EXCLUSIVE : Dassi Erlich on surviving Malka Leifer

“As a little girl I was so frightened”

As she had done many times before, Dassi Erlich walked through the revolving glass doors of Melbourne’s County Court last August, arm in arm with her sisters, Nicole and Elly. She took a deep breath and steadied herself to speak to the jostling media pack as lights and cameras flashed furiously around her. Tears flowed freely at the emotionally-charged press conference, but this time they came from a place of sheer joy and almost disbelief. The battle these sisters had waged for more than a decade to bring their abuser to justice was finally over.

Malka Leifer, their former school principal and a woman they once considered a mother figure and trusted mentor, was convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse and rape, and sentenced to 15 years’ jail.

“The relief was overwhelming,” Dassi says. “In that moment, the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders because at times, this point of the journey seemed so unbelievable and so far from our grasp.

“All the years of fighting were about getting to that moment where we had justice, and all of me went into it. I never imagined how I’d feel after, it was a whole new array of emotions for me, but mostly, this big black cloud that had covered my life for years had suddenly lifted,” she says.

Dassi Erlich and her sisters Nicole and Elly.
Sisters Dassi Erlich (L), Elly Sapper (C) and Nicole Meyer embrace outside the County Court in Melbourne on August 24, 2023, after ex-headmistress Malka Leifer was sentenced to 15 years in jail for sexually abusing Dassi and Elly at an Australian Jewish school, before fleeing to Israel then being extradited back. (Photo by William WEST / AFP) (Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

In the middle of the night in March 2008, Malka Leifer, then a highly respected principal of the ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel School in Elsternwick, was rushed through the shadows of Melbourne Airport to board a 1.20am flight to Israel, after allegations were raised that she’d been molesting her students.

The events of that evening sparked an extraordinary 15-year battle by the lion-hearted sisters. They became familiar faces as they fought for Leifer’s extradition to Australia, then justice through the courts. Now Dassi has shared the details of their relentless, exhausting, and all-consuming pursuit in a powerful memoir, In Bad Faith. The book not only shines a light on the strict Jewish sect which protected Leifer, but also reveals for the first time the cruel and sadistic abuse Dassi and her siblings suffered at the hands of their parents, which drove them into their abuser’s arms.

“When I gave my police statement in 2011, I could never have predicted what this journey would become,” says Dassi. “A few weeks after the court process finished, I was sitting in the sun reading a book and I realised that I had my curiosity back, I felt like I had been living in a survival space for so long, and suddenly my mind felt alive again, it was a good feeling.”

Dassi Erlich as a child

Dassi Erlich and childhood trauma

There is a little girl on the cover of Dassi Erlich’s book draped in a loose black smock mirroring the clothes worn by her mother. Her familiar raven fringe is poking out from under a crisp white headscarf protecting her ‘modesty’, as dictated by her strict Orthodox religion. She is smiling, her head is tilted ever so slightly, hands neatly by her side submissively – she is ready to serve.

Today, Dassi Erlich grimaces when she sees this picture, knowing that as a four-year-old girl she was already living in a state of fear, anxiety and shame that would shadow her into her adult years.

“When I look at that picture, I feel sad for my younger self, sad that I didn’t think there would ever be a way out of that pain and fear, and there wasn’t going to be for a long time.

That little girl was so frightened and she felt like life was always going to be that way. I thought there was something terribly wrong with me because my parents didn’t love me, they hurt me instead.”

Tucked away in the quiet streets of Elsternwick, arguably one of Melbourne’s most chic bayside suburbs, is a small community of around 200 families who shun the modern world. They live side by side, street by street, within an eight-block radius, where they are in a cradle-to-grave self-sufficient society. They have their own shops, schools, butcher, baker, synagogue, cemetery; they even have their own ambulance service.

Modern technology is largely taboo, unless it’s been deemed by the rabbi as “kosher for the eyes”.

Fate is pre-determined for a young girl born into the ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel sect. Her marriage will be arranged at a young age, she will live a devout religious life according to a strict interpretation of the Torah, and raise her children, of which six or seven are expected, within the community’s punishing and often degrading rules.

Women in the Adass community are seen and not heard, taught that their neshama (soul) is worth more than the souls of those “who bare skin on the street”.

Dassi Erlich’s parents, Mark and Smadar (Sammi) Sapper, followed the sect’s rules to the letter.

