Following is a snapshot of the story so far: interviews, musings and opinion pieces which have been published in a range of publications. Feel free to comment. Enjoy.
Saturday, 8 July 2017
"Someone I had trusted had abused that trust and I had felt powerless.”
At 15, Dassi Erlich
was repeatedly molested by Malka Leifer, the headmistress of the Adass community school in Melbourne. For years she remained silent. Now she is demanding
justice for herself and the many other victims who don’t have a voice. But the
wheels of justice, she is discovering, grind exceeding slowly.
‘I can love you and be there for you.’
A number of
weeks ago, at the start of a session at Australia’s Limmud-Oz three-day annual
study event, Erlich hesitantly approached the podium and started speaking.
Initially, her voice quavered a little; then it stabilized. As she read out a
text, silence fell upon the room. Soon, shocked eyes were streaming.
telling her story. It is a story that covers an expanse of time and space. From
adolescence to adulthood; from Australia to Israel. The story weaves family
intrigues, trauma, personal loss and, ultimately, an attempt to make sense of
these. But behind them is a sinister, over-arching story – one of sexual abuse.
Erlich’s first public disclosure. Her story had been mentioned before in the
press but, like so many other cases of sexual abuse, details were sketchy,
names had been changed and photographs blurred, but they had not been told in
the first person.
Her story begins
as a young girl growing up in the ultra-Orthodox community of Adass Israel, some 200
families packed into a square kilometer block of Melbourne’s Elsternwick
It is a
reclusive community, steeped in ancient rites and rituals. The men are
conspicuous by their attire, wearing dark suits and shtreimels (fur-trimmed
hats). Adass Israel has its own kindergartens, schools, restaurants, shops and
synagogue; members run their own medical services.
Close knit and
anti-Zionist, its members have scant contact with the outside world, including
the wider Jewish community. It is what sociologists call a “total institution.”
Some would describe it as a parallel universe.
Erlich is the
fourth of seven children. She grew up in a home which she describes as abusive,
but does not elaborate. “Physically. Emotionally. Quite cool in some ways” is
all she offers.
“You need to
understand that the Adass Israel community is very exclusive and reclusive,”
she says by way of explanation. “No one discusses what goes on at home, because
it can have serious repercussions on the reputation of the family and on
finding a good shidduch [match for marriage].”
aspect of life in the community is prescribed and scrutinized. There is total
segregation between the sexes from a very young age. Members are permitted to
use only basic mobile phones, called “kosher phones,” without access to media
or the Internet. Books are routinely vetted and censored for inappropriate
“The only access
to news came in the form of a newsletter, once a week, and my Enid Blyton books
had large chunks of text blacked out,” she laughs. When I ask whether she
watched any movies in her childhood, she replies with a smile.
“I was 16 when I
first watched a film, on video. It was The Sound of Music; but only the first
part, because the second part was deemed too explicit,” she chuckles
School, the community school, also imposes strict gender segregation, with
separate campuses for boys and girls. Education focuses largely on religious
instruction; secular studies are relegated to a secondary role.
the school had no formal curriculum and no matriculation program. Graduates
leave with no qualification recognized externally. In 2007, the school
management was warned by the state education authority that unless they followed
a formal curriculum, it would no longer be registered as a school.
the school from kindergarten, aged three, until grade 12, aged 18, but, as she
drily summarizes: “I left school with a year-seven level of English and maths,
which doesn’t set you up for life outside.
knew that I came from an abusive home. She built up this whole relationship
with me and I thought ‘wow, I love this person and she loves me and finally I’m
referring to Israeli-born Malka Leifer, 51, who served as headmistress of Adass
Israel Girls’ School from 2002 to 2008. Years later, she still refers to her as
“I was craving
attention and she set herself up to give me that attention. She’d say ‘I am
like a mother to you,’ ‘I can love you and be there for you.’”
treatment included one-on-one lessons in Jewish values and morals. “I was very
proud of being the favorite, very proud… you know, it was quite a status. Mrs.
Leifer was the most important person in the school. Everyone idolized her.
occasions Mrs. Leifer interceded on my behalf at home, particularly when my
mother interfered with my schooling. For example, my mother tried to keep me at
home during school camps, but a call from Mrs. Leifer rendered her powerless to
resist. She had the entire community under her spell.”
For the first
time, Erlich felt special. Then, a few months later, something happened that
turned her life upside down. Malka Leifer began molesting her.
