pogroms, or Spain during the Inquisition. Not in 21st century Australia. But that idea, for many in the Orthodox community, hasn’t left them. And we all feel it. It’s real. We don’t want to do anything that has the potential to bring anti-Semitism to the community.”
It is real. It is accurate to say that I feel it now, writing this for you. I, of the third-generation survivors, of the silent Eastern European grandmother. I, who attended school and synagogue under armed guard because of real threats to my physical safety. I, who felt some prickling shame on realising that Leifer may be the only Jewish person whom some people in courtroom three have knowingly spent extended time in a room with. I understand the concern. But fear is a poison.
“The whole world is a very narrow bridge,” said Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement, who lived not far from where the Nazis later murdered members of my family, “and the main thing is to have no fear at all.” If fear dictates our choices, our inter-personal ethics, there will be nothing left worth protecting.
Before I left Ettlinger’s book-lined office, she recalled her reaction after learning about the Adass congregation’s failures to report. “In the progressive community we hung our heads in shame and embarrassment. Because another principle comes into play: ‘To save a life is the highest mitzvah [good deed] of all.’ Saving a child’s life means, for us within the progressive community, that no matter what, even if we were to face anti-Semitism, shame in the community… we would still encourage people to speak out and share with us if there had been cases of abuse. We would still report.”
After Nicole, Dassi takes the stand describing how she, too, became one of Leifer’s “favourite girls”. In Year 10, Dassi was called into Leifer’s office, where Leifer explained that she knew what was happening at home and was there to be supportive.
Lewis asks how that support manifested.
“There were various times that my mother would keep us back from school,” Dassi replied, explaining they would be refused excursions or called home to clean. “At that point in my life, I absolutely loved school and that was my safe place, so I didn’t want to be taken home, and Mrs Leifer would sometimes interject and tell my mother that it was compulsory for us to stay at school or … go on the school excursion.”
Having increasingly conscripted Dassi for errands, Leifer told Dassi’s mother, in the summer holidays before Year 11, that she wanted to give Dassi private Sunday lessons. Held at the school, the lessons were to be about “Jewish values and Jewish morals, and how to be an upstanding good Jewish girl according to Jewish law”.
“Did you want to undertake those lessons?” Lewis asked.
“I felt incredibly special that she had noticed me… Can I explain the way I saw her at the time?”
“[A]t the time, the way that the community was run, the people that we revered the most were the rabbis. And she came into the community, and she became this person that was revered as much as a rabbi, and I had never seen a woman that people looked up to like this. So, the fact that she was paying attention to me, and I felt that I was this person that was inherently … bad in some way, and that she saw past [that] and she wanted to give me lessons – I felt incredibly special because of that.”
“A perpetrator may look to exploit a child’s emotional vulnerability by positioning themselves as a supportive confidant. In this way, a child’s perception of the relationship with the perpetrator can be manipulated, leading to more opportunities for the perpetrator to spend time alone with the child.”
In 2017, the royal commission released a research paper on grooming. It defined grooming as the use of a variety of manipulative and controlling techniques on a vulnerable subject in a range of social settings in order to establish trust or normalise sexually harmful behaviour, with the overall aim of facilitating exploitation and prohibiting exposure.
“Grooming is recognised as a complex, commonly incremental process,” the authors wrote. Factors that increase a child’s vulnerability to sexual abuse include: social isolation, low self-esteem, domestic violence and a history of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. “While all children are at risk of sexual abuse, vulnerable children are more likely to be targeted by perpetrators because they are perceived as easier to manipulate and therefore less likely to disclose sexual abuse.”
Malka Leifer would select a book during the private lessons. “[W]e would discuss the text,” Dassi testifies. “During those lessons, she would put her arms around my shoulders or rub my thighs in, what I thought at the time, a very loving matter that I… I felt loved by.
“[E]very time, she’d rub my thighs a bit higher…”
Lewis asks about Dassi’s thought process while this was happening.
“At first, I felt like, ‘Oh, she’s being very loving toward me and she’s giving me this… this love and attention and I felt very special … But I was also very confused, because no one had ever touched me in that manner and I didn’t understand. It was like I was embarrassed to bring her attention to the fact that her hand was going further and further up my leg. I just thought, Oh, maybe she doesn’t notice what she’s doing …
“She was telling me that she loves me – which were words that I was absolutely desperate to hear at the time – and that she’s here to help me and to support me, and also we were talking at the same time about the text that we were learning.”
The lessons were initially arranged through Dassi’s mother but eventually Leifer gave Dassi a mobile so she could text her. The lessons moved to Leifer’s home, continuing throughout Year 11 and 12, and then after graduation, when, like Nicole, Dassi was appointed by Leifer as a junior teacher.
Lewis asks why, at the time, Dassi felt that she wanted to continue the lessons. In addition to the feeling of being loved, Dassi explains: “I knew that by having that connection to her, not only would I be looked at better when it came to marriage, but it was also like she was closer to God than I was and by having those lessons it was like she was increasingly my spirituality, which was something that was of utmost importance to me.”
After Lewis asks about the first time Leifer directly touched her skin, Dassi describes a half day at the school when Leifer decided that Dassi would be going home with her. It was not unusual for her to take students home, Dassi testifies, and, because Leifer didn’t drive, a woman from the community drove them. “I remember Mrs Leifer going into the house and checking that nobody was home. And then she kind of directed me to go and sit on the couch. And I sat on the couch and she pulled up a chair … and she was talking to me and she was telling me how much she loved me and how much she was a mother to me.” Dassi described Leifer touching her under her school uniform. “I was incredibly confused and I didn’t understand what was happening. But I thought, like, She’s Mrs Leifer, I trust her.”
After about two hours, Leifer suddenly stood up. “[S]he was, like, ‘Okay, it’s time to go back to school.’ Like what had just happened hadn’t happened, and she was back in that principal role.”
Dassi testifies about being sexually assaulted in Leifer’s home and office. In an empty room at the primary school used for tutoring, in the school library, in the empty office of the wellbeing coordinator, in school camps around Victoria. When no one was around, and when people were nearby. Lewis asks how she reacted after a sexual assault that occurred in Leifer’s dining room after Leifer told her eldest daughter to go to her room and close the door. “I didn’t react,” Dassi replies. “I was in a very dissociated space … I couldn’t move.”
He asks the same question in relation to a sexual assault that occurred on an overnight school excursion.
“I remember just feeling like I was watching myself … I just felt an overwhelming sense of deep shame,” she replies, again describing the inability to speak during the assault.
Neurophysiologists refer to it as tonic immobility: an innate, post-contact threat response that occurs in a predator/prey context. Those of us who have experienced it under the hand of an attacker know it as the freeze response.
Lewis asked if she told Leifer to stop.
“I couldn’t tell her to stop.”
“Besides not feeling like I could speak, I also was scared of her.”
“Why were you scared of Mrs Leifer?”
“She knew a lot of things about me, and she implied that if I said anything that she would share those things about my home life, which was of a big shame to me at that time.”
