A woman who was sexually assaulted by her ultra-Orthodox Jewish female principal of her school from the age of 15 has opened up about it for the first time.
Dassi Erlich was raised in Melbourne’s small and strict Adass Jewish community.
She and her six siblings had very little access to the outside world and weren’t allowed to watch television, listen to the radio, use the internet or read magazines or newspapers.
Her upbringing also meant that Ms Erlich was not given any sex education so she was left completely confused when Malka Leifer, the highly respected principal of the Adass Israel School in Elsternwick, began grooming her.
But almost ten years ago, when Ms Erlich’s allegations were brought to the school’s attention along with multiple other girls Leifer was quickly whisked off to Israel, where she continues to avoid extradition, The Weekend Australian reported.
In 2015, Ms Erlich brought a civil case against her former school – who were ordered to pay her $1,024,428 in damages.
Now 29, Ms Erlich a single mother to her six-year-old daughter Leah – has opened up for the first time about how the years of sexual abuse tormented her for years, affecting her mental health and leaving her suicidal.
‘This is about owning my story. My daughter will one day grow up and read about my life,’ she told The Weekend Australian magazine.
She explained that she wanted her story to be one of ‘strength and inspiration rather than victimhood.’
Although Ms Erlich has now left the tightly-knit and reclusive religious community she grew up in, she says she doesn’t wish to further tarnish the reputation of the Adass after the negative publicity her case attracted.
However, she says she does feel their way of life and tendency to make the outside world appear dangerous breeds the kind of sexual abuse she suffered.
She has since learned that Leifer allegedly abused at least 15 other girls at the school, including two that she was close to.
For her, it started when she was just 15 and continued until she was married at 18 to a man her parents chose for her.
She said Leifer, a mother-of-eight who was aged in her late 40s at the time, was recruited to run the school from Israel in 2000.
Members of the community idolised her like she was ‘an angel who had flown in from overseas’ and ‘listened to her as if hers were God’s words,’ Ms Erlich said.
Because of this, when the principal offered Ms Erlich private religious lessons, she was flattered.
She said she felt loved and ‘really special’ to have Liefer’s attention.
But her naivety and sheltered upbringing meant she was left confused when Liefer started rubbing her thighs against her.
She told Victoria’s Supreme Court that Liefer touched and digitally penetrated her during meetings over the next three years.
After her marriage, she left for Israel with her husband and started seeing a therapist after a miscarriage.
She said she opened up to the therapist about what Liefer had done, which she says she’d kept hidden up until then because of her self-loathing and shame she felt.
Ms Erlich said her therapist didn’t believe her claims at first.
But when she said that she knew of two others who had also been abused, the therapist passed the information along to a colleague in Mlebourne’s Adass community.
In 2008, the claims reached a teacher, Sharon Bromberg, at the school, who confronted Liefer.
Liefer deflected the questions, but the teacher took her concerns to the school and leaders of the Adaas community members.
In March that year, a meeting was held about the eight separate allegations against Liefer, attended by the school board president Yitzhok Benedict, board member Meir Ernst, barrister Norman Rosenbaum, psychologist Vicki Gordon and Bromberg.
The group spoke to Liefer, who denied the allegations against her, and told her she would be removed from her position.
But shockingly, instead of reporting the allegations to the police, they decided to help Liefer flee the country.
The school reportedly paid for a flight to Israel for Liefer, who left the country in the middle of the night, just hours after that conversation.
Supreme Court Judge Jack Rush called the actions of that night ‘deplorable.’
But school board president Benedikt insists the decision was the right one – and done with the intention of ensuring Liefer was kept away from the school’s children.
‘We have acted as any normal person would act, we have responsibilities for our children and for our community,’ he told the Weekend Australian.
He added that it was Liefer who decided to leave the country that night.
But Judge Rush says the decision was made in a bid to preserve the community’s reputation and Victoria Police is investigating whether an offence was committed.
Ms Erlich learned of the arrangements for Liefer’s departure in court, and said she wasn’t surprised the community would attempt to sweep the issue under the rug.
She had returned to Melbourne in 2009 – a year after Liefer fled to Israel – and gotten pregnant with her daughter.
But she began exhibiting signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and suffering from flashbacks.
‘I was suicidal, I was self-harming and I felt like the worst mother in the word,’ she said.
Her marriage broke down and she was admitted to a mental health clinic.
There, she finally met other mothers and started reading books and educating herself on religion, history and philosophy.
And finally, although she knew it would mean isolation from the community she grew up in, she decided to pursue legal action in a bid to ensure that what happened to her would never happen to her daughter or another child.
She said Judge Rush’s judgement meant she was finally vindicated.
She felt proud of herself for going through with it but remains frustrated that Liefer has continued to evade justice.
Liefer is wanted in Australia on 74 criminal counts of child sex offences.
But she has repeatedly claimed to be too mentally unwell to attend extradition hearings.
Last year, an Israeli judge halted the proceedings so Liefer could be receive psychiatric treatment.
But although Ms Erlich has no confidence that Liefer will ever be prosecuted, she is glad to have told her story and hopes she can inspires others to share theirs.