Dassi's Journey : from Adass Abuse Survivor to Campaigner for Justice
By Rachel Kleinman
December 17, 2017
Dassi Erlich was sitting in a Jerusalem restaurant last month with her sisters, Elly Sapper and Nicole Meyer, inside a cavernous space dominated by funky light fittings, when an ultra-Orthodox Jewish teenager approached the table.
The girl had recognised the three women from Israeli television coverage. As she spoke, they listened with tears in their eyes.
"She shared a similar story to ours," Erlich says. "An insular school, vulnerable students, a female principal abusing her power … As soon as she said it, you could see the fear. She wouldn't tell us her name or what school she went to.
"[But] seeing us, our story and the campaign on TV had given her the courage and understanding to stop what was happening to her."
|The Jerusalem restaurant where Dassi Erlich and her sisters were confronted by an ultra-Orthodox schoolgirl with a story similar to their own. Photo: Supplied|
It was a rare spontaneous encounter for the three siblings in a tightly-packed, gruelling nine-day visit to Israel.
They met with Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Israel's top prosecutor Yuval Kaplinsky and members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. They were trailed by Israeli and Australian camera crews.
But the approach from the teenage sexual abuse survivor was a pivotal moment.
"I keep going back to that. If nothing else comes from that trip, if … this case goes on for years and years, that moment was worth it - it gave her the opportunity to speak," Erlich says.
|From left: Elly Sapper, Dassi Erlich, Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Nicole Meyer and Victorian MP David Southwick during their visit to Jerusalem. Photo: Supplied|
Erlich, Meyer and Sapper were in Israel to press for the extradition of former Melbourne school principal Malka Leifer. Leifer is wanted in Melbourne to face 74 Victoria Police charges of child sexual assault, including rape.
Sapper and Meyer have just started publicly identifying themselves as Leifer's victims, after Erlich paved the way in March. Erlich and Sapper both gave private submissions to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which released its 17-volume final report this week.
|Malka Leifer. Photo: Supplied|
Meyer, two years Erlich's senior, is arguably in a more sensitive position than her sisters.
With her husband and four children, she still lives within the confines of the Adass community.
Meyer didn't make a conscious decision to put her name and face to the campaign - it happened organically when she accompanied her sisters on their lobbying mission to Israel.
She is unsure how the community will respond.
"Most people … stay silent. That's probably the most discouraging thing - they may be supportive but they're silent," she says.
|Sisters (left to right) Dassi Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper. Photo: Joe Armao|
"From the wider Jewish community, I've received some messages of support. But from within the [Adass] community, fewer than five people have contacted me. They're too scared to say anything.
Erlich, having turned her back on her ultra-Orthodox upbringing, has no such concerns.
The metamorphosis of an Adass girl
On a hot November day in Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs, I visit Erlich at her simple two-bedroom apartment in Caulfield North to reflect on the past few months and the Israel visit.
There is no air-conditioning, but a fan whirs in the background as Erlich makes coffee and then folds herself into a comfortable grey couch.
"This campaign is recreating my sense of identity, which is in a constant process of evolving anyway," Erlich says.
The 30-year-old mother-of-one is now a high-profile lobbyist, justice campaigner and advocate for sexual abuse survivors. Given the hardships she has faced - a horrific childhood home life, the alleged sexual abuse by Leifer, mental health issues and psychiatric treatment, a divorce and a long custody battle over her daughter - her trajectory is extraordinary.
She had already endured the tricky transition from a life in ultra-Orthodox Judaism, where every move was governed by severe rules and rituals, to a secular life in Melbourne's suburbs.
"I was standing there [in Israel], outside the Knesset building, thinking: How did I go from being a shy Adass girl from this tiny, closeted community, to being in front of Knesset members, confidently telling them my story and asking for their help?
|Dassi Erlich at the gates of the Adass Israel school in Elsternwick. Photo: Supplied|
"I've evolved so quickly over the past five years and in the past few months I've been evolving again," Erlich says.
Since launching the #BringLeiferBack campaign this year, Erlich has recruited former Victorian premier Ted Baillieu to her cause, met with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and lobbied powerful Israeli politicians.
She is also lobbying the current Adass school board, with Baillieu's help, to issue a public statement of support for Leifer's alleged victims, thought to number between eight and at least 15. The Age understands the school is currently drafting a statement.
And hundreds of people, mostly from Jewish communities, have contacted her via her Facebook campaign page to express support or to share their own heartbreaking stories of sexual abuse.
None of it has overwhelmed her.
|Dassi Erlich meets Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Melbourne earlier this year. Photo: Supplied|
"Very little intimidates me, I don't get scared easily. I don't feel fear really. Or I've chosen not to feel it," she says.