Dassi describes an incident that occurred while the rest of her class was on a festival day excursion. Leifer had kept Dassi back at the school. Someone rang, asking if anyone was available to work at a creche. Leifer sent Dassi, who returned after lunch. Leifer then took her into her office and assaulted her. Dassi recalls walking out of the office and one of her friends making a comment to her.
“What was that?” Lewis asks.
“That she was jealous that I got to spend the day with Mrs Leifer.”
She testifies also about an incident towards the end of Year 12. Someone picked up Leifer, whose infant was with her, and Dassi from the school. The baby was taken to a babysitter, Leifer and Dassi were driven to Leifer’s house. Leifer offered Dassi a bowl of soup from a pot on the stove. Dassi accepted, eating slowly to delay what she knew would follow. She described being sexually assaulted while Leifer watched the door. Then Leifer rang for a lift back to school.
At one point, Lewis hands Dassi documents that contain a copy of her diary pages and asks her to translate its first words.
“A reckoning of my soul.”
During Years 11 and 12, whenever she felt something was testing her, Dassi grappled with it on the page. There she asked God for help. There she drafted one of the letters Leifer insisted she write to her about her private struggles. “I’m begging, pleading in desperation for help … Even school, the place I feel safe in is not going good…”
After being chosen by Leifer to teach, the abuse continued during Dassi’s first year of employment and into the period of her engagement.
Outside of immediate family members, the first man Dassi had a conversation with was the man she would marry, Joshua Erlich, now her ex-husband. Typically, within the Adass community, when a girl – and they are still girls at 17 – reaches what is considered marriageable age, a matchmaker finds a suitable candidate. With parental permission, the young people meet a few times, in public or supervised in a home, before deciding.
“There were either four or five meetings over one week, because I met him for the first time on a Monday or something, and then we got engaged that Saturday night,” Dassi testifies. During their engagement, phone calls were supervised by her mother, his letters first read by her parents.
“Your engagement last[ed] for a number of months, I think you said,” Lewis asks Dassi at this point of her evidence-in-chief.
“Six or seven months,” Hill interjects.
“Thank you to my learned friend,” Lewis says.
Reading this exchange – and, later, Hill’s challenge to the level of agency Dassi explained she had felt in entering her marriage – I experience, in that windowless media room, the feeling that arose occasionally during the trial. I felt it watching the necessary legal discussion between two male counsel and a male judge about what interlabial depth, if any, was encompassed in the anatomical phrase “vaginal introitus”. I felt it when Hill emphasised that Erlich, was, as an accountant, a smart man, but, later, that the prosecution’s witnesses – a female professor of psychiatry, a female psychologist and a female social worker – were testifying not as experts in their fields but in their capacity of having personally spoken with the sisters. I didn’t feel it when Lewis submitted, after being asked whether breastfeeding in court posed a potential distraction, that the chief issue would be an unsettled baby not the act of feeding it. I did, however, feel it when, after asking a second breastfeeding mother, attending court in protest, to leave, the judge noted for the purposes of the transcript that she had exposed her breast. A little zap of electricity, the kind of charge that initially animates but eventually depletes.
While the sisters are testifying about a female abuser, it was the low status of women and girls – their silence, absence, erasure – in their community’s social hierarchy that increased their vulnerability to her predations and decreased their worthiness for protection. Each little zap reminds me that the issues are not limited to fundamentalist religious milieus.
Ultra-Orthodox women learn about sex during kallah (bridal) lessons immediately preceding their wedding, where it is discussed in the context of the laws governing “purity” within marriage. “The way that I was taught was this is a very holy act,” Dassi testifies. “[Y]ou have to have the right intentions … you have to say a prayer beforehand because … if you do conceive a child from that act, your child will be born a certain way, depending on the intentions that you had when you did that act.”
One of the incidents Dassi testifies about occurred at the 2006 school winter camp, which she attended as a junior teacher. As Nicole had testified, Dassi shared a bedroom with her and Leifer. Lewis asks Dassi to describe those sleeping arrangements.
“There were three beds in the room – um, a double bed, a single bed and then an alcove that had another bed … I slept on a bed in the alcove.”
Was there light in the room?
“The bathroom light was on so there was some light in the room.”
What did she observe?
“I heard whispering and then I saw Mrs Leifer and Nechama [Nicole] in the same… the double bed together … I heard noises. I didn’t observe anything else … I understood that Mrs Leifer was touching my sister.”
Lewis asks if she discussed it later with Nicole.
“I remember standing outside one of the camp rooms and we had this look of understanding between us, and Nechama said that she hated being touched and Mrs Leifer was preparing her for marriage, or something like that, and we just shared this look of understanding.”
At one point during their engagement, Erlich told Dassi that he had noticed her mother’s abuse and had spoken to his rabbi about breaking off their engagement. “I recall convincing him [for] the rest of the conversation that I wasn’t damaged goods,” she testifies, “and that he should still be engaged to me. And his rabbi had told him that it wouldn’t look good for him to break off the engagement, as well.” The engagement continued. The incident, however, had reinforced to Dassi that silence was best.
Dassi testifies about an incident that occurred in the primary school, in a room used for tutoring. She came to be in that room because she was hiding after hearing that Leifer was looking for her. Still, Leifer found her, sat next to her and said she looked pretty in her purple jumper. Leifer then assaulted Dassi until Elly, looking for her older sister so they could walk home together, walked in.
“I just remember feeling incredibly ashamed and I remember that my face was very red,” Dassi says. The sisters walked home together in silence.
Later, in her own testimony, Elly will explain, “Mrs Leifer was the most respected person in the community, and I saw something, but I didn’t understand what I was seeing. But at the same time, if Mrs Leifer was doing something than it must be okay, so I didn’t really have the understanding that I needed to ask about it.”
Before her wedding, Dassi received kallah lessons from various women, including Leifer. For one such lesson, Dassi’s father dropped her off at Leifer’s home around 11pm. “There was another student at the house and Mrs Leifer said not to come in until that student had left,” Dassi testifies. Despite it being late in the night, when Dassi finally entered the house she waited over an hour while Leifer was on the phone. Then Leifer showed Dassi into her daughter’s bedroom. Tired, Dassi went to sleep fully dressed. Leifer came in to give her “a goodnight hug” and then assaulted her.
“I remember seeing 3.15 flashing on my mobile,” Dassi states. “I felt completely paralysed.” She lay there for the next few hours, wrestling with reality until daybreak, when she got ready to leave. Leifer offered her a cup of cocoa, which Dassi declined. Her father arrived to pick her up before morning prayers.
Leifer didn’t attend Dassi’s wedding on September 11, 2006 because she was in Israel for her eldest daughter’s wedding, which took place on the same day. Dassi and Erlich spent their first month as a married couple living in Leifer’s vacant Melbourne home. Then they moved to Israel, so Erlich could pursue religious studies.
