In a cafe in Melbourne’s south-east, not far from her old school, Dassi Erlich is writing about her former school principal, Malka Leifer. “I see her pleading fingers undressing me, the slow crawl of her touch over my exposed skin,” she types. “But I am not there. I am empty. In that room, I do not exist. She has killed me. A silent death that no one will ever know of. No one will believe me.”
Erlich was only 15 years old and no one in her ultra-orthodox Adass Jewish neighbourhood in East St Kilda knew then that she was being abused by a doyenne of that community, the respected female principal of the Adass Israel School. Erlich herself would not understand what it all meant until years later, when memories haunted her and then almost killed her.
She would have to reject the tightly knit religious community of barely 2000 people and all she had known in order to seek justice. Then came the police statements, the court case, the million dollars in damages and the stunning news that her community leaders had spirited Leifer out of Australia in the dead of night to Israel, where she continues to evade justice. In a cruel twist, Erlich also learnt that two girls close to her were abused by the same woman.
Erlich, now 29, has good reason to be angry with those who have let her down, from her former school to the leaders of Melbourne’s Adass community to the Israeli justice system, which has so far blocked the extradition of her former principal. Instead, she cradles a coffee in her hands at her favourite cafe and says she doesn’t want to throw another grenade after the bad publicity her court case has already garnered for the reclusive Adass. “I don’t want to talk badly about the community because there are many people there who haven’t done anything wrong and who are just living their lives to the best of their ability and who are happy,” she says. “But from the outside, when I look at the kids who grow up in that community and the way of life, I can’t condone it, I think it’s wrong. I think a lot of the rules about keeping the community so excluded and making the outside world seem so dangerous breed that kind of [sexual] abuse.”
Now, almost 18 months after former Victorian Supreme Court judge Jack Rush ordered the school to pay $1,024,428 in damages – one of the largest sex abuse payouts in Australia’s history – and nine years after Leifer fled the country, Erlich is ready to tell her story for the first time.
Over the past year I have met Erlich regularly at the cafe as she ponders how to tell her remarkable story in the book she is writing. At each meeting she is friendly and upbeat, talking about her nursing studies and showing me pictures of her six-year-old daughter Leah. She dresses in hip modern clothes, wears red lipstick and large jewellery, a world away from the dour wigs and flowing Amish-style dresses of the Adass women. “This is about owning my own story,” she says. “My daughter will one day grow up and read about my life. I want it to be a story of strength and inspiration rather than victimhood.”
Yet it is hard to imagine a more vulnerable target than Erlich and at least 15 of her fellow Adass schoolgirls who say they were assaulted by Leifer, a mother of eight who was then in her late 40s. “Children were raised not having knowledge of world events and were completely isolated from anything beyond the community they were within,” Erlich told the court in 2015. “We weren’t to know that a relationship could exist between a male and a female.”
Erlich and her six siblings were brought up in the strict Adass tradition of no access to television, radio, internet, magazines or newspapers. Her parents met at a Jewish youth club in London and in 1981 emigrated to Australia, where they joined Melbourne’s small Adass community. These so-called Adassniks, the most insular of the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox spectrum of Jews, live almost entirely within an eight-block radius of East St Kilda. Women are not expected to have careers but rather to raise large families, often with more than 10 children in each. Adass men dress as if they are roaming through 19th-century Europe, with tall mink fur hats, black silk knee-length coats, white pantaloons, stockings and black slip-on shoes. They are the closest Australia has to an Amish community. “I didn’t realise it was an unusual community until I left it,” says Erlich. “It was my way of life and I didn’t know anything else. We were told that ours was the best way of life and the superior way of life; it was just accepted that you didn’t interact with people who are not part of your community unless absolutely necessary.”
When Leifer began to take an interest in her, Erlich, then 15, was so naive that she had no idea that a kiss on the mouth “was something that could be done”. In any case, there was no reason to imagine that someone like Leifer could be a sexual predator. The Adass community had recruited her from Israel in 2000 to head the Adass Israel School in Elsternwick, which had around 500 children enrolled in the separate boys’ and girls’ campuses. Among the Adass, Leifer was a towering figure who inspired awe. “People looked up to her and listened to her as if hers were God’s words,” recalls Erlich. “She was someone who everyone looked up to and idolised. She was like an angel who had flown in from overseas.”