There was no television, internet, secular books or sex education at the Sapper home. From their windows the seven Sapper children could see and hear others in the neighbourhood riding bikes and playing, but they were often forbidden from joining them or having contact with anyone outside the religious community.

In her book Dassi has revealed her parents’ cruel and abusive behaviour which went beyond their religious dictate, recalling how the children often went without food, were subjected to abuse, and regularly told they were ‘bad’ and ‘worthless’.

Dassi Erlich looking out the window

Dassi has shared a number of incidents in heartbreaking detail, such as the time her mother sent her and her sisters to bed at 4.30 in the afternoon, straight after school, with no dinner; the girls were locked in their room and not allowed out until the following morning, not even to go to the toilet.

In sheer desperation, the girls urinated in their bedroom cupboard. The next morning when their mother discovered what they had done, Dassi says she was made to wear a baby’s nappy, crawl around the house and drink water out of a bowl under the kitchen table. Dassi also vividly recounts the day her mother snatched her favourite and only doll, Esther, from her arms while she was playing, and stabbed the doll’s eyes and face with a kitchen knife, screaming “Avodah Zarah”, meaning the worship of anything other than God was forbidden.

“I’ve been processing parts of my life for a long time, and it’s harrowing when you read it all together,” says Dassi.“We lived in constant fear and it was all-consuming and all-pervasive, I don’t remember anything but living in fear as a child, which was why we were so vulnerable to Malka Leifer, she knew what was happening at home and she offered us the crumbs of love we craved, she preyed upon us.”

On some nights her mother made the siblings sit on the sofa and stare at the blank dining room walls for hours, statue still, forbidden to move an inch. The twitch of a finger would incur her wrath.

For two-year-old Isaac, a bundle of toddler energy, this was an impossible task and the girls watched in horror as their mother dragged him into a cupboard under the stairs and locked him in. At first, she told him it was for “20 minutes” but every time he cried, she started the timer again. The sisters watched on, powerless to help the distressed little boy.

“When I became a mother myself and realised how much I loved my daughter, my mother’s behaviour became even more confusing. I wanted the very best for my daughter and I was constantly thinking about the things I could do for her. The things my mother did to us didn’t make sense to me. How could you do something like that to your own child?” Dassi says.

Dassi Erlich book cover for In Bad Faith

Dassi felt singled out by her mother, who regularly told her she was fat and would never be married – the worst of sins for an Adass woman. Dassi became so anxious about her weight she spent hours on a treadmill at home and would punch her curvy hips, cursing them for “not being straight” so she could fit into her sister’s hand-me-downs.

Food was scarce in the household, and the children regularly went without meals. Dassi was given even smaller portions, and her siblings were warned they’d go without food for a week if they were caught sharing with Dassi.

On her 12th birthday, when a special Bat Mitzvah celebration was held to mark the young girl’s religious maturity, her mother rationed her food. “You’re putting on weight Dassi,” she recalls her mother saying in her book, “you’re fat, you need to eat less, you’re a pretty face and nothing else.”

Dassi was made to do exhaustive chores before school to help look after her six siblings, making everyone’s beds, preparing their breakfast, cleaning the toilet, and gathering the laundry. If it wasn’t done to her mother’s satisfaction, Dassi had to stay home from school. “How could you treat your children like that?” Dassi says. It’s clear in this very raw memoir that Dassi was also subjected to horrific behaviour from her father, who passed away in 2019. With professional help she is currently working through his “special hugs” with his daughter. “There’s a lot of unprocessed emotions about him which is something I’m still working through. With his passing, a lot of things came up that I previously didn’t have the emotional space to work through, and that processing is happening now,” she says, choosing her words carefully.

Dassi Erlich sitting at a table

How Malka Leifer targetted Dassi Erlich

The one place that offered respite from the abuse at home was school. Dassi, Elly and Nicole lapped up the attention given to them by their principal, Malka Leifer, who was a revered figure in the secretive Adass community.

Leifer was aware of the girls’ troubled home-life and targeted the vulnerable sisters, showering them with affection. When Dassi was 15 years old Malka Leifer started paying close attention to her under the pretence she was helping “prepare” Dassi for marriage. She was one of Leifer’s “special” girls, chosen to accompany the school principal and do errands on her behalf and it was Malka Leifer who gave the sexually naïve young woman “lessons” in marriage.

“She was a woman of confidence, authority and poise,” Dassi writes in the book. “Mrs Leifer put her arm around my shoulder. She stroked my back and my body calmed. I was not used to being touched gently. Her warmth felt loving and I sank into it.”

