Growing up in an especially cloistered ultra-Orthodox home and community in Melbourne, Australia, the three sisters were required to have their books vetted by their school or parents. Any depictions of male-female interaction of any kind were whited out and taped over – even fairy tales.
Television and movies were prohibited. Even mail-order clothing catalogs weren't allowed into their home. They learned nothing about their own bodies or sex.
But they say the kind attention they received from their charismatic headmistress at their all-girls ultra-Orthodox school evolved into sexual abuse, assault and rape – as they told the Australian police. They say they didn’t even have the words to describe it; each kept her experiences to herself. They were unaware, they say, until years after the alleged abuse began, that all three had become the headmistress’ victims.
“We didn’t know what our bodies even were, we didn’t have biology lessons,” said Elly Sapper, 28, the youngest of the three sisters who have accused the headmistress, Malka Leifer. “Everything was taboo. You didn’t even know about getting your period. You didn’t know when someone touches your body it was wrong. She said that was love, so we believed her.”
Last week, Sapper and her sisters Nicole Meyer, 32, and Dassi Erlich, 30, spoke with Haaretz in Tel Aviv about the abuse they say took place between about 2001 and 2008.
“The main reason we were targeted is because we grew up in an extremely dysfunctional and abusive home and she knew that about us, so we were the easy targets,” said Sapper, who now works in business management in Melbourne.
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She and her sisters say they were physically abused at home. Their parents have denied their daughters’ allegations and have cut off ties with them and their four other children as well, Meyer said.
Speaking about abusers in general, Sapper said “they target kids seeking love and attention. We trusted her [Leifer]. She proclaimed love, she gave us love and attention which started off with taking us out of class and giving us special attention and special duties,” Sapper said.
The sisters compare the pattern of abuse they say they suffered and Leifer’s high status at their Adass Israel School to the pedophile priest scandals in the Catholic Church.
The three sisters spent two weeks in Israel lobbying for Leifer’s extradition back to Australia, where she faces 74 counts of indecent assault and rape.
Leifer, an Israeli citizen, fled to Israel in 2008 hours after accusations surfaced that she had abused between eight and 14 students. In Israel, she was taken into custody in 2014 after the Australian government filed extradition papers outlining the allegations.
Later, she was released to house arrest, before the Jerusalem district psychologist ruled her mentally unfit to face her extradition hearings. She remains in Israel awaiting her next round of psychiatric assessments. An Israeli law permits a halt in extradition proceedings when a defendant is deemed unfit to stand trial.
The sisters say they don’t believe that the mental-illness defense is genuine.
“She is definitely playing the system,” said Erlich, a 30-year-old nurse in Melbourne who was the second of the three sisters to file charges against Leifer, after Sapper. “She is incredibly manipulative; we know she’s smart. We knew she would find a loophole and play it.”
As Erlich put it, “No legal system is immune to error. Although we are saying something is wrong here, we are looking for it to be fixed. We don’t want to assign blame. We are trying to see what we can do.”
Yehuda Fried, Leifer’s lawyer, said in response: “With all due respect to what the complainants think, they are not doctors and they cannot diagnose professionally the mental health of Mrs. Leifer or anyone else. Over a long period of time now she has been examined by doctors at public hospitals and also by the medical committee headed by the district psychiatrist of Jerusalem which meets every six months, in accordance with the law, to give their assessment of Mrs. Leifer. They have found Mrs. Leifer has a chronic mental condition and is unfit to stand trial.”
Fried added: “In a democracy it is professionals who make such assessments, not those with special interests.”
Erlich won over 1 million Australian dollars in damages in a civil case against Adass Israel School in 2015. It was reportedly one of the largest payouts ever in an Australian sexual abuse case. Jack Rush, a Supreme Court justice for the state of Victoria, faulted the school for not looking into the pattern of Leifer pulling students out of class for meetings, and for helping arrange Leifer’s flight to Israel just hours after the accusations surfaced.
Lobbying campaign in Israel
In Israel, as part of the sisters’ campaign to bring Leifer to justice (they are using the hashtag #bringleiferback on social media) they have met with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and visited the Knesset to meet with lawmakers Michal Biran, Sharren Haskel, Nachman Shai and Merav Michaeli. They have also met with Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky. They said Shaked told them she would sign an extradition order if a court handed one down – as soon as it was placed on her desk.
