Once a revered figure within Melbourne’s ultra-orthodox Jewish community, Malka Leifer used her status to sexually abuse two vulnerable students.
Shortly before 1pm on Thursday, the former Adass Israel school principal shed a single tear as she was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for her “callous and predatory” actions toward two teenage sisters.
As she did during the trial and subsequent court appearances, the disgraced 56-year-old sat stony-faced throughout Thursday’s three-hour hearing, keenly listening as her left hand gripped tightly over her mouth.
A single tear rolled down her right cheek as she heard the verdict.
In front of a packed courtroom, Judge John Gamble said Leifer exploited and manipulated the vulnerability of her victims and their ignorance of sexual matters for her own “perverse sexual gratification”.
“This case is striking for just how vulnerable the two victims were, and for the calculating way in which the offender, Mrs Leifer, took callous advantage of those vulnerabilities in order to sexually abuse them for her own sexual gratification,” he said.
“Each complainant yearned for what she was missing in her life, the love and support of a loving mother … that made them a target.”
There were audible gasps in the courtroom as judge Gamble announced Leifer will be eligible for parole after 11 and a half years.
With five and a half years recognised as time served she could walk free in 2029.
Leifer was convicted following a seven-week jury trial earlier this year on 18 offences against sisters Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper committed in her school office, during school trips and private education sessions at her home between 2004 and 2007.
She was acquitted on 11 charges, including five allegations of abuse perpetrated against Ms Erlich and Ms Sapper’s older sister Nicole Meyer.
Judge Gamble said he was only to sentence Leifer for the offences she was found guilty of and not the acquitted charges or uncharged alleged acts used to provide the context of her grooming and abuse.
The court was told Leifer took advantage of her esteemed position and knowledge of the sisters’ miserable home lives and sheltered upbringing.
“The complainants were raised in ultra-orthodox Jewish family,” Judge Gamble said.
“They had a very difficult upbringing due to the cruel and unpredictable way they were treated by their mother.
“They were completely and utterly ignorant of sexual matters and had no ability to understand or recognise sexual acts … that made them a target.”
The sisters’ fight to hold Leifer accountable may never have come to fruition if not for video taken by private investigators who tracked her to the West Bank settlement of Immanuel, in Israel, in 2017.
She had fled back to her home country on March 6, 2008, just hours after she was stood down by the school board when a social worker relayed concerns.
The sisters first filed police complaints in 2011, unknowingly sparking a decade-long legal battle fought through the court systems of two countries.
Leifer was arrested by Israeli police in August 2014, but spent years fighting the extradition process, which was terminated in June 2016 after a court ruled she was unfit to stand trial due to mental health issues.
But more than 200 hours of video taken by the private investigators showing Leifer engaging in her day to day life spurred a fresh investigation and she was rearrested in February 2018.
Israel signed the extradition order in December 2020, more than six years after Victoria Police first filed the request.
Judge Gamble found it was clear Leifer exaggerated or intensified her mental health problems so as to frustrate or delay the extradition proceedings.
Previously, the court was told Leifer had spent about 5-and-a-half years in custody across both Australia and Israel, alongside 608 days in home detention.
After more than 31 hours of deliberations spanning nine days, the jury found Leifer guilty on five counts of rape, one count of rape by compelled sexual penetration, four counts of indecent act with a 16 or 17 year-old child, five counts of indecent assault and three counts of sexual penetration of a 16 or 17 year-old child.
At an earlier pre-sentence hearing, Leifer’s barrister, Ian Hill KC, said his client was a “shadow of her former self”.
“Today, all these years later, she is a truly lonely, 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,” he said.
The mother-of-eight had been recruited to lead religious studies at the all-girls school in 2001, to great excitement in the school community.
“She came to the community and 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,’ Ms Erlich previously told the court.
“The constant reminders of her sexual abuse means her world continues to intrude upon my life.
“A world that is triggered by a smell, a thought, certain weather or time of year, and my body, without warning, is gripped by the memory of what she did.”
Judge Gamble described the victim impact statements of both Ms Erlich and Ms Sapper as powerful illustrations of the legacy of Leifer’s grooming and abuse.
“For each of them it has been profound and life changing,” he said.
“To the extent Ms Erlich and Ms Sapper feel a personal guilt or shame for what occurred that they should not.
“It was the predatory behaviour of Ms Leifer and it is she and she alone that should feel guilty for what occurred.”
Previously the court was told Leifer would be removed from Australia once she is released from custody.
Judge Gamble said she continues to maintain her innocence and has shown no remorse.
Outside of court, the three sisters welcomed Judge Gamble’s sentence, saying; “Malka Leifer has finally been held accountable”.
“Trauma from sexual abuse is a lifelong sentence. While no amount of years will be sufficient, we are so relieved that Malka Leifer is now in prison for 15 years and cannot prey on anyone else,” Ellie Sapper said flanked by her two sisters.
“We feel overwhelmed and grateful that the legal system has recognised and validated the extreme impact of abuse by female perpetrators — today is a precedence.”
Her sister, Dassi Erlich, said the reason Leifer was being held to account for her crimes perpetrated almost two decades ago was because “we did not give up”.
“While we know the onus of justice, or the fight for justice, is not up to survivors, this fight was never just for us,” she said.
“We are showing that the voices of survivors will not and cannot be silenced.
“To any other survivors in this nightmare you are never alone we are all behind you.”