Such was the closed world in which Dassi had been raised that when she eventually went to the police to make a statement in 2011, she barely had the words to describe what had happened to her. “The policewoman said, ‘You have to be specific’, but I didn’t know how to, I didn’t even know the name for the body parts. The language to describe sexual abuse didn’t exist in our world.”

Leifer abused the sisters over many years and others have since come forward with similar allegations.

Dassi says she weaponised her image within the community to get access to children.

“That’s how she got away with it. Over the years I’ve had remarks from people along the lines of, ‘It’s just a woman, what’s the big deal?’. It doesn’t matter if the perpetrator is female or male, the impact on a victim is the same, and women can be just as abusive as men. It’s about a person abusing their position of power to harm a child.”

Dassi Erlich in repose

Breakdown and healing

It was after she was married to Joshua Erlich in 2006 that cracks began to appear in the emotional armour Dassi had built to protect herself. As she struggled to fall pregnant and fulfil her duty as an Adass wife, her mental health suffered and the noxious weeds of failure and worthlessness that were planted during her childhood inched further through the cracks.

By the time Dassi gave birth to her daughter, Lily, in 2010 she was suffering suicidal ideation and was hospitalised.

During her treatment she placed the first pieces of the healing jigsaw puzzle in place, particularly when she met some other young mums from outside the Adass community and realised that she was no different.

“That was the first time I’d ever had a conversation with anyone from outside the community. I was watching the other mums who were just like me, filled with love for their children, but they were free. All this time I’d been raised to believe we were different, that people outside the Adass community were somehow evil or lesser. They weren’t, they were just like me, and that was very validating for my self-worth.”

In 2011, Dassi’s younger sister, Elly, bravely made a statement to police, followed by Dassi and her older sister, Nicole. In 2014 Malka Leifer was charged with 74 child sex offences.

The sisters thought her extradition from Israel would be a straightforward process, but Leifer argued she was too mentally ill to return to Australia, prompting a fight for justice that reached the office of the Prime Minister and Israel’s Knesset (parliament).

In May 2020 a court ruled that Leifer’s claim of mental illness was fraudulent and she was returned to Australia. It took 11 years but she was found guilty of 18 sexual offences and sentenced to 15 years in prison. In front of the waiting media, holding her sisters’ hands Dassi said, “Today we can start to take our power back that she stole from us as children.”

Malka Leifer in court
Malka Leifer, a former Australian teacher accused of dozens of cases of sexual abuse of girls at a school, arrives for a hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on February 27, 2018. – Israel on February 12 arrested the Australian woman who is wanted in her home country on child sex abuse charges, police announced. The suspect has been living in a West Bank settlement for the past decade following a complaint filed against her by a former student at a Jewish ultra-Orthodox school she ran in Melbourne. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s no doubt the years of abuse at home and school have had a profound impact on Dassi’s life, not least of which presents in her own mothering. Dassi credits Lily, now 13, as a big reason for keeping her alive during those tumultuous years, but she hopes that with justice now served they can make up for lost time.

“She is a beautiful girl and I love her to the ends of the earth, I love being her mother and I’m so proud of her. My relationship with Lily has been impacted by the circumstances of my life, and as much as I’ve tried to protect her from everything, when you are dealing with the impacts of trauma it has an effect and I’ll be dealing with this for the rest of my life.

“When you become a mother you can’t imagine the journey you’ll go on and I couldn’t have imagined where my life has taken me. I’ve weathered it because I had to, you don’t know what you can survive until you have to.”

Dassi’s mother is still living within the Adass community but none of the children have contact with her.

If you or someone you know needs help, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or 1800RESPECT

The siblings are close, and offer one another all the love and support that they need.

The other powerful woman in Dassi’s life is now behind bars, but with time served in remand she is eligible to apply for parole in 2029.

For Dassi, who trained as a nurse, sharing her story is about helping others. She is passionate about using her experiences, particularly with the justice system, to advocate for and support other survivors of abuse. Sipping coffee on the sofa of a friend’s Melbourne home, today she is relaxed, confident and proud of the woman she has become and what she has achieved. She is unrecognisable from the little girl on her book cover.

“I’d say to her, to that little girl, ‘one day you won’t be living in fear, one day you’ll be a different person, one day you’ll get out of there’.”

In Bad Faith by Dassi Erlich with Ellen Whinnett, Hachette, is on sale January 31.

Related stories