true crime

Dassi, Nicole and Elly trusted their school principal. They allege she abused them for years.

The Adass community in Melbourne is made up of about 250 families. They’re an ultra-Orthodox exclusive and insular group, who don’t generally mix with the wider public or even other Jewish communities.

There’s no TV, radio, internet, or newspaper. They don’t allow anything that can bring in influence from the outside world, and young women are taught to remain modest so they remain ‘pure’ for marriage. Words like ‘sex’ and ‘romance’ aren’t even in their vocabulary.

Dassi Erlich and her sisters, Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper, grew up in that community.

WATCH: The sisters appeared on Australian Story in 2018. Post continues after video.

“My understanding of sex aged 16, 17 and 18 was that of a four or five-year-old,” Dassi told  Fairfax Media in 2017.

The girls came from an abusive home, one where they lived in constant fear.

They all attended the community’s all-girls Adass Israel School. They were allowed to read books, but large parts of the text were blacked out.

“We couldn’t even have an understanding about what a relationship between a man and woman is,” explained Dassi.

Dassi Australian Story
Dassi, Elly, Nicole and their older sister grew up in an abusive home. Image: Australian Story.
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When Dassi was in year 8, Malka Leifer became the new school principal. Her husband was a rabbi, and as a result, she was a highly-esteemed member of the community, someone everyone respected and looked up to. The couple had eight children together.

The sisters trusted her, and eventually opened up to her about their home situation, telling her how scared they were of their mother and her punishments. She became a confidant and a friend.

Leifer began inviting Dassi over to her house, and into her office with the blinds closed. She would beg Dassi to reveal her most private thoughts. Sexual abuse allegedly followed. Little did a 15-year-old Dassi know her sisters were allegedly experiencing similar things.

Elly and Nicole also report that the instances of abuse occurred when they were teenagers, aged about 16 and 17-years-old.

Dassi Erlich
Dassi Erlich and her sisters went to an all girls highly religious school in their Melbourne community. Image: Australian Story.

The sisters allege 74 charges of rape and child abuse in total, perpetrated by Leifer during their teenage years. Dassi told Fairfax she personally knows of eight other alleged victims, and believes there are up to 15.

In 2008, Dassi admitted to a social worker in Israel, where she was living at the time with her new husband, that she'd been abused.

As soon as the allegations started to emerge, the school bought Leifer plane tickets and flew her and her family to Israel, where she has remained ever since.

Dassi and her sisters formally pressed charges in 2011, a decision which forced them out of a community in which they would now be perceived as 'traitors'.

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Dassi, Elly and Nicole went to police in 2011 and charges were laid against their former principal. Ever since they've been campaigning for her to be extradited from Israel to Australia. Image: Facebook.
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In 2017, Dassi started a campaign to bring awareness to the fact her former principal was continuing to avoid extradition courts in Israel, by claiming mental illness.

"[She is] living an unrestricted life in a community similar to the one I grew up," she told Fairfax at the time.

The three sisters have met with politicians, rape crisis centres, and Jewish organisations, over the years, attempting to rally support.

Using the hashtag #bringleiferback, Dassi has never stopped campaigning, while also pursuing a career in nursing and raising her daughter.

In February 2018, Leifer was arrested in Israel, accused of faking mental illness for three years in order to avoid extradition to Australia. She has remained in prison ever since, awaiting a decision on extradition.

In May 2020, the Jerusalem District Court accepted an unanimous decision by a psychiatric panel that 53-year-old Leifer is fit to face an extradition trial.

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Australian Malka Leifer, is brought to a courtroom in Jerusalem. An Israeli court ruled Tuesday, May 26, 2020, that Leifer who is wanted on pedophilia charges in Australia, is fit to stand trial for extradition. Image: AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean.
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"Too many emotions to process!!! This is huge," Dassi, who is now in her 30s, wrote on Facebook.

"This abusive woman has been exploiting the Israeli courts for 6 years! Intentionally creating obstacles with endless vexatious arguments that have only lengthened our ongoing trauma."

Leifer's defence is expected to appeal the court's decision, meaning the case would then move to the Jerusalem High Court.

If the High Court accepts the District Court's ruling that Leifer is fit to face trial, the extradition hearing will finally take place.

Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter said the Australian government welcomed the ruling and hoped it gave the alleged victims confidence proceedings would move to Australia.

"Whilst today's decision can be appealed, it is a positive sign and means that formal extradition proceedings can now lawfully commence, subject to any orders relevant to any possible appeal," he said in a statement.

Mr Porter said the government remained strongly committed to ensuring justice was served in the case.

"I travelled to Israel last year to make that case to Israel's attorney-general," he said.

Dassi told Fairfax in 2017, one of the main things she wants to ask her alleged abuser is "why?"

On Facebook last year she wrote: "In 2003 I never imagined it would end. I'm so grateful I survived. There are many scars, but I grew up, I gained my independence and I found my own power."

- With AAP.

Feature image: Australian Story/AAP.

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