So when Leifer offered to give “private lessons” to Erlich, the student was flattered. “I would go to her office and study and she would put her arms around me,” she recalls. “I found it quite comforting, I felt quite loved and really special that she was giving me her attention.” But as the lessons progressed, first in Leifer’s office and then at her home, she says the principal began to rub her thighs against her student and slide her fingers up her legs. “I thought it was weird but it was also like, ‘Well, she is the boss, she is the adult here so it must be right.’”
The meetings would continue on and off for the next three years, with Leifer going further each time and Erlich becoming more confused about what was happening to her. “Every time we walk away as if it has never occurred… I have no one to talk to and even if I did what would I say,” she writes in her book. “It is much easier to make believe it is all OK.”
In his 2015 judgment against the Adass Israel School and Leifer, Justice Rush stated: “I accept that because of her [Erlich’s] extremely sheltered background she did not understand what was happening to her, particularly as to whether she was right or wrong.”
Erlich’s encounters with Leifer ended when she entered an arranged marriage at the age of 18 with a 23-year-old partner chosen by her parents. “I was very nervous,” she recalls of her first visit with her future husband. “Suddenly I was supposed to speak to this guy I didn’t know and have a conversation about marriage as my mother was in the next room listening in. We talked about the guiding principles of life and what sort of home you wanted to be in and what kind of kids you want to bring up. How many kids is never a question because birth control is not an option – you have to get the Rabbi’s permission for that.”
Within a week of their first meeting, she was engaged. “I met him [for the first time] at his house on a Monday… I met him four times over that week and I got engaged to him on the Saturday.”
After they were married, they left for Israel so that her husband could pursue religious studies. Erlich struggled to get pregnant and when she finally did, she had a miscarriage. She became depressed and started to see a therapist. It was during those therapy sessions in Israel that she began to open up for the first time about what had happened with Leifer, something she had not even shared with her husband. “It was like a very shameful secret because I believed it was all my fault – it was like self-loathing,” she says.
She says the therapist did not believe her at first but when Erlich told her that two other girls close to her had also been abused, the therapist passed on her claims to a colleague in the Adass community in Melbourne. In late February 2008, those claims were relayed to a teacher at the Adass school, Sharon Bromberg, who briefly confronted Leifer. The principal deflected the questions. When Bromberg heard in the following weeks that two other former students were alleging abuse by Leifer, she raised the issue with the school and senior Adass community members.
By the time school and community leaders met at the house of the late businessman Izzy Herzog on March 5, 2008, they had become aware of at least eight separate allegations of abuse involving Leifer and girls at the school. In attendance that night was school board president Yitzhok Benedikt, school board member Meir Ernst, barrister Norman Rosenbaum, psychologist Vicki Gordon and Bromberg. What then unfolded would later be described by Justice Rush as “disgraceful” and “deplorable”.
The group put Leifer on speakerphone and put the allegations to her. She denied them. “You have destroyed my reputation, I’m not going to stand for this,” she replied. The group then told Leifer she would be stood down as the head of the Adass school. But then, in a fateful decision, it was agreed that rather than report Leifer to the police, the principal should be spirited out of the country.
Dassi Ernst, the wife of school board member Meir Ernst, asked a local travel agent to open her shop at 10pm that night, only hours after the meeting, and to book a plane ticket to Israel for Leifer. Less than four hours later – at 1.20am – Leifer and four of her children flew to Israel. (She was later joined in Israel by her husband Jacob, a rabbi.) The school paid for her ticket.
In his judgment, Justice Rush stated: “In such circumstances the alleged perpetrator should not be assisted to urgently flee the jurisdiction. The failure of the board to report the allegations to police prior to arranging Leifer’s urgent departure is deplorable.”
Three of those at the meeting – Gordon, Rosenbaum and Bromberg – have declined to comment, but school board president Benedikt maintains they did nothing wrong. “We have acted as any normal person would act, we have responsibilities for our children and for our community,” he tells this magazine. “We could not allow at that time a teacher like that to stay anywhere near the children. Don’t you agree with me that the best thing is that they don’t have anything more to do with the children?” Benedikt maintains it was Leifer’s choice to leave that night and that her departure had “nothing to do with the school”.
