Dassi Erlich on life since she and her sisters fought and won their case against abuser Malka Leifer

ABC News, Australia/March 5, 2024

By Anna Kelsey-Sugg and Bec Zajac for Life Matters

For nine weeks Dassi Erlich sat in a Melbourne courtroom wondering anxiously if the truth would prevail.

Then, on April 3, 2023, in a moment she describes as "absolutely terrifying", the Victorian County Court jury finally handed down its verdict in the sexual abuse case against former Melbourne principal Malka Leifer.

It delivered Ms Erlich and her two sisters the justice they'd spent decades fighting for.

Leifer, the principal of the Adass Israel School the sisters attended, was convicted of rape and other offences, and in August last year was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment.

"They saw that she was an abuser … It was such a confusing but such a validating moment," Ms Erlich tells ABC RN's Life Matters.

"I [was] finally walking away from something I had walked towards my entire adult life.

"Since Malka Leifer abused me I had been walking towards that justice and having to fight extremely hard for [it]."

Life in a controlled community

Ms Erlich grew up within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Adass Israel sect of around 250 families in Melbourne's south.

It was an insular and very controlled community.

"We had no contact with people outside of the community, not even the wider Jewish community," she says.

"There was this idea that if we in some way interacted with people outside of the community, they would influence us and tear us away from the best and most right way to live."

Ms Meyer, Ms Erlich and Ms Sapper in front of their childhood home in the Adass community in Melbourne, Victoria.(Supplied: Dassi Erlich)
But, far from living an optimal life, Ms Erlich's upbringing was miserable.

She says her parents would tell her she was "worthless".

"At times, I wasn't even called my name at home because I didn't deserve to have a name … I didn't think I was anyone. I believed that I was nothing," she says.

"I didn't have any safety growing up at home; I lived in a constant state of hyper-vigilance and fear.

"Essentially, I was completely ripe for Malka Leifer's abuse."

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Ms Erlich says against the rigid gender roles of the Adass community, where women "were taught to never, ever draw attention to [ourselves] or draw attention to our bodies" and to not be loud or opinionated, the "powerful, charismatic" Leifer stood out.

"Suddenly we had a woman that almost had the position of a man in the community. People looked up to her, people revered her, people went to her for advice. I'd never seen anything like it," Ms Erlich says.

School photo of Dassi Erlich when she was a student at the Adass Israel school.
Ms Erlich when she was an Adass Israel school student.(Supplied: Dassi Erlich)
For the first time, she felt visible.

"Suddenly this woman is telling me she loves me like a mother. I felt so special. I was craving that attention, that love," she says.

"I was desperate to be noticed, as a child is, which of course made me extremely vulnerable to her."

'Groundswell of support'

Leifer was convicted of 18 sexual offences committed against Ms Erlich and her sister Elly Sapper between early 2004 and late 2007. She was found not guilty of charges related to a third sister, Nicole Meyer.

Ms Erlich had disclosed her abuse in late 2007 or early 2008 to a counsellor, who then alerted the school.

Leifer immediately fled Australia to Israel — the role of the school board in facilitating this is the subject of a re-opened police investigation — and for years Ms Erlich believed that "justice was never going to happen".

But she and her sisters were unable to accept that Leifer could evade punishment for her crimes, and they were concerned that she could continue to abuse children.

In 2011, they brought the crimes to the attention of police and began a long and hard-fought campaign to have Leifer extradited to Australia to face trial.

"We had no idea how many years that would take and all the lengths that Leifer and her supporters would go to try and evade justice," Ms Erlich says.

As the sisters continued to lobby, backing — including from then-Victorian premier Ted Bailleu and prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison — grew until there was "a huge groundswell of support".

"It was absolutely empowering and incredible," Ms Erlich says.

Finding 'moments of peace'

Today Ms Erlich, the proud mother of a teenage daughter, works in a pathways program helping people who feel trapped in a fundamentalist religion.

Her father has passed away and her mother, with whom she has no contact, remains in the Adass community.

She says there have been moments over the years in which she and her sisters have wanted to give up.

"There were times we didn't have hope, especially when we got up to, I think, 74 court hearings in Israel, and it just seemed like it would never end and that we were just going to be stuck in this legal inertia for forever," she says.

But along with her daughter's strength, Ms Erlich and her sisters have had the backing of their other siblings.

Ms Erlich is one of seven children, and she says each sibling has been "incredibly supportive".

"My sisters and I would've not got to the space that we were without their support."

It's taken her a long time to divest herself of the shame and self-blame she felt after Leifer's criminal actions.

But today she sees herself as "a survivor".

"I am everything I need to be … I am someone that is worthy of being here."

Ms Erlich says her life now is not "a linear journey", but rather "it's always up and down, and I know it always will be".

"But it's really about finding those moments of peace and getting through those difficult days with the support and the understanding that I have of how to do that now, after doing that for so many years.

"It's a constant journey, but it's really about finding those little moments of peace in between."

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