In their small flat, Dassi slid into depression. She found herself unable to socialise or shop or cook or clean, staying in bed as the sun rose and fell, learning online about the things she had known nothing about. At night, she was tortured by recurring nightmares. She started seeing a social worker, Chana Rabinowitz, to whom she disclosed some of what she was experiencing. Later, Rabinowitz will testify, “I do not recall exactly the words … I do recall that I asked her who hurt her.”
Dassi states, “I recall Chana Rabinowitz asking me who was it at the school or which man was at the school, and I said to her it wasn’t a man, and then the next session I told her that it was Mrs Leifer.”
“She was very distraught,” Rabinowitz will testify. “I remember that she was kind of hunched over into herself and that she could only whisper what it was.”
Lewis’s last question to Dassi is whether at any point in time she had understood the sexual nature of what Leifer was doing to her.
“No,” she replies.
With Dassi’s permission, Rabinowitz spoke with Nicole, and with the psychologist back in Melbourne. The meeting at which it was decided that Leifer would be stood down occurred shortly thereafter, as did Leifer’s flight to Israel. While the jury cannot know this, they will hear, in Hill’s cross-examination of Dassi, that Dassi went home from her session with Rabinowitz and, around midnight when Erlich appeared to be asleep, called Nicole.
About the period the couple spent living in the Leifer home, sleeping in the daughter’s bedroom, Hill asks of Dassi: “[D]uring that time did you say anything to [Erlich] about what you say to this jury Mrs Leifer did to you in that house?”
“I wouldn’t have dared.”
“Did you show any sign of emotion or distress?”
“I lived most of my life at that time in a very disassociated state where I was very numb from my emotions, so I don’t believe I would have shown any emotions at the time, full stop.”
“Disassociated is a word that you have learnt subsequently from being treated by a psychologist, isn’t it?”
“I don’t recall when I learnt about that word.”
Awareness of the abuse Dassi had endured, and the magnitude of the betrayals it represented, came gradually. When she and Erlich returned to Melbourne, Dassi was pregnant. After her daughter was born in 2010, Dassi checked in to a mental health clinic with her baby and one suitcase. “I got my first taste of the outside world,” she told me at the cafe. “Talking to other mums, 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 the most right of everyone.’ Those are the things you’re brought up with. So, to interact with these other mums and realise that they were fighting the same demons that I was fighting, they just wanted to be good parents for their kids – it dispelled a lot of that education. What else have I been taught that’s wrong?”
She was surprised to find 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. Being there threatens the community. First of all, we have to agree that there is a problem. And there is no problem: everyone’s perfect, everyone’s normal, everyone lives in a certain mould, and you stick to that if you want to remain part of that community. No divorce, no mental illness.
“I knew that I didn’t want to be in a community where that 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 the community.”
Her marriage ended. Dassi made her statement, speaking with Detective Sergeant Danielle Newton, from the Bayside Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Team, who more than a decade later is the informant in this trial, sitting calmly behind Lewis.
During cross-examination, Hill reads from a document Dassi wrote. It sounds like a passage from her forthcoming memoir: a description of hiding in the tutoring room and hearing the students in the hallway unwrap their snacks.
“This is from your imagination, is it not?” Hill asks.
“This is a memory of mine.”
A little later, Hill asks, “What time of day was it?”
“It was just before home time … In the time period before 4 o’clock.”
“At a time when people could be expected to be moving in the corridors?”
“Effectively outside the [tutoring] room?”
“Tens of students would be in that area at 4 o’clock?”
“When our class was dismissed, the students would leave their classrooms and be in that corridor.”
“And the likelihood there would be teachers as well?”
“When the school day finished there would be teachers in the corridor.”
“And yet you say in that room Mrs Leifer pulled up your jumper?”
The final destination of this line of questioning – that no person in a position of power would sexually assault someone when others are nearby – is persuasive only if you are unfamiliar with the cases of rape and sexual assault that daily come before our courts, or were heard by the royal commission. Or if it has never happened to you, or to someone you love. Or if you are unfamiliar with the research on grooming.
“Grooming goes far beyond the child,” Professor Patrick O’Leary, the lead author of the royal commission’s report on grooming, tells me. “It starts with the environment.” This includes parents, caregivers, colleagues and other staff members in institutional settings.
The idea that Leifer would not have abused a student in an empty room in a busy school or camp, or a home in which others were present, relies on a form of common sense that deems such behaviours so risky as to be improbable. In other words, a common sense unburdened by what experts on – and victims of – child sexual offending know about the perpetrator’s ability to “set the scene”, as O’Leary puts it. They do this “so that the people around them have no question about that person’s legitimacy and safety – or that any questioning of them would be problematic”. That translates into effective control over the behaviour of others, and in that way, the physical environment.
“As they commit offences and get away with them – and convince themselves that the child or young person is consenting (that’s part of this process, that the offender starts believing their own lies) – they become intoxicated with that power, and their ability to ‘get away with it’ increases,” O’Leary says. “So you do see them molesting the child while parents and other teachers are around.”
Hill asks Dassi to describe certain details about the places where the assaults occurred, some nearly 20 years ago. He asks about the house in Emerald, a village in Melbourne’s outer south-east, where she stated she’d been assaulted during a school excursion.
“The memory I have of that house is what happened to me in the house. I don’t have a very clear memory of what the house looked like.”
When questioned further, she replies that she has no memory of whether the door was locked, or whether the light in the room was on.
When Hill asks about the incident in Leifer’s office on the festival day after Dassi returned from the creche, she cannot remember the name of the woman who ran the creche or the woman who drove her there. She can, however, remember being in Leifer’s office, unable to speak or move while the assault was occurring.
“And you have but a partial recollection of what happened in that room?” Hill asks.
“I have quite a vivid recollection of what happened in that room.”
“But you can’t recall any of the conversation?”
“The conversation is not what sticks out in my memory.” She remembers the door being locked, but doesn’t remember how she knew that. She remembers her tights pooled around her ankles, but has no recollection of getting dressed afterwards.
When Hill asks how long she was in the office, Dassi replies that it was until 4pm. She had been watching the clock because she knew that’s when the buses would return from the excursion. “I heard noises of the engines of the bus – that’s my recollection.”
A true sentence lands in a particular way: it gleams, as scratch resistant as a diamond. That – and our assumptions about the character of those we think we know – is the bedrock of the jury system. And when Dassi uttered this one, a belter hit courtroom three. The weakness of the jury system is the fact that truth too rarely moves the world.
The transcript is a masterclass in traumatic stress – its diametrically opposed impacts on memory, elevating some details, burying others. You will remember the shock of uninvited hands on your skin. The redness of their face, the rapidity of their breath, the silence when it slows. The sun heating a room. The narrowness of a couch. Pain. The dark. You won’t recall whether the low light was from the gap under the door or from the door being slightly ajar. Or how you got home. That patchiness is a mark of veracity. Each detail will not be accounted for. That’s how memory works generally, and traumatic memory especially; any too-perfect narrative is its own tell.
Dassi had testified about a sexual assault that occurred when she was alone with Leifer in the school library and which was interrupted by another student, her friend, walking in while Dassi was partially undressed. Hill asks if Dassi or Leifer entered the library first.