She reminds me that the capacity to dissociate from feelings, or to compartmentalise them, is a common coping mechanism among people who have experienced significant trauma.
Despite her apparent fearlessness, Erlich lives daily with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, including nightmares and flashbacks. She has regular therapy and has to carefully manage sleep and self-care to minimise symptoms.
Given the ongoing effects of her abuse, it surprises some that she chooses to speak freely about her past.
"When I first spoke publicly, it wasn't about the campaign," Erlich explains.
"There was a lot of media about me as a victim, and I abhorred the word. I wanted to own my story and the narrative. I'm not a victim, I've changed my life and I've worked really hard to get here.
"I wanted to prove to myself - and one day to my daughter Leah - that I'm not ashamed of myself or my story."
That story - the horrific grooming and sexual abuse that Erlich allegedly suffered from Leifer - has been documented.
|'Trauma can either divide or it can bring you together': Elly Sapper, Nicole Meyer and Dassi Erlich. Photo: Joe Armao|
Erlich was the fourth of seven siblings (five girls and two boys) who grew up in the highly insular Adass community in Melbourne, which numbers up to 200 ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) Jews.
Sadly, the seven children lived in a physically and emotionally abusive home, where they existed in constant fear of their cruel and extremely controlling mother.
The siblings' connection to their parents is irrevocably broken but the six living brothers and sisters maintain powerfully supportive relationships with each other. Their eldest sister sadly died three years ago, aged 39.
"Trauma can either divide or it can bring you together," says 32-year-old Meyer.
"I think the way that we grew up, we turned to each other. That has just strengthened and intensified as the years have gone by."
Leifer's legal team has kept her out of court in Israel and away from potential extradition, using what Erlich labels "legal loopholes".
Turnbull raised the stalled extradition when he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month and says Australia maintains a strong interest in Leifer's fate.
|The sisters meet members of the Knesset during their trip to Israel. Photo: Supplied|
Meyer, who settled a civil action for damages out of court in August this year, has her sights set on a criminal court case.
"My future at the moment depends on [Leifer] coming back. Ever since I gave a police statement in 2011 that's been my main focus," she says.
"Beyond that, I imagine there'll be a lot more healing a lot quicker."
Meanwhile, Erlich is bursting with plans for her future, which include finishing her memoir over summer and possibly using her nursing degree to become a psychiatric nurse.
But the goal that energises her most right now is becoming a motivational speaker. She recently gave her first school talk - to year 11 students at Mount Scopus Memorial College, a Melbourne Jewish school.
"I'm thinking - how can I take the experience I've had … and do something more with it, give back with it?" Erlich says.
However buoyed she is by this activity, the spectre of Leifer inevitably looms. On January 23, attention will turn to Israel once again, when Leifer faces her next psychiatric review.
Erlich, Sapper and Meyer are hopeful that a new Israeli judge overseeing the case will see the matter returned to court.
It is no surprise that Erlich sees coming face to face with Leifer in a Melbourne court as part of her future.
"I would like to face her in court. I have so many questions and I know, cognitively, I'm not going to get answers to them but I just want the chance to ask."
As Erlich says, not much intimidates her. Especially not Malka Leifer.
MALKA LEIFER: A TIMELINE
2001: Israeli teacher Malka Leifer arrives at the Adass Israel girls school in Melbourne's south-east. The following year she is appointed principal.
March 2008: The school is alerted to sexual abuse allegations against Leifer by a social worker who Dassi Erlich has been seeing for treatment. The Adass community allegedly pays for Leifer and her family to flee Australia.
2011: Elly Sapper gives a statement to Victoria Police regarding allegations of sexual abuse by Leifer. Her sisters make statements shortly afterwards.
2014: Sapper receives a confidential out-of-court settlement after suing for damages. Victoria Police announce that Leifer is wanted on 74 charges of sexual assault and rape relating to girls who attended the Adass Israel school. Leifer is placed under house arrest in Israel as extradition proceedings begin.
2015: Erlich endures a two-week trial in the Supreme Court, after the school refuses to settle out of court. She receives a record $1 million payout for damages.
June 2016: An Israeli judge suspends Leifer's extradition proceedings and lifts her home detention after her lawyers argue she is not well enough to attend court. She has evaded 10 court appearances since 2014. Instead, an independent psychiatric panel will review her mental health every six months.
March 2017: Erlich launches her #BringLeiferBack campaign, an effort to pressure the Israeli and Australian governments over the extradition.
August 2017: Nicole Meyer is awarded a confidential out-of-court settlement for damages.
October 2017: Erlich meets Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to voice concerns about the halted extradition. Erlich, Sapper and Meyer fly to Israel to lobby politicians about the case.
January 23, 2018: The psychiatric panel is scheduled to conduct its next six-month review of Leifer's case to deem whether she is fit to return to court.