Will the Jewish women who claim sexual abuse by their headmistress get to see her go to trial? Or will Malka Leifer become the next Avrohom Mondrowitz — another alleged abuser who won’t be extradited from Israel to stand trial.
Mondrowitz, an American Orthodox rabbi, fled the U.S. in 1985 before an arrest warrant could be executed on an indictment handed down against him for child abuse. In the case of Leifer, she fled to Israel from Melbourne, Australia, in 2008, when allegations surfaced that she had abused girls in her care at the Adass Israel School.
She is living in the predominantly Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, and attempts to extradite her are proving fruitless, despite her house arrest. In fact, it’s thought to be one of the most complicated extradition cases in Israeli history.
Leifer claims that she cannot attend extradition proceedings because when court dates loom, the stress brings on psychotic episodes — and these claims have delayed proceedings for a year-and-a-half. The Israeli state prosecutor pushing for extradition told the Jerusalem District Court on Sunday that it’s time to have a state psychiatrist examine whether there may be “elements of fabrication” in this claim.
At last, the court took decisive action, sending Leifer for further examination by a psychiatrist, in time for another hearing on March 20. Outside the court, it was hard not to become tearful at the scene. Manny Waks, the victim-whistleblower in the abuse scandal, which centered on Melbourne’s Yeshivah Center and broke in 2011, was on the phone with one of Leifer’s alleged victims, updating her on the chances that she will ever see Leifer go to court. She hung up the phone mid-conversation (I was standing right next to Waks), seemingly when the emotion got too much for her.
A few weeks ago, this same woman wrote in a blog: “In this case, time does not heal, time is not healing,” adding that time is “prolonging the dreadful, all-consuming pain” and her “perilous heart-wrenching journey.”
The long impasse in the Leifer case has been made all the harder for her accusers by the fact that much has been dredged up in recent months as the Supreme Court of Victoria ruled on a case against her — but criminal proceedings are stuck as long as she is outside of Australia. The court judged that an accuser had been sexually abused by Leifer between 2003 and 2006, and awarded her 1.27 million Australian dollars ($900,000) from Leifer and the Adass Israel School.
Victoria Judge Jack Rush condemned Leifer as “evil” and “wanton.” He said that Leifer had possessed “a high degree of power and intimacy” over her students and “used that power and intimacy to conduct sexual abuse.” The court ruled that the plaintiff’s sheltered Orthodox upbringing had meant that she was “extraordinarily vulnerable.”
This is not a story about one woman. It is a story about communal life, and it is a story about how Jewish communities just don’t seem to learn when it comes to sexual abuse allegations. There is abhorrence in New York especially at the Yeshiva University scandal, but the alleged abuse took place years ago and people tell themselves that institutions are more transparent today.
Yet in Melbourne as recently as 2008, it was Leifer’s institution that kept the accusations against her quiet.
The Victoria court decried as “deplorable” the failure of the school to report the allegations of sexual misconduct by Leifer to police, and noted that a senior teacher had known that she took girls to her home. What’s more, the school ensured that when the scandal broke, Leifer could quickly get beyond the reach of Australian law, arranging for her departure to Israel.
It is frustrating seeing how slowly Israeli justice is closing in on Leifer, and how long it is taking to put the claims that are preventing her extradition to the test. However, Israel is a country of laws, and there are due processes that must be followed. The issue here is not the Israeli legal system, even if there are things that it could have handled more effectively and efficiently, but how Leifer came to be in Israel, which is of course through the initiative of her school.
Adass Israel’s conduct was “deliberate and amounted to disgraceful, contumelious behavior,” a statement from the Victoria court said.
In the next month, her accusers will know if the extradition proceeding is likely to be successful. If it isn’t, Leifer will stay in Israel, theoretically subject to extradition in the future, but it will be unclear how and when this will come about. She would become a kind of female Mondrowitz-type figure. If she does seem to be headed to Australia, the accusers will breathe a sigh of relief, but also reflect on the fact that were it not for the actions of one venerated Jewish institution, this entire extradition battle wouldn’t be necessary. Let that be a cautionary tale to Jewish institutions everywhere.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.