Dassi can’t remember. “My recollection is tied to what happened in the library.”
“So the surrounding detail you have no recollection of, is that what you say?”
“My recollection is tied to the shame and embarrassment that I had, and so that’s what sticks out in my memory.”
“But in respect to the surrounding detail you have no recollection?”
“That’s not what sticks out in my memory.”
“So we can’t test the surrounding circumstances – is that your position?”
“I’m not trying to test the evidence, so I don’t know how to answer that question.”
Hill asks what her friend said on walking in. “[D]id she say, ‘Mrs Leifer, sorry to catch you in this position’, ‘Mrs Leifer, are you free?’ What words did she use?”
“My recollection is her saying something along the lines of, ‘I’m looking for Mrs Leifer.’”
“She’s hardly likely to have said that when Mrs Leifer’s standing or seated in front of her…”
“That’s my recollection of what she said.”
For such framing to damage Dassi’s veracity, one must conflate a safe interactive order – which encourages equality and confrontability – with an hierarchical fundamentalist social system reinforced in the strongest possible terms since birth. It’s likely that no jurors grew up in an insular religious milieu. But it’s also likely that some of them have performed the labour of normalisation that can reflexively follow abuse by someone in a position of authority. The question is – as I bring to mind the jurors’ faces, counting the women – how many?
Hill takes Dassi back to the 2006 winter camp, the shared room where she remembered lying in bed in the alcove, hearing Leifer assault Nicole.
Asking about the room’s layout, Hill hands her a photo.
“Now, you know those photographs do not show a room with an alcove, don’t you?”
“That does not show a room with an alcove.”
Statistically, when we talk about sexual violence in Australia we’re not talking about a stranger with a knife. We’re talking about people known to, and trusted by, vulnerable victims.
It is not uncommon for sexual offences against such victims to be so persistently embedded into the fabric of daily life that it becomes difficult to time-stamp individual instances for the purposes of an indictment. As a result, this offending is often aggregated using representative counts. Leifer, however, is charged with individual counts. For the purposes of the trial, the 29 charges represent the entirety of her offending against the sisters. As with all legal fictions, the charges present an idealised version of reality – tidier, certain, containable.
Take the alcove. After encountering it in Nicole’s evidence, and Dassi’s evidence, and in Hill’s cross-examination where he wielded its absence in the photograph as specific evidence that speaks to the failure of the whole story, my impression is not that the sisters lied or were otherwise discredited. My impression is that the alcove inadvertently migrated from another dim and distressing bedroom into the recollections about the one stayed in on that winter camp, which could be recalled with otherwise-accurate specifics. Human memory is fallible.
On re-examination, Lewis asks Dassi to explain why she hadn’t told anyone what Leifer was doing.
“The first reason was an overwhelming amount of shame that I had … And the shame that I felt… it was an incredibly overwhelming amount of shame.”
She continues: “I also didn’t think that if I could find the language to tell someone about it, that someone would believe me over a woman that everyone loved and respected and looked up to.
“I also didn’t have anyone to tell. There was no one that I could have said anything to that I believed could have stopped what was happening … I also was scared of her. She had implied multiple times that she would tell people that I came from an abusive home and my reputation in the community was absolutely the only … reason I knew that I would get married, and knowing that I came from an abusive home would signify that I was damaged goods … [G]etting married was my only way to escape what was happening.”
Manny Waks was the only named victim-survivor to testify against a Jewish school, Yeshivah College, at the royal commission. While no evidence about the Adass Israel School was put before the commission, judgement in Dassi’s successful 2015 civil suit was delivered the day before the commissioners heard submissions in the Yeshivah cases.
Waks first spoke publicly in 2011 about his sexual abuse as a child by two men in the Melbourne Chabad-Lubavitch community where he and his 16 siblings were raised. He went on to found the organisations Tzedek and VoiCSA (formerly Kol v’Oz), which have advocated for the prevention of child sexual abuse in Jewish communities around the world. Waks was present at many of the Leifer extradition hearings in Israel, where he now lives, and he returned to Melbourne to attend her criminal trial.
“This issue is not unique to the Jewish community,” he tells me, mentioning the Catholic Church and other institutions examined by the royal commission. “What we’ve seen time and time again, is that [these institutions] put their own interests first, and the interests of victim-survivors further down the line.”
Waks explains that the vulnerability of children in general, and certain children specifically, is compounded by aspects of ultra-Orthodox life. The difficulty, for instance, in very large families of closely supervising all children at all times. The infrequency of meaningful contact with outsiders. The animus directed towards those who have disclosed their abuse. The closed power structure that governs every aspect of daily life, and the place of women and children within that hierarchy.
“There is an incredible social support structure within the ultra-Orthodox community,” Waks adds. “As soon as the rabbi – the leaders – say the word, they spring into action. When someone is sick, they’re there. They will not leave a member behind. But, as we’ve seen, it can be used in a negative and dangerous manner.”
“There’s a fundraiser going on for Leifer,” he told me when we spoke in May, scrolling through his phone to send me the link. “Now, it could be fundraising for the family, the children… maybe they need support. But it could be legal funds. We’ve seen previous legal fundraisers for Leifer and how much the community is supporting her because the Leifer family don’t have the money. So, who is bankrolling her over so many years?”
“From their perspective,” Waks now explains, “they’re protecting their community. They genuinely feel like they’re doing it for the right cause … and all means are acceptable to that end. Thinking from the ultra-Orthodox perspective, it’s all for one primary reason: to bring the Mosheach [Messiah] here.”
We discuss institutional responses to child sexual assault. “It’s easy to have policies and procedures. The problem is there are so many victim-survivors who hadn’t felt comfortable disclosing to family, teachers, police … Often it’s more difficult to disclose abuse within the family than in an institution. Similar arguments are applied to disclosure there: keep it quiet. The second and third generation Holocaust mentality – we don’t want to incite anti-Semitism, we don’t want to give them fodder.
“I’m not suggesting for a moment those aren’t real and important threats, but if we look at the number of victims as a result of those external threats versus those who are victims of internal threats – the statistics are that one in five children will experience some form of sexual abuse before age 18. Twenty per cent of the population. In Australia, Israel, America – the same statistics.
“That’s primary victims. Now think of the secondary victims – parents and siblings growing up in the shadow of abuse and its aftermath. There needs to be a higher-level commitment amongst Jewish leadership … Like any complex and sensitive issue, it will be an ongoing process until we get it right.”
Elly is the same age as Leifer’s eldest daughter. They were in the same class. Elly testifies that at the end of Year 11, Leifer started calling her into her office, asking for her help with “simple things like going to the staff room and photocopying”. That happened more regularly in Year 12. Elly babysat the principal’s children, did her shopping, cleaned her home, her office.
“I was feeling like someone cared for me,” Elly says. “I was starting to feel safe with discussing things with her that weren’t discussed with anyone else.”
The eight instances of sexual assault Elly describes in her evidence occurred at the school, at the Phoenix Theatre in Elsternwick, where she appeared in the school play, and at Leifer’s home, where Elly estimates that similar assaults occurred 30 times over the course of 2007.
