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Dassi, Nicole and Elly: the true wonder women

Sharon Berger
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Published: 16 May 2018

Last updated: 4 March 2024

ISRAELI ACTRESS GAL GADOT is pretty cool. In the Hollywood film Wonder Woman, she plays a superhero who fights valiantly for a just cause and wreaks some serious damage.  You wouldn’t want to mess with her. Following Netta Barzilai’s Eurovision victory, Gadot told Barzilai via Instragram: “You represent the real wonder in women. So much truth, confidence and talent. You stand for diversity and you bring fresh beautiful light to the world.”

While this gracious social media post is true and congrats go out to Barzilai for embracing her difference and showing the world a real role model, I want to shine the spotlight on three extraordinary sisters from Melbourne, who I believe are the ultimate wonder women. They are all survivors of sexual abuse by Malka Leifer, their former principal at Melbourne’s Adass Israel school. Even though the abuse happened almost half a lifetime ago for some of them, they are still fighting for closure.

When word of Leifer’s offences came out in 2008, rather than report these claims to police, members of the school board spirited her out of the country to Israel.

The idea that she remained at large in the Israeli community 10 years later, potentially able to abuse others, encouraged the three sisters, Dassi Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper, to ramp up their extradition campaign to bring Leifer back to Australia to face 74 child sex abuse charges. Their high-profile visit to Israel included rape crisis centres, ministers, Knesset members, premiers and even prime ministers.

READ Malka Leifer extradition case delayed again at latest hearing in Jerusalem (ABC)

Although Dassi successfully sued Leifer in a civil case in Australia in 2015, she and her sisters are still waiting to face their abuser in a criminal court. Leifer and her lawyer have played the Israeli justice and extradition system to her advantage. Dassi, Elly and Nicole have had their hopes squashed over and over again as Leifer failed to appear in court, feigning mental illness.

Recent undercover footage showed Leifer going about her daily life independently despite legal claims of incapacitation.  This footage finally helped put her in detention until her next court date.

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This was preceded by the judge temporarily releasing her to the care of Rabbi Yitzhack Dovid Grossman, who had claimed it was a “humiliation” for Leifer to remain in custody. Under pressure, he soon withdrew his bail offer. I am sure Rabbi Grossman’s efforts were well intended but while he was so concerned for Leifer’s feelings, did he spare a thought for those of her victims, of which there are believed to be as many as 15?

Shame is a powerful emotion and in the ultra-Orthodox world it can lose proportion. Rather than the truth and justice being the highest ideals the community can go out of its way to avoid shameful incidents. Dassi and her sisters grew up in an abusive home, which left them open to manipulation by Leifer.

They never discussed what was happening at home for fear of the impact it could have not just on their prospects at finding a spouse but on that of their siblings.

Dassi told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2017: “... refusing to remain silent was something that would be seen as a strike against my reputation, so I left the community.”

When Manny Waks bravely came out with allegations of sexual abuse at Yeshiva, instead of embracing him and the suffering he had experienced, Chabad leaders excluded his family from the tight-knit community in which they had grown up. His decision to go to the police was considered a betrayal of the community for having aired his dirty laundry in public.

How sad for both Dassi and Manny that instead of being embraced and supported by those who they grew up with, they felt they had no choice but to leave everything they knew. All they asked for was justice and the opportunity to face their accusers.

At Limmud Oz, I heard Dassi speak poignantly about what had happened to her. You could see it had been a rough journey but she was determined in her campaign for justice. “This is about owning my own story,” she told The Australian last year.  “My daughter will one day grow up and read about my life. I want it to be a story of strength and inspiration rather than victimhood.”

I find Dassi and her sisters truly inspiring. They have not let these traumatic experiences define them. “I think that we’re all at different points of our journey,” Dassi said in a recent ABC Australian Story program about the sisters.

“I definitely don’t see myself as a victim. And I don’t even see myself as a survivor. That would mean I’m trying to survive something and I believe I’m a lot further along than that. If anything, the world ‘thriver’ comes to mind.”

I hope Dassi, Nicole and Elly continue to thrive and that it won't be too much longer before they are able to face Leifer in an Australian court. They are amazing role models not just to their children but to all of us. Their courageous story doesn’t need any Hollywood effects to show that they are the real wonder women in our midst.

Main photo From left Elly Sapper, Dassi Erlich and Nicole Meyer, the three sisters from Melbourne (Moti Milrod, Haaretz)

About the author

Sharon Berger

Sharon Berger is the Events & Partnerships Manager at TJI. Sharon is a former journalist for The Jerusalem Post, Reuters, the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Australian Jewish News.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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