SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) – A sex scandal at a fervently Orthodox Jewish school in Melbourne has sparked a furious debate in Australia’s Jewish community.
Malka Leifer, the Israeli-born principal of the fervently Orthodox Adass Israel Girls’ School, was accused on the front page of last week’s Australian Jewish News of sexual abuse , setting off a media storm in Australia.
The story also sparked a blistering war of words within the Jewish community about whether the newspaper should have aired the community’s dirty laundry in public.
Under the headline “Adass principal flees Australia in disgrace,” the newspaper reported last week that Leifer fled the country on March 5 – 24 hours after the school board confronted her with allegations of sexual misconduct involving former students.
Leifer denied the allegations, according to the president of the Adass Israel synagogue, Binyomin Koppel. In a statement, Koppel confirmed that Leifer, the principal for five years, was “suspended from all school duties” and had left the country on the evening of March 5.
A mother of eight in her late 40s, Leifer is believed to have gone to her parents’ home in the fervently Orthodox enclave of Bnei Brak, a Tel Aviv suburb.
At least three alleged victims, recent graduates who became teachers at the school, are believed to have come forward to counselors with allegations of misconduct by Leifer.
There are about 1,200 members of the Adass Israel community, an insular community of fervently Orthodox Jews, many of whose primarly language is Yiddish.
In the wake of the scandal, Adass Israel has hired psychologists to counsel the school’s 250 students as well as staff, teachers and former students.
Meanwhile, a furious debate has raged over whether the newspaper should have reported the salacious story.
One letter-writer whose missive was published in this week’s edition of the Australian Jewish News called for a boycott of the newspaper for the “shame and humiliation rendered on Melbourne Jewry.” A second accused the weekly of “tabloid-like behavior” that was “disgraceful and outrageous.”
The editor, another wrote, should be “reprimanded by the owners” for “transgressing the laws of lashon hara” – the ban on gossip.
Letter writers also came to the paper’s defense. One said the paper did its job “with sensitivity and compassion,” and that it had an “obligation” to publish the allegations because “our children need to be protected.”
In a strongly worded editorial, the newspaper argued that it was “nonsense” to suggest that it should have refrained from publishing the news.
“That there could be an alleged sexual predator in one of our schools will not make our friends think any worse of us, nor will it breed a new generation of anti-Semites,” the editorial argued. “It simply proves again that our community, like any, has its flaws.”
The fury surrounding publication of the story recalled a similar controversy several years ago in the United States, when The New York Jewish Week published allegations of sexual abuse by Baruch Lanner, a rabbi who worked in the Orthodox Union’s youth movement. Lanner was later convicted of sexual abuse and sentenced to seven years in prison.
In Australia, the story about Adass Israel spread quickly on the internet, on radio talk shows and in the Australian press, which ran with headlines like “Principal ‘molested schoolgirls,’ ” and “Fury over girls school sex claims.”
The Adass community has been traumatized by the scandal.
“The mere allegation has gone to the very core of the Torah principles, ethos and practices of that whole community,” said Norman Rosenbaum, an attorney for the school and brother of Yankel Rosenbaum, the yeshiva student who was murdered during New York’s 1991 Crown Heights riots. “It is devastating. This has shattered people.”
A source close to the school said Leifer’s actions were a “betrayal of trust.”
“I think she was very smart and waited for them to leave school,” the source said of the girls Leifer allegedly abused. “It was an abuse of power. A lot of the Adass students become teachers, and she became their boss.”
“Everyone is very, very upset. They are shocked and devastated that this could occur,” said one non-Orthodox teacher at the school. “A lot of people are finding it hard to believe.”
The teacher said she did not think the girls who had come forward with the allegations would go to the police.
A police spokesperson said authorities were aware of the allegations but would neither confirm nor deny whether any girls had reported claims against Leifer or whether an investigation was under way.