Sisters tell Australia court that abuse by Jewish school principal broke trust, painful to remember

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Two sisters told an Australian court Wednesday that being sexually abused by their Jewish school’s principal broke their ability to trust and was painful to remember.

Malka Leifer was convicted of rape and other crimes in the Victoria state County Court in April after years of fighting her extradition from Israel. She watched intently on a video link from prison but didn’t visibly react as the two sisters read victim impact statements at her sentencing hearing.

Dassi Erlich, 35, was positioned in the courtroom specifically so she and Leifer could see other as she spoke about the impact of the abuse, as both Erlich and Leifer had requested.

Erlich said she was 16 when Leifer told her: “I love you like a mother.”

“I trusted her completely,” Erlich said. “The insidious nature of her sexual abuse has fractured my ability to trust forever.”

Elly Sapper, 34, later told the court she had questioned whether she wanted to relive the trauma that has affected more than half her life.

“It hurts to remember. It hurts more than I’ll ever be able to describe,” Sapper said.

Sapper testified at Leifer’s trial and said she lost a baby a week before the verdicts. She did not detail the circumstances.

“Her heart stopped beating,” Sapper said. “There were no concrete answers, there were no abnormalities. I will never know if the stress, the worry, the anxiety or the years of trauma played any part in the loss of my little girl.”

Leifer was acquitted of nine charges, including five relating to the victims’ eldest sister, Nicole Meyer. Meyer, 37, sat in court with her sisters Wednesday.

The Associated Press does not usually identify victims and alleged victims of sexual abuse, but the sisters have chosen to identify themselves in the media.

Leifer smiled when Judge Mark Gamble told her she would have to answer questions asked in court rather than nod her head.

Asked by Gamble’s associate her occupation, Leifer replied: “Now I’m not working.”

Leifer, 56, was convicted of six charges of rape, each carrying up to 25 years in prison. She was convicted of three charges of sexual penetration of a child, each carrying a potential 10-year sentence, and six charges of indecent assault, which also carries a 10-year sentence. She was convicted of three charges of committing an indecent act with a child, which is punishable by 5 years in prison. There are no minimum sentences.

Leifer’s trial ended an extradition battle that strained relations between the Australian and Israeli governments while antagonizing Australia’s Jewish community.

Leifer, who was born in Tel Aviv, returned to Israel in 2008 as allegations against her first emerged. The fight she waged in Jerusalem courts since 2014 against being extradited ended in 2021 when she boarded a flight toward Melbourne at Ben Gurion Airport, her ankles and wrists shackled.

Prosecutors claimed Leifer abused the students between 2003 and 2007 at the Adass Israel School, an ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne where she was head of religion and later principal, as well as at her Melbourne home and at rural school camps.

Defense lawyer Ian Hill told the court Leifer felt isolated as the only Orthodox Jew in her prison. Because she had been convicted of child sex offenses, she was not allowed to have photographs of any of her 17 grandchildren or any other child.

“She is a truly lonely and isolated and broken woman held in protective custody in a maximum security prison far from her culture, far from her religion and significantly far from her family, all of whom live overseas,” Hill said.

A former colleague from the Melbourne school who visits Leifer in prison reported she had become “angry and agitated and she had gone from being an upbeat, inspiring educator to an isolated, depressed shadow of her former self,” Hill said.

“She is fearful all the time. She has nightmares, hallucinations, thinks that the guards want to kill her. Every loud noise gets her body shaking and as a result, she chooses to spend the day … in her cell with the door locked from the inside,” Hill said, citing the prison visitor.

Leifer had been held in custody for more than 5 years in Israel and Australia, plus 20 months under house arrest in Israel before her extradition, Hill said.

She had not seen her family since, apart from a son and daughter who had visited her in prison.
Leifer’s sentencing hearing is scheduled to be heard Wednesday and Thursday. She is likely to be sentenced at a later date.

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