Alleged Sex Abuse by Principal Roils Australia’s Orthodox Community

By Dan Goldberg

Published March 19, 2008, issue of March 28, 2008.
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Sydney, Australia — Australia’s tight-knit ultra-Orthodox community is being roiled by allegations that the principal of a girls’ high school molested a number of her former students.

Malka Leifer, headmistress of Melbourne’s Adass Israel Girls’ School for the past five years, left the country within 24 hours of board members confronting her with allegations of sexual misconduct March 4, according to school board members.

Her departure is particularly controversial, due to allegations that she left with up to $100,000 borrowed from community members. A teacher at the school told the Forward that Leifer borrowed money from members of the community who were unaware of the impending furor.

Leifer, a mother of eight in her late 40s, denied any wrongdoing to the school’s board, but since she was ordered to step aside pending a full investigation, she believed she “might as well resign,” according the school’s lawyer, Norman Rosenbaum. (Rosenbaum’s younger brother, Yankel, was murdered by an anti-Jewish mob in Brooklyn during the Crown Heights riots in 1991.)

A day after speaking with the school, Leifer left for native Israel.

The allegations and swift departure have traumatized the 1,200 members of Adass Israel, an ultra-Orthodox, non-Zionist community whose lingua franca is Yiddish. Unlike in America, where ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, sects have their own communities, the Adass community here includes Satmar, Vishnitzer, Belz and other Hasidic groupings.

“My friend teaches there,” said Timmy Rubin, who runs the Chaya Moushke Schneerson Mikvah in Melbourne. “She’s been crying the whole time. Everybody’s devastated. It’s like 9/11 for them; it’s their wake-up call.”

Melbourne is home to a 45,000-person Jewish community with a significant Orthodox contingent, including a strong Chabad-Lubavitch component. Adass Israel, however, is a virtually self-contained, reclusive community that has little contact with the wider Jewish population.

At least three alleged victims are believed to have come forward to counselors with allegations of misconduct by Leifer. Sources close to the school told the Forward that the alleged victims are all recent graduates who became teachers at the school.

Since the allegations emerged, the school has engaged a number of psychologists, including experts in sexual abuse, to counsel the school’s 250 students, as well their parents, former students and staff. It also flew in an expert from Israel to counsel the students.

The story broke last Thursday in The Australian Jewish News, and has been seized upon by the mainstream media.

“Principal ‘molested schoolgirls,’” screamed the front-page headline of Melbourne’s The Age last Friday. “Fury over girls school sex claims,” thundered The Australian on Saturday. Talk radio and blogs have been ablaze with commentary — much of it negative, including inflammatory statements against individuals and defamation of Jews in general. In addition, a furious debate has been raging on the Web site and in this week’s letters’ pages of The Australian Jewish News about whether the newspaper should have reported the allegations on its front page last week.

The person who first told the school about the allegations spoke to the Forward on condition of anonymity. She said that three weeks ago she was told by a fellow counselor that a former student had revealed the alleged instances of molestation.

“One of my colleagues said she’d had a person in therapy say that someone behaved inappropriately with her,” the counselor said. “None of the current students have been abused, as far as we know. But who knows what might come out in the next few weeks?”

For the community, some of the most damaging reports have covered the way in which the school has handled the affair. The school only informed the Independent Association of Schools of Victoria, an umbrella organization for area schools, on March 6, the day after Leifer left the country.

Media reports have also alleged that Leifer, who arrived in Melbourne eight years ago, went to members of the community to borrow money just before she left.

Sholomo Boruch Abelesz, a former secretary of the Adass Israel community whose daughter is a former student of Leifer, blasted the media coverage.

“We are innocent people being made to look guilty,” Abelesz said.

“We have been besmirched by the actions of one woman,” he added.

Rosenbaum, the school’s lawyer, said he knew nothing about the financial allegations. The school acted “responsibly and expeditiously,” said Rosenbaum.

“The school’s first priority is the welfare and safety of all persons affected by her,” he added.

Yossi Aron, religious affairs editor of The Australian Jewish News and the author of a history on the Adass community in Melbourne, described the scandal as the “ultimate betrayal.”

“They are in absolute trauma; they are in a state of shock. It’s a disaster,” said Aron, whose late father was the first principal of the Adass Israel school.

“Many are of the view she must be outed and shamed,” he said. “But there are some who are concerned the status of the organization must be upheld.”

In his Sabbath sermon on March 8, Adass Chief Rabbi Avrohom Zvi Beck said Leifer should not be considered guilty because no charges have been brought against her. Beck, a Vishnitzer Hasidic rabbi whose brother is head of the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta in America, also warned his flock not to engage in malicious gossip.

Police are aware of the allegations but would neither confirm nor deny whether any girls had reported claims against Leifer or whether a police investigation is underway.

“I doubt that there can be a police case because, knowing our families, no girl or parent will report these allegations,” Abelesz, the former Adass secretary, said. “The girls are modest and shy and would only be further hurt by any publicity.”

Rosenbaum stressed that “not a single complaint had been made to the school by any person saying they were adversely affected by this woman.”

But, he added, “We will not under any circumstance compromise — from an ethical, legal, moral or halachic point of view— the rights of those who have been affected.”

A teacher at the girls’ school, who has known Leifer for six years, said she came across as “very charismatic” and “fun loving,” but “a little bit strange.”

“She was an odd woman who had odd relationships with people, but you don’t think along sinister lines,” the teacher said.

Raizl Fogel, an Adass member whose daughters are graduates of the school, said she was “totally blinded” by the allegations.

“People are up in arms about it,” Fogel said. “It’s havoc in our community. There are a lot of very disturbed people. They don’t know where to go.”

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