“I still remember
the first time. It is extremely vivid,” she says as her smile vanishes. She
describes the first encounter in which Leifer touched her in a wholly
inappropriate manner. “I was shocked and in my mind I was thinking: What is
happening?! I was 15 at the time. I thought: She is the adult; what she is
doing must be right. I did not think past that.”
The abuse became
more regular and more serious. It sometimes occurred two or three times a week.
It took place at night, during the day, at school, at camp and in Leifer’s
house. Leifer would frequently pick up Erlich’s hand and place it on various
parts of her own body. Before long, the molestation included digital
she tried to repel Leifer's advances, Erlich considers the questions. “I didn’t
have the confidence to say ‘no.’ I just followed. But each time I knew what was
about to happen. I did not have the option or power to say ‘no’ to her. After
the assault, she’d get up and we would get on with the rest of the day and
pretend it never happened.”
And it wasn’t
“I knew my
sister had also been abused. One year in camp we slept in the same room and I
watched Mrs. Leifer run her fingers over her body in the same way she had done
to me. I did nothing. I pretended to be asleep. I still feel guilty about
currently 74 charges filed against Leifer for sexual abuse by former students
in her care. For Erlich, the abuse ended only when she was matched with a man
for marriage. By her own admission, it was an escape strategy.
“When I first
met my husband-to-be, it was such a strange meeting. We were sitting at a round
table, looking across from each other. This was the first guy I am talking to.
I am 19 years old. I had no idea how to talk to him.” After four meetings in
the space of one week, they were engaged. Soon after, in 2006, they married.
next constitutes a compendium of events that sent Erlich on an inexorable
downward spiral. It includes a miscarriage, post-natal depression, a messy
divorce, a protracted custody battle, and an irreconcilable rupture with her
parents. She finally ended up in a private psychiatric facility where she was
diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
As with many
victims of sexual assault, the trauma finally caught up with her. And like
others who have been abused in religious institutions, she turned her back on
religion. Today she leads a completely secular life.
A chance meeting
with an Australian social worker turned out to be a pivotal turning point in
Erlich’s story. “I didn’t know how to talk. All my life I had been silenced. At
some point several weeks into therapy she told me something wasn’t adding up.
She knew there was something I wasn’t telling her. And so slowly I told her
that something had happened to me at school. Someone I had trusted had abused
that trust and I had felt powerless.”
already been circulating that all was not right at the Adass Israel School. The
social worker’s intervention set the wheels of justice in motion.
On an autumn
night in March 2008, in a Melbourne home, a teacher and two board members from
the Adass Israel School, along with a barrister and a psychologist, gathered to
discuss the disturbing allegations against Malka Leifer.
By this time,
eight further allegations had been made against her, all related to sexual
abuse of students. For the close-knit reclusive community, this was
cataclysmic. The board ordered Leifer to stand down as headmistress
considered at the meeting were of a serious criminal nature, yet the board did
not alert the police, as Australian law requires. Instead, they hatched their
morning, Leifer’s victims were dumbfounded to discover that she had been
spirited out of Australia.
happened and the precise sequence of events would only be clarified seven years
later, in a court of law, when Erlich filed a civil suit in the Supreme Court
of Melbourne against Leifer and Adass Israel School.
Tammy Koniarski, a travel agent, stated that she had received a call late that
night from a board member’s wife, instructing her to book tickets to Israel on
a flight departing Melbourne at 1:20 a.m. The passengers were Malka Leifer and
four of her children. The tickets were paid for by Adass Israel.
trial, the school attempted to deflect all responsibility, but Justice Jack
Rush ruled that “in facilitating the urgent departure of Leifer, the board was
likely motivated by a desire to conceal her wrongdoing and confine and isolate
the conduct and its consequences to within the Adass community... The failure
of the board to report the allegations to police prior to arranging Leifer’s
urgent departure is deplorable.”
The court ruled
in Erlich’s favor and the school was ordered to pay her significant monetary
compensation for the abuse she had suffered. In his summing up, Justice Rush
stated that “the teacher-student relationship between Leifer and the plaintiff
was invested with a high degree of power and intimacy [and Leifer used] that
power and intimacy to commit sexual abuse.”
school announced the appointment of Rabbi Shlomo Kluwgant as the new principal
of Adass Israel School. Kluwgant was exposed in the Royal Commission into
Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, as one of the rabbis who
discouraged victims of sexual abuse in the Chabbad community of Melbourne from
reporting their abuse to the police. The decision to appoint him to this senior
position has sparked fury and disbelief, also within the Adass community.