Rush disputes this, saying it was done to protect the community’s reputation and hide its embarrassment. “I have no doubt the conduct was deliberate,” he says. “The conduct of Messrs Benedikt and Ernst on behalf of the board in facilitating the urgent departure of Leifer was likely motivated by a desire to conceal her wrongdoing and isolate the conduct and its consequences to within the Adass community.” Victoria Police is conducting what it describes as an “ongoing investigation” into whether an offence was committed in relation to Leifer’s departure.
Erlich did not learn of the clandestine arrangement for Leifer’s exit for seven years until her civil trial in 2015, but says it didn’t surprise her that the Adass community would try to hide the problem. “I wasn’t shocked by that when I finally heard about it,” she says. “The cover-up was like something that all religious communities around the world would do, so I was disappointed but not shocked. It is what [the Adass] do with a lot of their problems, they shove it under the carpet, pretend it didn’t happen and move on.”
In 2009, a year after Leifer’s departure, Erlich began displaying signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. She returned to Melbourne from Israel and became pregnant but was alarmed by her lack of emotional response to the baby. “I couldn’t feel anything for the child I was carrying – it scared me so much,” she says. “It got worse after she was born. I was getting lots of flashbacks and I literally could not deny it any more. I was suicidal, I was self-harming and I felt like the worst mother in the world.”
She was admitted to a mental health clinic. Her marriage broke up. Yet the clinic proved to be her window to a life beyond the confines of the Adass. “Until I went into hospital I had no connection with people outside my community,” she says. “In there I met other mums and it opened up a whole new world for me. They had the internet and I started reading books on religion, history, philosophy – everything I could get my hands on.”
Erlich realised she was drifting away from the Adass and into a new life. For the first time she weighed up whether she should pursue Leifer and the school in court, knowing that to do so would see her forever locked out of the only community she had known. She had by then bonded with her daughter Leah and that helped her to see Leifer’s crimes in a more chilling light. “I started thinking about Leifer flying to Israel and maybe committing the same crimes there,” she says. “I now had a daughter and I couldn’t imagine that happening to her. But I knew if I did [take legal action] there would be no going back to the community.”
In the biggest decision of her life, she went to court, knowing that she was, in effect, also putting the Adass in the dock. “I knew nothing else but that community,” she says. “I didn’t have a penny to my name, I had left my husband and I was in a psychiatric hospital with literally only the suitcase that I had taken there.”
Erlich writes of how frightened she was as she sat in Moorabbin police station, about to tell her story to the police for the first time. “Panic pulsates my throat. The culture of silence, seeped into the fibres of my nation, strangles my voice. My words crack and break. I must continue and think of the motivation driving me to be present in this moment.”
The civil trial in 2015 was a turning point for Erlich and her faith in the system. Justice Rush’s withering judgment and the damages he ordered against the school and Leifer finally convinced her that someone was listening. “I felt vindicated,” she says. “I was proud of myself for sticking it through.”
Since the verdict, Erlich has juggled nursing studies with writing her book and being a single mum. She says she is frustrated by the fact that Leifer remains in Israel with no immediate prospect of returning to face her accusers. Leifer is wanted in Australia on 74 criminal counts of child sex offences but has repeatedly claimed to be too mentally unwell to attend extradition hearings. Late last year an Israeli judge halted extradition proceedings and placed Leifer on a psychiatric treatment regimen that can be extended for six months at a time for up to 10 years.
An Adass community elder, Shlomo Abelesz, says the community would like to see the former principal brought back to face justice. He maintains that the decision to send her to Israel was done to keep her away from the students. “That was the only reason they wanted to get rid of her,” he says. “But maybe yes, I agree they should have gone to the police. But they were convinced that had they gone to the police, [the response] would have been: ‘What can the police do?’”
Erlich says Leifer is using the Israeli justice system to her advantage. “I have no confidence that she will be brought back. It’s disappointing and very sad.” But these days she tries not to dwell on Leifer or on the world she has left behind. She still has friends in the Adass community and remains close to her siblings. She has just qualified as a nurse and, after her rocky start, embraces being a mum. “I wanted to try to take the secrecy and the shame away from my story by telling it in my own voice. Maybe I can even inspire others,” she says with a smile. “I have found a new life and I love it.”