At the end of 2006, Elly testifies, before going onstage in a main role in the school play, she was sexually assaulted in her dressing room by Leifer, who then joined the audience, winking and smiling at her from the front row. When the performance had ended and the auditorium was still emptying, Elly’s mother came down the centre aisle, yelling at her in front of others for failing to immediately leave. Upset, Elly went to gather her things from the dressing room. Leifer followed and assaulted her again.
Elly describes Leifer’s cycle of attention and discard. How, throughout 2007, Leifer would often give her the silent treatment for weeks. “I didn’t understand why she wasn’t talking to me, and I felt like I just wanted to make whatever it was better … I felt confused, I felt that I needed to earn back her love … I would try to approach her and … many times she would say, ‘[C]ome let’s speak about it’, and that would end up being a time when she assaulted me.”
So strangulating was the shame Elly carried from these times that Vicki Gordon, a psychologist she later consulted, will testify that “she would actually SMS me from inside my room, sitting in her chair with me opposite, because she couldn’t use the words”.
Leifer’s offending against Elly escalated in frequency. “She would put her kids to bed and it would just be us. I never enjoyed it. There were times she would hurt me,” Elly testifies. She says that Leifer would ask if she was enjoying it, and that when she said no, she didn’t like it, Leifer told her she would never be able to give a man pleasure. “Made it as if there was something wrong with me.”
Elly describes a growing awareness of being different, both to members of the general public she saw on the street and to those in her own community, because of the secrets she had to keep about what was happening at home and with Leifer. In her police statement, she wrote: “There were often times I would go to the [Elsternwick] library, which is not a very religious thing to do, and read different books that weren’t suitable for a religious woman to read. The library was considered as a place that was out of bounds. It was sort of rebellious if we went to the library.”
Like Nicole and Dassi, Elly was chosen by Leifer to teach. After her first year of training, she became engaged. This news was kept from her parents because she feared that, as had happened with Nicole’s first engagement, her mother would end it. So, it was Leifer who arranged the couple’s engagement party in Israel, though she did not attend the wedding in Sydney.
In cross-examination, Hill asks Elly about her wedding, which occurred after Leifer had left Australia. “And in 2011 you believed that Malka Leifer attended your wedding, didn’t you?”
“Yes, in my mind she was… she had prepared me for marriage in what seemed like a way that I didn’t understand, but she had prepared me, and she had given me an understanding of what marriage would look like. And when she left in 2008 it was almost impossible for myself to comprehend how this person that seemingly loved me so much wasn’t there at my wedding.”
More effective than any gun or knife, the end point of emotional manipulation is a faithfulness to one’s tormentor that mimics love, and which burrows its way under the skin like a tick.
Safe or unsafe, a child depends on their parents for survival. So, where abuse is the norm, they adapt by perceptually splitting the feared version of the parent off from safer instances of the same person. To preserve that fiction, they will leave their bodies, question their own knowing, or blame themselves when confronted with the unthinkable. Shame is a liar. But it begins as a type of threat defence in the child who is told that harm is not harmful, terror is not terrifying and the dangerous deserve trust. This is what they carry out of their home and into the world. When other abusers scent this vulnerability like blood in the water, new unsafe relationships are formed, shame having the same distorting effects.
Finding striking parallels between war veterans and child abuse victims, van der Kolk wrote, “Most of them suffer from agonising shame about the actions they took to survive and maintain a connection with the person who abused them. This was particularly true if the abuser was … someone the child depended on, as is so often the case.”
Which is all to say that when the sisters spoke “glowingly” about Leifer, when they felt she loved them so much, they were telling a story, above all to themselves, about their own worthiness.
What, then, can be said about that school of “common sense” that is baffled by “glowing” words about one’s abuser, holding them as proof of fabrication because it understands nothing about the adaptive acrobatics every psyche performs in order to see only what it is supported to deal with?
Common sense is based on an outdated view of the possible, wrote John Berger, in A Fortunate Man, his 1967 study of a rural doctor’s general practice. “[C]ommon-sense can never teach itself, can never advance beyond its own limits, for as soon as the lack of fundamental learning has been made good, all items become questionable and the whole function of common-sense is destroyed.”
Just after the doors of courtroom three re-open to media and the public on the morning of Monday, February 27, Leifer is led in by a correctional officer. Over the next three weeks, the school’s cleaner, teachers, Dassi’s ex-husband and the therapists the sisters consulted take the stand as witnesses in the Crown case. Each day, as court convenes and adjourns for meals and short breaks, I watch Leifer being led in and out of the room. In those moments, more often than not, she is chatting animatedly with the assigned correctional officer, smiling, laughing – “clowning around” is how I would put it.
Her charmingly light and amusing manner elicits a mirroring reaction from those various officers, lawyers and one of the teachers, her former employee. It is an affect I find jarring given the circumstances until I realise that normalisation is the point. It appears that she is attempting to control the environment – grooming those in it – even here, even now. Common sense holds that charm is charming. But charm disarms; it is a velvet blindfold.
The Adass schoolteachers who testify, with their American and Israeli accents, remind me of the women who taught me until the age of 18. A younger part of me reflexively relaxes in their auditory presence until I tune in to their words.
Lewis’s junior, Stephanie Clancy, the only female lawyer to lead evidence at the trial, stands to question the executive head of school, Jennifer Ann Measey, about renovations after Leifer’s tenure.
Clancy shows Measey a photograph of an office door at the school.
“Are there any changes to that door from the time that Mrs Leifer was working at the school to when this photograph was taken in 2011?”
“Yes, the glass window in the door.”
“What can you say about the glass window in the door?”
“Um, we put… they took a lot of measures after…”
Hill is on his feet. “We object, your Honour.”
Clancy asks if there were changes to the tutoring room.
“As far as I understand, the door handles were changed.”
When it is Hill’s turn, he asks Measey about a 2021 police request for a list of people who had driven Leifer when she worked at the school. Measey confirms that she had found people who drove Leifer home to feed her babies, or to the dressmaker, or the shops, but that she hadn’t found anyone who drove her with the sisters in their car. No evidence is led about the factors that might prevent women still embedded in that community from coming forward with that information.
Leah Boulton is the founder and chief executive of Pathways Melbourne, an organisation that provides a range of supports to those from ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities questioning their lifestyle, practices and beliefs. Dassi is secretary of the Pathways board.
Those who seek help from Pathways share the lived experience of questioning the unquestionable. “Is there really a God? Why do I have to tie my left shoelace before my right?” offers Boulton, by way of example. “They often question the gender roles, there may be sexuality questions, they almost always want better education, they may have experienced family violence which pushed them out, there may simply be philosophical differences.” For this, many are shunned by the only community they have known. It is not uncommon for custody proceedings to be weaponised in that regard.