The sisters’ lobbying trip coincided with the visit by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, whom they had met with in Australia. Turnbull said he raised their case with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride. We have been in meeting after meeting,” Sapper said. “Everyone sharing our frustrations and wanting to get closure for the case. We have been telling our story, which has been triggering our emotions.”
What has made their efforts especially worthwhile, they say, is that women and girls have approached them saying they too now had the strength to come forward about their own experiences.
Fried, Leifer’s lawyer, told Haaretz that no order had been given for his client to avoid interacting with children in Israel; the only restriction is that she is not allowed to leave the country. Leifer currently lives in the West Bank settlement of Immanuel with her husband and family.
The community – which is also known as Adass Israel – that the sisters, their other siblings and their parents belonged to in Melbourne is made up of a combination of ultra-Orthodox sects including the Belz, Ger and Satmar, many of whose members arrived as refugees after the Holocaust. The sisters describe Adass Israel as extremely insular and tight-knit, with most of the community’s members living on the same four blocks, while its institutions have little to do with the city’s broader Jewish community.
Meyer, today a teacher, remains in the ultra-Orthodox community in Melbourne, with ties to Adass Israel. Erlich and Sapper have since left the fold of the only world they had ever known. It has been a difficult transition, they say. They had to learn about a whole new culture and way of being in the world, but the support they share as sisters and with their other siblings has been rock solid, they say.
Meyer says she wonders what kind of reaction she will face when she returns to Melbourne from this very public lobbying trip to Israel. As far as she knows, she is one of the few people in the ultra-Orthodox world – if not the only one – who has made such sexual-abuse allegations and remained inside the community.
Meyer and Erlich say they first understood they were both being abused by Leifer at a winter camp hosted by the school. They were sharing a room but sleeping in separate beds. They say that one night Leifer, apparently thinking Erlich was asleep, arrived and slipped into Meyer’s bed. Erlich heard what was going on.
The next morning, they recounted, they looked at each other. “We understood, but had no words,” Erlich said. “But we had this mutual understanding that it happened to both of us.”
That morning, Meyer said, she saw Leifer about to enter the room where Erlich was showering and tried – unsuccessfully – to prevent her from going in.
The sisters later gave accounts of incidents like this to the Australian authorities, they said.
Worrying about the younger sister
They said they feared Leifer might try a similar approach with Sapper but were not sure how to warn their sister about it. “We didn’t have the words to warn her that it was dangerous and not good to be connected to her,” Meyer said.
Meanwhile, Sapper says that even if her sisters had warned her, she would not have heeded their advice. Later, when Sapper had endured similar alleged abuse, she approached Leifer and threatened to go public with her accusations.
As Sapper put it, “‘I’m going to tell everyone what you’re doing,’ I told her at a wedding. I didn’t know what I was going to tell everyone. I knew she was really hurting me.”
Sapper says Leifer responded that she would tell the community everything she had ever told Leifer in confidence.
In the ultra-Orthodox world, families’ reputations are guarded fiercely. Any defamatory word about a family can damage the marriage prospects for the children. The sisters say they feared coming forward with the stories of the abuse they say they suffered both at home and at school.
“Silence has always been part of everything. We grew up where everything was secret because we lived in an abusive house. We had perfect facades. But the bruises were underneath the clothes,” Meyer said.
Because of that secrecy, Meyer said, the welfare authorities were never contacted.
She and her sisters described a situation in the school and the community where Leifer reigned all-powerful – the charismatic social center of their school who often quoted the community’s rabbi and had the ear of the school board.
They say Leifer’s abuse began at private lessons and meetings at the school, while the touching moved from hands on their knees and thighs to more severe sexual abuse.
Leifer would send them text messages to meet her in various rooms in the school after the school day had ended, and if they did not show up she would dispatch other students to find them, they said.
The sisters say they are eager to move on with their lives but will continue to fight for Leifer’s extradition.
“We won’t be done with this until she is in Australia and on trial,” Meyer said.