Erlich is incensed. "In 2000 they hired Leifer. It was a mistake but they
could not have known about it back then, but hiring Kluwgant now, given what
they know and what has happened at the school, is deeply offensive to me and
the other survivors of sexual abuse at the school. It appears they have learnt
to face criminal charges, however, is an entirely different story. In October
2013, the Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv formally requested that Israel
extradite Leifer to stand trial in Australia.
proceedings began in 2014, and in August that year Leifer was placed under
house arrest in Israel. A hearing date was set, but then the presiding judge,
Jerusalem District Court Judge Amnon Cohen, noted that the proceedings could
not go ahead as Leifer was hospitalized, suffering psychotic episodes and bouts
of panic attacks. A psychiatrist
confirmed that she was unfit to attend a hearing. Shortly afterward, Leifer was
discharged and a new hearing date was set. Once again, her defense team claimed
that she was unfit to attend – a pattern that has repeated itself for more than
two years – with Leifer checking herself into different psychiatric wards close
to a hearing date and pleading to be too sick to attend.
In January last
year, Cohen was asked to rule on Leifer’s lawyers’ request to dismiss the case
against her and to halt the extradition proceedings. State Prosecutor Avital
Ribner Oron opposed the cessation of extradition proceedings and demanded that,
immediately upon release from hospital, Leifer be assessed by a district
psychiatrist to determine if she is fit to stand trial.
Leifer’s legal team stressed that, even if her mental state improved and her
psychotic state ceased, she would only relapse again close to the next hearing
date, given the pressure that comes to bear on their client before court
hearings. The decision by judge Cohen made sensational news in Australia. The
Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of Australia and New Zealand
reacted by stating that “it is deeply concerned with the outcome of the court
hearings in Israel regarding Mrs Leifer’s extradition proceedings and will be
voicing its concerns to the Israeli Minister of Justice.” Manny Waks, CEO of Kol V’oz, an advocacy group set up to prevent child sexual abuse in Jewish communities globally – and himself a survivor of sexual abuse – says that the Israeli justice system is becoming a laughing stock internationally in regard to this case. A decision was
deferred and Leifer is due to have her case reviewed at the end of the month.
FOR THE time
being, Leifer is out of reach of the Australian justice system. Nine years have
passed since she fled Australia and found sanctuary in Israel.
Erlich and the
many nameless victims of Leifer’s sexual predation are outraged at this
impasse. “We were hoping that the Israeli justice system would run its course,”
says Erlich, “but it is becoming more and more frustrating.”
organizations have joined the chorus of disapproval. Tzedek, an
Australian-based support and advocacy group for Jewish survivors of child
sexual abuse, launched an online petition calling on Israel's justice ministry.
to “stop this injustice” and extradite Leifer. Erlich has launched a campaign
called “bring Leifer back.”
Leifer is a veil of silence. Dr. Shlomo Mendelovich, the psychiatrist who
assessed her in Shalvata Mental Health Center and recommended that she not be
brought to a court hearing, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Doron Barzilai and Yehuda Fried, also refused to comment, as did Justice
Minister Ayelet Shaked. Leifer, herself, has turned down the opportunity to
respond to questions put to her.
“I am not on a
crusade,” Erlich declares when I ask why she has chosen to speak out publicly,
“but I know there are other people who wish they could come forward but can’t.
Either they are still living in the [Adass Israel] community or are in legal
proceedings against the school.”
What would she
like to happen to Leifer? She pauses for a few seconds and then replies. “I
would like to see Malka Leifer punished for what she has done to me and many
others, and punished in the way the court deems appropriate.”
faces the music, there can be no real closure for Erlich or the many others who
fell prey to Leifer’s alleged molestation and whose stories are unknown and may
never be known.
finally made sense of what happened to her. At 30, she is able to look into the
future and change direction. Last year she successfully finished her studies,
qualifying as a nurse. She is the mother of a beautiful six-year old , she has
a solid family network with her siblings, and she is in the process of writing
At the end of
her statement at Limmud Oz, Erlich turned to the audience. “I would like to
finish by thanking you for giving me the chance to tell my story in my own
words. I have given interviews and answered questions, but this is the first
time I have stood up and expressed it in my own voice. Thank you for giving me
this space. It means a lot to me.”