Boulton is frequently asked about rates of sexual and family violence in ultra-Orthodox communities, however their closed nature prevents certainty. “But I can say that when we did a survey in 2019 of the people who come to Pathways, 70 per cent of participants had experienced domestic and family violence. I can also tell you that when we ran a women’s group through Covid on Zoom, of the eight women who participated, seven had experienced sexual abuse and/or family violence.
“That’s people who are sharing the fact – to us, at least – that they’re questioning the religious lifestyle, so perhaps we can’t say that they’re squarely ‘within’ the community anymore,” she says. There is, therefore, a dark statistic of those who have not yet disclosed, and may never do so.
“The reason people don’t ultimately speak up is to protect the marriageability of their children,” Boulton says. “Their belief is that speaking up about family violence or child sexual abuse will put schmutz on the family.”
When I ask whether there’s been meaningful change since the sisters were at the Adass school, Boulton replies, “It is very difficult to know what is going on in the Adass community given they remain closed. So how do we really know things have improved as far as protecting children? Certainly, the sisters have done an incredible job at increasing awareness within the broader ultra-Orthodox community. And awareness is a great start.
“But I’m at a loss to see how the culture will change towards reporting and speaking out if those messages don’t come from the top down to give them permission: ‘You will not be shamed, we will stand with you and protect you.’”
Joshua Erlich, Dassi’s ex-husband, speaks rapidly and softly, requiring reminders of what Judge Gamble tells everyone taking the stand: “Those microphones are recording your voice, but they’re not making it any louder.”
Questioned by Lewis about how Dassi would speak about Leifer, Erlich says, “She always spoke of her in glowing terms. She said they would talk a lot, discuss all the things going on in her life and she said they would often, um, lie in bed and talk to each other, and that’s how they’d spend their time.”
Lewis asks what Dassi had told him about “the physical aspect of their relationship, if I can call it that way – so what’s the sum total of the things she’s told you, in essence?”
“[Leifer] was very affectionate to her. She spent a lot of time speaking to her in private, both in school and in camp and at her house. She would hug her. She would rub her on the leg and other generally affectionate forms of a relationship, and, yeah, just things of that nature.”
During Hill’s cross-examination, I forget at one point that Erlich is not his witness, so smoothly could many of his statements slot into the defence narrative.
“It’s clear from what you’ve told the jury that throughout your relationship with Hadassa [Dassi] she would always talk about Malka Leifer in a very positive way,” Hill prompts.
“And how Mrs Leifer would help not only Hadassa, but she and her two sisters, Nechama [Nicole] and Elly, in respect to family problems?”
“And she was always expressing her gratitude to Mrs Leifer for doing that?”
“In fact, it was clear that Hadassa saw Mrs Leifer as a replacement mother?”
“And she told you that her two sisters, Nechama and Elly, viewed Malka Leifer in a similar light?”
“In fact, throughout your relationship with Hadassa it always came across from Hadassa to you that she adored Mrs Leifer completely?”
“Yeah, until near the end of our relationship. About 2011.”
Hill questions Erlich about that night after Dassi returned from her session with the social worker, Chana Rabinowitz, and phoned Nicole from their bedroom, where he seemed to be asleep. “She was quite scared and panicked about what was happening and what was going to follow,” Erlich says, “and she kept repeating that she doesn’t understand why Chana Rabinowitz is making a big deal about it, she’s taking it out of proportion and what would happen once whatever they were talking about started circulating around the community.”
The closing statements are the final battle in this war of common sense. Of the original 29 charges against Leifer, 27 remain to be decided. Because of date-specific requirements, Gamble earlier directed that not-guilty verdicts be entered in respect of two charges of committing an indecent act relating to Elly. The offence to which they referred came into effect on December 1, 2006, and the Crown was required to prove that the alleged offending occurred on or after that date. On the evidence at the trial, however, it was clear that, if the incident occurred, it was likely to have taken place sometime in November 2006.
Lewis steps the jury through the evidence of the past six weeks. He reiterates the Crown case that, alive to their particular vulnerabilities, Leifer groomed then sexually exploited each of the three complainants. Having regard to the trust they placed in her, their own ignorance about sexual matters and the significant power imbalance, no physical force was required. He reminds the jurors that these were not sexual offences carried out at knife point, but by grooming. At the back of the room, Leifer holds her head very still, a light scowl on her face as she closes her eyes for long moments.
Lewis acknowledges corrections the sisters made to certain recollections. Witnesses are human beings, he says in a voice that feels like a quiet road. They have human fallibilities. There were no more corrections than would be expected from individuals doing their level best to remember.
Hill begins his address with a lesson on the adversarial system of justice and its merits. In our courts, in our country, our system of justice is the best in the whole world. It is accusatory. He who accuses must prove his case. He warns the jurors about the effect of “imagination, emotion, prejudice and suggestion” on the capacity to truly remember an event. The longer the passage of time, the greater the margin for error.
Hill’s framing presents two narratives, both bridges towards the sisters’ discredit. The first is a sorrowing story of their wounded misinterpretation of Leifer’s earnest goodwill; the anguished transference of resentment by the unmothered onto a proxy. “Touch seemed to be strange to these girls…” The second narrative is closer to the plot of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. He draws a line from Dassi’s depression to misguided questions about sexual abuse by a therapist, Dassi’s panicked call to Nicole and a story that “grew like wildfire” from there.
Hill continues to recount the evidence, watched by Leifer, whose lips are pursed, twisted in knot to one side. A sort of contemptuous incredulity.
For a moment, his spectacles dangle from one arm in his mouth. He mentions the fact that at times the sisters shared a room, yet didn’t discuss what was happening. I wonder what the jurors make of that implication, the double bind that the sisters were damned if they spoke (collusion), and damned if they were too terrified to (lying). Use your experience of life, he tells the jurors, about assessing everything they’ve heard. “You’re entitled to use your common sense…”
The defence closing continues the next sitting day. Hill tells the jurors to “abandon any thoughts of sympathy, prejudice or bias” when assessing the evidence that contains “false memories and false realities”. Why, he asks, if Dassi “was scared of Mrs Leifer would she speak in glowing terms about her to her husband? … Why would she say that she adored Mrs Leifer completely?”
The law has long had a binary understanding of emotion and intellect, privileging, in most instances, the truth claims of the latter and thereby losing the information to be gained by valuing the former. Also misguided is the law’s placement of emotion and common sense at opposing poles. Common sense, as Berger observed, cannot be conflated with intellect. It comes from a world where the fields of psychiatry and psychology never happened. Proud of its ignorance, limited by both its own unexamined experience and low tolerance for discomfort, common sense is riddled with unbridled emotion: biases, bigotry, blame-shifting, denials, defensiveness, projection. All the personal material we take out like the rubbish, left to mingle in the collective field for so long it becomes mistaken for simply the way things are.
Adjourned for lunch, I stand behind Hill and his junior, Lucinda Thies, in the lift, thinking about how we all end up in the same small box.
