Thursday, October 29, 2015

"A scholar of Biblical texts, Jewish law and Hasidic philosophy, Leifer is a mother of eight. But evidence given earlier this year in a civil case in the Victorian Supreme Court portrayed her as a calculating, predatory paedophile...."

Charismatic school principal Malka Leifer was adored within a strict Jewish sect in Melbourne’s east. Despite whispers of inappropriate acts with students, it was years before her dark secrets were exposed.
"My childhood was very difficult,” Sarah* says, in a matter-of-fact way. Now in her mid-20s, she has a quiet voice, but speaks with a forceful elegance. 

“I just knew that when my mother hit me and when she screamed at me, I couldn’t tell anyone. For anybody to know would be the scariest thing.

“We weren’t allowed to go to the toilet. We weren’t allowed to sleep, or we had to sleep in the way she wanted us to. We’d go to bed and she’d decide she wanted some food made for her in the middle of the night, so she’d wake up. But we had to be dressed in a certain way.”

Sarah and her siblings would dress in socks, dresses, dressing gowns; layer upon layer, so that they appeared “modest”.

“She’d wake us up, just as we’d fallen asleep, make us get her food, and then go back to bed. Ten minutes later, she’d wake us up because she wanted a glass of water.”

“I knew what that looked like, though,” she says. “I’d go to friends’ houses and see how their mothers would feed them, how they would look at them and give them hugs.”

None of the children were exempt from abuse, but Sarah and her youngest brother suffered most. They were also the darkest-skinned and looked more like their mother.

“She used to tell us all the time how ugly we were,” says Sarah, “and how she wished we would die.”
The children “self-diagnosed” their mother as having borderline personality disorder.

“There was no love, there were no hugs, there was no encouragement. It was basically trying to survive.”

Sarah says her mother routinely hit her until she turned 16 and was “very smart about it”, hitting her in places covered by her clothes – places even an observant teacher wouldn’t notice.
Malka Leifer
Malka Leifer
“A teacher with the right knowledge would be able to see that we looked… haunted,” Sarah says.

That teacher was Malka Leifer.
“I would say it took her about two years to work her magic,” Sarah says.

Malka Leifer was principal of the ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel School in Elsternwick, Melbourne from 2002 to 2008, a pillar of her tight-knit community. At 48, Leifer was, according to parents of former students, recruited specifically because of her ultra-Orthodox beliefs.

At the time of her appointment, she was widely regarded within the community to be its second-holiest member, behind spiritual leader Rabbi Avrohom Zvi Beck.

A scholar of Biblical texts, Jewish law and Hasidic philosophy, Leifer is a mother of eight. But evidence given earlier this year in a civil case in the Victorian Supreme Court portrayed her as a calculating, predatory paedophile.

"She knew exactly when to do it,” alleges Sarah.

“It was all planned. Slowly, when she set herself up in the community and had their love and respect, at the point when such a thing would never enter their minds, that’s when she started.”
Sarah claims she was systematically abused by Leifer for years, along with “seven or eight” other female students.

“I don’t know how I could explain how charming she was,” says Sarah.

“The community absolutely respected and loved her. They basically treated her like God.”

“The way she played her game was… she’d start by calling you out of class, in the middle of a lesson, and would sit with you and ask you how you were doing, how you were feeling. When I finally, eventually opened up to her and told her that things were really bad, that’s when she made her move.”

Sarah says she heard whispers about Leifer’s relationships with other students, but was not equipped to comprehend the implications behind the rumours.

“I heard little things, but I didn’t really understand. All I knew was that at school if she likes you… that’s what you should aim for.”

Adass Israel is a strain of Hasidism, a movement which was founded in the 18th century by Jewish mystics and quickly became a populist alternative to traditional Judaism. The Hasidim, or “pious ones,” are an ultra-Orthodox movement with a focus on self-preservation.

After generations of persecution, many Hasidic Jews today are second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors, who take quite literally the Lord’s order to “be fruitful and multiply”, to replenish a devastated population. Today, Australia has the second-highest population of Holocaust survivors per capita in the world.

The insularity of the movement is, in part, born of the caution that comes of a history shaped by adversity. It’s also the product of a rich cultural heritage and religious strength that has allowed it, and others like it throughout the diaspora, to flourish and bring new prosperity – both to itself, and to its adopted home of Melbourne. That same insularity has also allowed it to harbour dark secrets. Growing up in the Adass community, Sarah tells me, is to grow up in a culture of humiliation and shame, particularly centred around the body.
Sexual education exists only in the form of a special lesson administered by a community member – with a strict focus on procreation – after a young man or woman is already engaged.

