Former principal Malka Leifer has been jailed after using her power and authority within Melbourne’s ultra-orthodox Jewish community to prey on school girls.

Once a respected community leader, the disgraced 56-year-old appeared remotely before the Victorian County Court on Thursday morning where she was sentenced to serve 15 years in prison.

As she did during the trial and subsequent court appearances, Leifer sat stony faced throughout Thursday’s three-hour hearing, keenly listening as her left hand gripped tightly over her mouth.

In front of a packed courtroom, Judge John Gamble said Leifer abused the vulnerability of her victims and their ignorance of sexual matters for her own “perverse sexual gratification”.

“This case is striking for just how vulnerable the two victims were … and just how the offender Ms Leifer took advantage of those vulnerabilities to abuse them,” he said.

“Each complainant yearned for what she was missing in her life, the love and support of a loving mother… that made them a target.

“The exploitation and manipulation of two very vulnerable victims … undertaken for no better reason than for her own sexual gratification.”

There were audible gasps in the courtroom as judge Gamble announced Leifer will be eligible for parole after 11 and a half years.

With 5 and a half years recognised as time served she could walk free in 2029.

Leifer was convicted following a seven-week jury trial earlier this year on 18 offences against sisters Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper committed in her school office, during school trips and private education sessions at her home between 2004 and 2007.

She was acquitted on 11 charges, including five allegations of abuse perpetrated against Ms Erlich and Ms Sapper’s older sister Nicole Meyer.

Judge Gamble said he was only to sentence Leifer for the offences she was found guilty of and not the acquitted charges or uncharged alleged acts used to provide the context of her grooming and abuse.

The court was told Leifer took advantage of her esteemed position and knowledge of the sisters’ miserable home lives and sheltered upbringing.

“The complainants were raised in ultra-orthodox Jewish family,” Judge Gamble said.

“They had a very difficult upbringing due to the cruel and unpredictable way they were treated by their mother.

“They were completely and utterly ignorant of sexual matters and had no ability to understand or recognise sexual acts… that made them a target.”

The sisters’ fight to hold Leifer accountable may never have come to fruition if not for video taken by private investigators who tracked her to the West Bank settlement of Immanuel, in Israel, in 2017.

She had fled back to her home country on March 6, 2008, just hours after she was stood down by the school board when a social worker relayed concerns.

The sisters first filed police complaints in 2011, unknowingly sparking a decade-long legal battle fought through the court systems of two countries.

Leifer was arrested by Israeli police in August 2014, but spent years fighting the extradition process, which was terminated in June 2016 after a court ruled she was unfit to stand trial due to mental health issues.

But more than 200 hours of video taken by the private investigators showing Leifer engaging in her day to day life spurred a fresh investigation and she was rearrested in February 2018.

Israel signed the extradition order in December 2020, more than six years after Victoria Police first filed the request.

Judge Gamble found it was clear Leifer exaggerated or intensified her mental health problems so as to frustrate or delay the extradition proceedings.

Previously, the court was told Leifer had spent about 5-and-a-half years in custody across both Australia and Israel, alongside 608 days in home detention.

After more than 31 hours of deliberations spanning nine days, the jury found Leifer guilty on five counts of rape, one count of rape by compelled sexual penetration, four counts of indecent act with a 16 or 17 year-old child, five counts of indecent assault and three counts of sexual penetration of a 16 or 17 year-old child.

At an earlier pre-sentence hearing, Leifer’s barrister, Ian Hill KC, said his client was a “shadow of her former self”.

“Today, all these years later, she is a truly lonely, isolated and broken woman, held in protective custody in a maximum-security prison far from her culture, far from her religion and, significantly, far from her family,” he said.

The mother-of-eight had been recruited to lead religious studies at the all-girls school in 2001, to great excitement in the school community.

“She came to the community and became this person that was revered as much as a rabbi, and I had never seen a woman that people looked up to like this,’ Ms Erlich previously told the court.

“The constant reminders of her sexual abuse means her world continues to intrude upon my life.

“A world that is triggered by a smell, a thought, certain weather or time of year, and my body, without warning, is gripped by the memory of what she did.”

Judge Gamble described the victim impact statements of both Ms Erlich and Ms Sapper as powerful illustrations of the legacy of Leifer’s grooming and abuse.

“For each of them it has been profound and life changing,” he said.

“To the extent Ms Erlich and Ms Sapper feel a personal guilt or shame for what occurred that they should not.

“It was the predatory behaviour of Ms Leifer and it is she and she alone that should feel guilty for what occurred.”

Previously the court was told Leifer would be removed from Australia once she is released from custody.

Judge Gamble said she continues to maintain her innocence and has shown no remorse.

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