Gamble’s charge to the jury – a customed summary of the evidence, the issues raised and directions about the relevant law – is delayed while he recovers from Covid. When court reconvenes, he begins that necessarily lengthy process. He sets out the difference between direct evidence (seeing rain) and indirect evidence (seeing someone’s dripping umbrella). The latter, he explains, “can be just as strong or even stronger” than the former. The jurors must be careful to only draw reasonable conclusions. They remain attentive as Gamble steps them through each of the charges, all of the evidence and applicable law, though an older man in the public gallery has fallen asleep.
“It is for you to judge whether the witness told the truth. This is something you do in daily life,” Gamble states. “You just need to use common sense.”
On Wednesday, March 22, after the charge ends, the jury is dismissed to deliberate.
Journalists camp outside courtroom three. The sisters are in another part of the building. Once the jury informs Gamble that they’ve reached their verdicts, we have a 20-minute grace period between that email going out and the jury returning. Latecomers will not be allowed in while the verdict is delivered. Until then, everyone waits.
A day passes. Two. Three. It becomes clear that the jury is not easily reaching unanimity.
On Tuesday, March 28, after the jury passes a note to the judge via his tipstaff, the media is informed that the jury has a question. Courtroom three quickly fills. Leifer settles in her seat, smiling like she has a delicious secret. It appears unlikely the jury will reach a unanimous verdict on all charges. After discussing with counsel how best to proceed, Gamble calls the jury in and instructs them to preserve towards unanimity, trying their best to reach an accord.
3.50pm. Another question. Another email. The courtroom fills. Gamble discusses with counsel the options for proceeding in light of the jury’s good faith efforts and the fact that any juror could get Covid overnight, which would further elongate the process. There are verdicts on some of the charges that are unanimous, Gamble says, and they should be taken. After further discussion about the acceptability of majority verdicts on the other charges, it appears that, on those terms, all verdicts will be imminently delivered. It is 4.05pm. Court usually adjourns by 4pm. I am surprised to find my hands shaking on my notebook.
The complainants have indicated that they want to be in the court for verdicts, Lewis states. Gamble responds that he’s mindful of the time.
Before I have time to feel that zap, the sisters are suddenly in the room, sitting down in the back right-hand corner. Their expressions seem distressed, anxious but in each case steadfast.
The jury files in. They look exhausted. A further discussion with the foreman indicates that, with more time, they could reach unanimity on all charges. And so, with encouraging words from Gamble, they file out once more through the door to the right of the bench to renew their efforts in the morning.
The email comes at 3.15pm on April 3. The jury has reached a verdict on all charges. Leifer sits in the full courtroom with her siddur, lips moving silently as she reads from a piece of paper. She does not look over at the three sisters, so she does not see Nicole looking at her. But I do. Nicole’s gaze is direct, unflinching. In that moment, I understand that I am witnessing a feat of enormous strength. And that it is the type of strength that one only gets by meeting enormous challenges.
The verdicts for the charges against Nicole are read out first.
Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty… The jury has found Leifer not guilty of all five charges relating to Nicole. When I look at Leifer, her face is poised with the placidity of a woman who perhaps sees in this evidence of a divine plan. It is the face one would expect to see on a woman who has a plane ticket booked and her suitcase packed.
Then the wind changes.
Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty… Eighteen times, the word appears and expands until it seems to fill the room. The jury found Leifer guilty on all charges relating to Elly. It has also found her guilty of 10 charges relating to Dassi.
However, the jury acquitted Leifer on four of the charges relating to Dassi – three counts of indecent assault and one of rape. According to one or more jurors, common sense said that nothing illegal happened in the tutoring room or the library.
There are no unmixed blessings, but the sisters will later refer to it as a collective win. “Malka Leifer is guilty. We have waited 11 years to say those words,” Nicole says to the media outside, standing between Dassi and Elly. “Yes, it’s bittersweet. But she is guilty.”
“In so many ways, and for so long,” Dassi says, “so many people have protected Malka Leifer from facing us. She was forced to face us. And she has been found guilty.”
When asked if they have anything to say to others who have endured similar abuse, Elly replies, “Stay strong. This can, and will, tear you apart and the process is retraumatising and awful. But when you know your truth – and the truth is the truth – the truth will prevail. Today the truth prevailed.”
Most children at Jewish schools know it by heart: Theodor Herzl’s most quoted line, “If you will it, it is no dream”. The Talmud framed it in more mystical terms: “a dream is a sixtieth of prophecy”. This is in my mind, after the sisters finish speaking and disappear from view, after reporters chase after Hill and Thies, after the cameras are back in their cases, as I finish my notes on a cold bench outside the court and look up, shocked that it’s already night.
Shana Aronson is now executive director of Magen, the first ultra-Orthodox crisis centre in Israel for survivors of sexual abuse. “Everyone on staff is professionally trained,” she explains over Zoom from her office, “but I don’t think there’s anyone on our staff who does not have some very personal connection to this cause. Either they themselves are survivors or a very close family member was abused.” On the wall behind her is a painting of the 19th century Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Kagan, whose work emphasised that speech can be a tool for righteousness or destruction.
I ask whether Magen is welcomed into ultra-Orthodox educational spaces as part of normal programming. “The answer to that has changed over the last few years,” Aronson replies. “We used to work primarily with people who were leaving the community. Today, the vast majority of our clients are from well within the most insular parts of the [ultra-Orthodox] Haredi community. So that’s a very exciting evolution.”
She attributes the change to the work done by survivors. “Statistics are important, research is important – especially if you’re talking to a room of parents who each have eight children and you tell them that one in five children will be sexually abused. But it’s easy for statistics to go in one ear and out the other. All the survivors who have stood up over the last decade, and told their stories so powerfully, and people look at them and say, ‘Oh my God, this looks like my son, or my daughter, I can relate to this person, this is real’ – I completely attribute it to that. One story at a time until it became too loud to ignore.
“I’m all for working with communities to the degree that you can. But we’ve seen that the only thing that’s really worked is some combination of carrot and stick. We will work with whomever is willing to work with us to improve the status quo. Sometimes, however, there are institutions where there’s no one to talk to, it’s a brick wall.”
One of Magen’s undercover investigators recently spoke with the principal of one of the oldest and biggest ultra-Orthodox schools in Jerusalem. “[The principal] told her it’s very important nowadays not to tell a victim not to report to the police, because eventually it will come out and that will be a terrible stain on the community. That to me is a win. He’s doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, but the kids are a bit safer. I’d like him to actually care about the victims, and I’m going to do what I can to make sure this man leaves education, because he has no business being an educator if he can’t care about the safety of his students. But even if it’s for the wrong reasons, it’s the right thing, so I’m seeing that as a step. The lawsuits have been really important.”
My last question concerned the role of shame, its influence on the collective reactivity that has seen victims treated more harshly than abusers when they disclose. “There’s certainly an element of post-Holocaust shame,” Aronson replies. “You can’t address this issue without addressing those underlying fears, because they are coming from a real place. But then move from there: the fear is understandable, the reactions are not. Yes, anti-Semitism is a problem. Covering up sexual abuse is not the solution. Understand the fear and then try to approach it from a more cognitive, rational place.”
Which, of course, is the work that victim-survivors do every waking minute. This is not happening to me now, not happening to me now. The liturgy of healing.