Sarah recalls reading Enid Blyton books at school, where every third or fourth paragraph would be missing a word. Sarah read the whole of The Magic Faraway Tree without knowing the names of two main characters: Dick and Fanny.

“We wouldn’t have even known what ‘Dick’ was supposed to mean, because we didn’t know what a dick was,” she tells me. “Their crossing it out only made us more inquisitive, but biology wasn’t even a subject.”
Outside school, a few of Sarah’s classmates had read different books without their parents’ consent and they shared with friends what they had learned.

“We knew that a penis goes into a vagina when you get married,” she recalls. “And I remember a friend saying, ‘There’s no fucking way I’m letting that near me’.”

Sarah grimaces. “I also said that I was never going to let that happen.”

Without sex education, Sarah had no defence against sexual predators.

“I’ve always wanted to share my story,” Sarah tells me on a particularly bleak morning, over three cups of strawberry tea. But it has taken her seven years to feel comfortable doing so.

I ask about her earliest memory.

“When people ask me my memories of my childhood, the good things don’t come to my mind,” she says. “I try not to dwell on that too much. The main good thing about my childhood was having my siblings. If I didn’t have them, I probably wouldn’t be alive.”

She talks about being eight years old.

“We used to go on family holidays and we couldn’t go to the beach because it wasn’t modest enough. Or we’d walk down the street in summer and everyone else would be in shorts and singlets, and we’d be wearing long dresses and tights.

“I remember thinking even at that age that I didn’t want to be different, I just wanted to be the same as everyone else,” she says.

Sarah’s entire universe was contained in one suburb: “We went to Carnegie once, and that felt like going to the end of the world.”

Her parents had moved to Australia fleeing disapproval of their marriage, and soon started a family. “Then they decided to become religious, and they went all the way to the extreme," Sarah says.
“I think a lot of that shift has to do with my mother’s extreme nature,” Sarah says. “She needed to grab onto something and when she encountered someone from our community who was really kind to her, she decided they were the type of people she wanted to be around.”

Sarah believes her mother’s urge to fit in prompted her to join the community.

“Only if you become so extreme can you become one of them,” she says.

“There’s no middle ground. You’re either extreme or you aren’t part of the community.”

When Sabbath begins on Friday evenings, what is already the quietest neighbourhood in Eastern Melbourne becomes almost eerily silent. Restaurants close down, cars are parked in driveways where they remain for the next 24 hours, and families gather indoors to feast and to pray, shutting out the white noise of contemporary life even more resolutely.

Without the internet, television, media or movies, she says, “you don’t have much to talk about.” Sarah characterises the community as “a world of nothing”.

“What do they talk about? Who has the nicest car. Who has the nicest house. Who has the nicest clothes. I find all that stuff really trivial.”

“It sounds very… strict,” I offer.

Sarah corrects me. “It was a cult.”

The Adass community is the most insular of the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox spectrum of Jews. Melbourne’s Jewish communities have long dominated the Eastern suburbs of St Kilda East, Balaclava and Caulfield; the Adass community is confined to a small grid bordered by Brighton, Orrong, Balaclava and Glenhuntly Roads.

The concept of an eruv encircles this boundary: all buildings within are ritually integrated into a private domain where residents may carry objects that are otherwise forbidden to be held on the Sabbath: prams, house keys, tissues, medicine and babies.

They have their own telephone directory, schools, ambulance service, synagogue, shops, cemetery, bathhouses, security patrols and rabbinical court system.

Male “Adassniks” have long, dark beards and wear black silk coats that reach their knees over white pantaloons and stockings. Twin sideburn ringlets curl down beneath enormous mink fur hats. Female members of the community wear thick tights, long skirts and loose blouses. Married women wear wigs, in keeping with the law that their heads must be covered for modesty’s sake.

Adass Israel School is responsible for the education of 600 students from preschool to year 12. The girls’ and boys’ campuses are strictly segregated, separated by a two-minute walk and gated security. The VCE curriculum that is the benchmark for university entry is not offered: boys leave around the age of 16 to pursue religious education, while girls complete a vocational certificate – if they aren’t married off beforehand.
Adass Israel School, Elsternwick Victoria  |  © Google Images
Adass Israel School, Elsternwick Victoria

Mornings are dedicated to Jewish history and scripture. Three hours in the afternoons are spent studying maths and science. 

“I was very under-stimulated and very under-challenged,” Sarah says. “Kids would play up because they didn’t care about secular subjects, because their parents kept instilling ‘this is not important, you don’t need to know this,’ because you get married and then that’s it. You won’t ever get a degree because you don’t need one.”