In my lifetime, I’ve met hundreds of people who’ve been sexually abused. It’s not something I’ll ever get used to, although it doesn’t shock me in the same way that it once did. Still, hearing stories about children being victimized in the Orthodox community is something that will forever shake me to my core. Maybe it’s because I still feel a familial connection to that community, and personal tragedy isn’t something you can inoculate yourself against. Whatever the reason, today I feel compelled to write about Malka Leifer, a former high school principal from Australia, and the three sisters who went public with allegations of sexually abusive behavior and are in the process of fighting for justice.
I want to focus on three elements of this situation that are unique to Orthodox communities, and make this story all the more painful.
1. The sisters were raised by a mercurial and abusive mother. This made them particularly susceptible to the manipulative tactics of Ms. Leifer, as they were desperate for maternal affection and attention. Ms. Leifer preyed on them, knowing that they were keeping their volatile home situation a secret. To them, this secrecy was necessary because should word get out that they came from a dysfunctional family, their shidduch prospects would be negatively affected. While there are many reasons why children don’t disclose parental abuse, fear of not finding a ‘suitable’ husband should never be one of them.
2. Within the Orthodox community, there exists a lack of boundaries that allows abuse and molestation to fester. The sisters relate how Ms. Leifer would invite girls to her house and and spend time alone with them in her office, with the blinds drawn and the door closed. In the closeness of the Orthodox community, questionable boundaries are allowed to exist because the small size of the community is rife with dual relationships. It’s common for your pediatrician to also be your neighbor and also be the person you sit next to in shul. There’s a dangerous and naive sense of trust that all such behavior is innocent. Ms. Leifer was able to exploit this fact and crossed boundaries with the three sisters — in public — and later progressed to significantly worse violations. It is a shame that her behavior was chalked up to ‘taking girls under her wing’ and wasn’t recognized for the grooming behavior that it was.
3. Dassi Erlich, one of the sisters, relates that several weeks after Ms. Leifer flees to Israel to avoid facing the consequences of her actions, a rabbi at her shul declares that all discussion about Ms. Leifer is off limits due to it being lashon hora (gossip). This is abhorrent. Warning a community about a sexual predator within its midst isn’t gossip. It’s life saving information, and the three sisters should have never been silenced in that way. False accusations of abuse are life-altering and destructive, but they are also extremely rare. Children need to be believed, and relevant information needs to be discussed in public forums, not shut down and labeled as off limits. The sisters shouldn’t have had to wait ten years before Ms. Leifer was actively pursued and investigated. They should have been given immediate support, validation, and the opportunity for prosecution, if they had wanted it. It is a testament to their courage and resiliency that they never gave up on their hope for justice.
I don’t have a good way to wrap up this blog post. I can’t tie up the loose ends with some well written sentences because right now, Orthodox Jewish predators are flourishing within the system and Orthodox Jewish children are living through Hell and I can’t think of anything else to say.