“We are organising a protest outside the house tonight 9pm”
“We have 15 people but need much more!”
A civil trial was scheduled to begin on May 30 in the Victorian Supreme Court. A new female plaintiff was suing the Adass Israel School over alleged sexual abuse by Malka Leifer. The night before, Manny Waks’s organisation VoiCSA sent an email update: “We note with disgust that a protest was organised by members of the Adass Israel community this evening, outside the family home of the alleged victim/survivor…”
The email attached screenshots of the messages, and a response from the school, stating: “We’ve heard there is a lot of unrest and rumours circulating within the community regarding a trial that is due to start tomorrow. Such behaviour does not help the school, the community or the plaintiff. The matter is before the Court, the school is represented and we ask that the community respects the process.”
By 11am on May 30, the trial had been discontinued by mutual agreement between the parties, indicating that the matter had settled. A source with knowledge of the matter told me settling was in line with the victim’s initial preferences. The messages – identifying the victim, encouraging a protest outside their home – remain deeply concerning.
Three weeks before Jewish New Year, in a judgement so comprehensive it took three and a half hours to read aloud, Gamble sentenced Leifer to 15 years in prison, with a minimum period of 11 and a half years before she becomes eligible for parole consideration.
He described the “miserable home life” of the sisters, “starved of love and affection and left in a perpetual state of fear and confusion”. He described Leifer coming into that environment, where her initial warm behaviour towards the sisters “is properly seen and characterised as grooming conduct engaged in preparatory to much more serious and sexually motivated conduct”.
In sentencing, “seriousness” is a function of the harm caused plus the offender’s culpability for it. A 2016 Victorian Sentencing Advisory Council report investigated the ways in which courts assessed the seriousness of sexual offending against child and adult victims. That report, which I authored, focused on the specific offences of sexual penetration of a child under 12 and rape, however I think its conclusions were relevant more broadly. The analysis found that the cases involving sexual penetration of a child tended to be problematically characterised as less violent than adult rape cases: “The characterisation of ‘violence’ as encompassing only non-sexual violence has the consequence of diminishing the equally destructive and terrifying violence inherent in sexual offending against children, which often takes the form of physical or emotional coercion.”
There is no such underestimation in Gamble’s judgement, which was noteworthy both for his framing of the seriousness of the offending and the quantum of imprisonment he imposed. “When viewed globally, the sexual offending in which Mrs Leifer engaged must be considered as very serious. It was predatory in nature, involving as it did the exploitation and manipulation of two very vulnerable victims over whom she had absolute control. It was also persistent and took place over an extended period of almost four years. It was undertaken for no better reason than her own sexual gratification. And, unsurprisingly, it has had a devastating impact on each victim.”
He quoted the sisters’ victim impact statements, each describing the enormous damage wrought by the offending, and its enduring impact on their lives. Elly described her “guilt, shame and fear”, the profound pain of Leifer’s offending from which she has had little respite for over half her life, and her terror about a similar thing happening to her child. Dassi described a “sense of shame for having allowed the abuse to occur and for not being able to erase the pain that it continues to cause her despite having undergone the burden of years of therapy”. And “whether because of absence through periods of hospitalisation, or otherwise, [the belief] that she is not always ‘fully present’ with her daughter”. Both of them also spoke about refusing to let the experience defeat them, and how they have built lives around the void Leifer left them with.
Having denied the offending, there was little available to Leifer by way of mitigation. She couldn’t rely on remorse, rehabilitation, assistance to the authorities or having spared her victims a trial. She “did not tolerate in-depth exploration of her psychiatric history and provided scant details of the nature of her past mental illness” to the Forensicare psychiatrist who treated her in custody.
Outside the court, Dassi stated they were relieved that Malka Leifer is now in prison and cannot prey on anyone else. “While we know the onus of fighting for justice should not be up to survivors, this fight was never just for us.”
“If you’re not being taught differently, how are you going to think differently?” Nicole says, when I ask her, after the verdict, about whether there’s been cultural change in the Adass community in recent years. “Not once during the entire trial did any rabbi stand up and speak to the congregants about helping survivors of abuse. They could have used the case as a very live example.”
The younger generations, she explains, “are not going to be able to think any different unless they go against the grain of how their parents have been thinking all these years, and do that self-work … All the kids who are at the school now, this is historical. It’s their parents who have a memory of her.”
Shortly after Leifer is sentenced, I drive through Ripponlea on my way to shop for the High Holidays. After parking, I hesitate at a pedestrian crossing near the cafe where I had met with Dassi. But the waiting car does not accelerate at the green light. Instead, the driver in his kippah (skullcap) and payes (sidelocks) gently waves me on while looking away to avoid eye contact. Walking past that cafe, I remember speaking with Dassi there about the scholar Martin Buber, who was abandoned by his parents as a child, and saw his world decimated when the Nazis rose to power. Buber, who never stopped writing that the quality of one’s relationship with God is defined by the quality of one’s relationships with others.
I pick up a challah. Kreplach. Matzo meal. I think of Litzman, the indicted Israeli politician, as recognisably Jewish to me as I’d be to him. Of Leifer in the dirty home the sisters described; the oceanic feelings of powerlessness inside anyone who strives to be revered and uses that power to inflict pain.
I think of the impact of leadership on cultural change. “If Mrs Leifer was doing something then it must be okay…” I think of leaders meeting in a home, all the calls that were never made. And of what Nicole called “self-work”.
I think of Magen, JCW, VoiCSA, founded by victims for victims to be the protective support that didn’t exist when they needed it most. How Shana Aronson told me that in her line of work even the good days are bad. I think of the sisters – their high principles, their sacrifices, the light they kept burning. How their work has shown, more powerfully than any drash (sermon), that voids and forms are the interdependent materials of human meaning.
I think of how Elly once told me, “My past will still define me, but not in the way it did before.” Of Dassi – the look on her face at the cafe when she told me her daughter was learning how to write an opinion piece. I think of Nicole addressing the press with the dignified authority of a judge: “We’re not just doing this for ourselves, we are doing this for all victims of abuse.”
Dassi called them “black marks” – sexual abuse, family violence, mental illness – the things one is taught to hide to protect an idealised image. I think about what drives that self-deceiving preoccupation with perfection. How – in the absence of discomfiting reflection and accountability – a group, like the individuals comprising it, can become rigidly and defensively organised around wounds that were originally not theirs to carry. So much so that if they could see in from outside, they would be unrecognisable to themselves.
I recall Manny Waks’s words: “Thinking from the ultra-Orthodox perspective, it’s all for one primary reason: to bring the Mosheach here.”
I think of the song I sang as a child: I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, I believe. Of Aleinu, the prayer I said most mornings and which the devout say three times daily: Let the time not be distant when the brokenness in our hearts is repaired by the work of our hands.
I think of the kid who might one day make it to a computer at a public library out of bounds and learn just enough about the three sisters to know that there can be – in their life – a World to Come.
The Nation Reviewed
Society There are no words
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